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Dafen Oil Painting Village, a peaceful enclave of art
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Looking to go on a day trip within Shenzhen? Lover of art? Look no further than Dafen Oil Painting Village. Located in Buji Subdistrict, the village is the world's largest mass producer of oil paintings — a virtual art factory. But Dafen has much more to offer than cheap paintings, and is making moves to prove it.

Originally conceived by a Hong Kong businessman who began production with several dozen artists in 1989, the village has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. Now 5,000 artists churn out more than 5 million paintings every year, and Dafen has garnered international fame and acclaim.

I first came to Dafen one year ago as a scout for an art dealership in America. Expecting to find a block of nondescript factories containing thousands of artists, I was surprised to find a quiet, pleasant village — and budding arts community.

Meandering through the narrow, shady lanes for hours was a delight. Time seemingly came to a stop as shopkeepers napped in the afternoon heat, and old men read newspapers in the shade. Children ran around playing and shouting. The scents of painting oils permeated the air, and soft classical music drifted out of storefronts.

Tucked into small nooks and crannies throughout the village, artists painted everything from abstract to art deco, folk to futurism, realism to romanticism. Acrylic, enamel, ink, oil and pastels, they had it all.

Portraits of Mao Zedong, Albert Einstein, Hu Jintao, George W. Bush and other famous figures peered out from galleries. Human bodies shared wall space with Chinese calligraphy, and modern graffiti contrasted with Chinese landscape paintings. It was apparent there was no limit to the genres and mediums of art one could find in Dafen.

Most of these paintings are destined to be sold in big box stores, art galleries, and placed in hotels worldwide. Marked up astronomically, buyers are often unaware of their origins. Lucky for us living in Shenzhen, we can buy these works of art at wholesale prices in our own backyard.

If your wall is bare and in need of some spice, you’ll be able to find almost anything you can imagine at Dafen. And if you can’t, just bring a photo; they can paint it for you. In fact, that’s how most paintings at Dafen are born. This is apparent in Pix2Oils, the only foreign-run business in the village.

Bailey O’Malley started the company one year ago, and has seen nothing but steady growth. The Australian just secured a lucrative contract with Broadway to produce stage backdrops, and is full of optimism. “I’ve seen the village move ahead and watched the management put Dafen on the world map!” he says enthusiastically.

Backing up this claim are several new attractions in the village. Firstly, a new museum opened last month, showcasing the works of both locals and foreign artists. Designed by reputed Chinese design firm Urbanus, the museum aims to lift Dafen’s status beyond that of a mere art factory.

Adjacent to the museum is a gargantuan wall of sculptures, recently unveiled at a cost of 5 million yuan (US$71,000). Finally, a new pedestrian street lined with coffee shops is also in the works.

I stepped into one of these shops; a small but rustic and charming place. The menu featured roasts from around the world, but at a minimum cost of 25 yuan for a cup half the size one gets at Starbucks, which left me heading out the door. Local artists surely won’t be chatting over a cup of joe here. It’s clear that Dafen is aiming for the high-end market.

And with more than 400 million yuan in sales last year, the village is steadily attracting more and more of the world market share. Fueled by a steady stream of artists, many from China’s top art academies, the painting won’t stop anytime soon.

Since my first visit, I’ve returned to Dafen numerous times, and not only for business. Each time it impresses me not only with its ambitious development, but as a peaceful enclave in a bustling city, worthy of a long, lazy art-filled afternoon. If you haven’t been there yet, don’t hesitate to explore the charms of Dafen.

Buses: 7, 300, 306, 371, 371B, 379, 383, 662, 788, 832, 836, 955, 995

(Shenzhen Daily June 30, 2008)

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