I just got back from a mural project at the Dafen Art Museum in Shenzhen, China.
Shenzhen is just across the river from Hong Kong, and it’s one of China’s mainland boom cities. Since 1979, when it received a special designation from Deng Xiaoping as a “Special Enterprise Zone,” it’s grown from a collection of fishing villages to a megalopolis of something like 15 million and growing. You’ll never see so much construction in your life.
One of those little villages back in the 1970s was Dafen, which is today about an hour north of Shenzhen’s city center, though still part of the city. In 1989, a Hong Kong entrepreneur moved his replica oil painting studio to Dafen. They copied old master paintings and took commissions to paint weddings and baby pictures in oil, on canvas. The neighborhood quickly became a hub for the art practice, and, in keeping with the explosive growth of Shenzhen, Dafen soon became the neighborhood where more than half of the world’s replica oil paintings are made.
You can get the Mona Lisa. You can get Starry Night. You can get The Kiss. You can get George Washington on his horse. You can get Mao, Deng, Hu, or Wu; Obama, Martin, Michael Jackson. You can even get Shaq and LeBron, on sale, thanks to the fact that they switched teams this summer.
So the question for city and cultural planners regarding Dafen quickly became, what do you do with this place? You already have a huge concentration of artists, and regardless of the fact that they work as copyists, a lot of them do personal work. And Shenzhen is a brand new city. There’s not another practicing-artist neighborhood, really. And whether or not the snobby set likes the art coming out of Dafen, it’s still the city’s artist neighborhood. So what do you do?
The answer to this question will be addressed in my next post. Stay tuned.