Friday, December 12, 2014


Dafen (Chinese: 大芬; pinyin: Dàfēn) is a suburb of Shenzhen. In the early 1990s a group of about twenty artists took up residence in this town. They specialised in the making of large numbers of replicas of oil paintings by masters such as Van GoghDalída Vinci or Rembrandt and more.
Most paintings we see in western hotels come from Dafen. It is common for these village painters 
to receive an order for 5000 of a particular artwork for a hotel chain in Dubai for example.
Many are trained at art academies in the required techniques and produce dozens of replicas daily.
Most of the artists reside elsewhere but spend a portion of the week living and working in the tiny alley spaces.
Today, the village sells both originals and replicas at very reasonable prices. One of my colleagues at the
residency ordered two different Mondrians and another a Mona Lisa to bring home as gifts.

I'm not sure how I feel about it. It seems like too much of a caricature of how China is viewed in the world – as a copier. We place high values on innovation and originality so it's difficult to understand how a culture that seeded civilization with game-changing inventions like paper and language, could seem to be so plagiaristic. But in the end it's a business that requires both skill and discipline.
Cultural questions to research and think about, but one thing is for certain, and that is when the Chinese organize themselves, they do it methodically and in a big way. There is a respect for detail within these systems that you don't necessarily see in other parts of their everyday life, more about that later.
I also feel like there's potential for a crazy interactive installation. Like a Hall of Mirrors sort of thing where you would have a painting copied, then have the copy painted, ad infinitum and watch to see if any aberrations emerge into new compositional elements over time.  
One of the art stores I frequented often.
Wonderful and affordable papers and brushes in all shapes, materials and sizes.

The real purpose of this trip into Shenzhen was to pick up some supplies. My plan for this residency was that I didn't have a plan. Traveling so far and to China, the source of all things manufactured, I thought that it was most efficient to purchase my materials when I arrived and save all that shipping back and forth. Seemed like a sound approach but I soon learned how time consuming it is to navigate Shenzhen and with only a month at Da Wang, I was beginning to panic that I wouldn't have enough. I came with an interest in China's folk customs and craft that I wanted to explore, but didn't yet know what media I would be working in, so I did my best to anticipate some basic tools and hoped that inspiration would hit once I got to the studio.
I met a master craftsman carving traditional stone stamps. A friend of Tom's who works in Dafen.
I became so enamored by his talent and the compelling antique Chinese pictographs that I ordered several stamps
to bring home. Thanks to Tom's help with the language and translation,
we were able to have a few meaningful words and concepts hand carved into beautiful stones.

One my stamps in original pictograph Chinese language.
Translation: 'By Hand' or 'Handmade'.

This post is part of a series documenting my experiences in China. 
Please follow previous entries by using the blog archive in the sidebar to the right. Or click here for the beginning. 


  1. I bought some chops from that same artist in Dafen. Sadly, however, they disappeared while we were traveling about China... I guess we probably left them in a hotel room, somewhere. I was very sorry not to have them. I did get others made, but they were not as nice as the ones that Tom's friend carved. Alas!

    1. Oh my, I am so sorry you lost them! I would be devastated too.

  2. I absolutely love your blog entries! What an incredible residency and trip!

    1. Thanks Pat... it was an incredible life-changing experience. Trying to get it all down before I lose it!