Tuesday, May 29, 2007

My first trip to mainland China: Dafen Art Village

While Hong Kong is officially China now (10 years official this summer), we all know that mainland China is the real deal. On clear days, the kids look at the hill tops on surrounding islands and speculate which is mainland China. (The answer is none- we are not facing in the right direction and it is never that clear).We definitely plan to go but it just has not happened yet with visas and airfare and all. Recently, when the YWCA organized a trip to Shenzhen, I seized my chance to get to the mainland and of course shop! Shenzhen is a border town with Hong Kong, full of factories, knock off goods and our targeted destination, the Dafen Art Village.

The Dafen Art Village, despite its rural sounding name, is essentially a shopping mall for cheap art but a shopping mall nicely done. My friend and I, both former expatriates in Eastern Europe, kept remarking how any country we worked in could pull together this same concept, though perhaps on a smaller scale. The Dafen Art Village, started in 1989 by two brothers, now covered 4 square kilometers and involves 8,000 workers, including painters, frame builders, and art dealers. These 8,000 workers all support many many stores all selling art, some of which is original but much of which are copies of well known pieces. I heard a fast artist could copy 30-40 paintings a day. Many artists gave me their email addresses and said to send anything I wanted copied. The prices are stunningly cheap. A painting I saw in Hong Kong selling for $4,000 Hong Kong dollars was selling for $200 Hong Kong dollars, framed! I think both were copies. It is estimated that Dafen vendors sell about 5 million paintings per year, accounting for 60% of the world market in art!

I definitely contributed to that figure by buying 2 very large pieces and a number of other smaller ones. I think about everyone on our tour bought some pieces and this on a day of steady rain. To escape the rain, we ducked into a little art café, showing the village is definitely catering to Western foot traffic. We also found a little store where we could purchase umbrellas, perhaps the best purchase of the day (and more expensive than some of the art work I bought). Slightly drier, we wandered around a little, taking in street after street of art vendors. We reached a square of brightly colored buildings and signs leading us to the "Da Vinci effigy." While "effigy" is perhaps the correct definition for the sculptured head, I could not get the more common "burn in effigy" phrase out of my head. Da Vinci might have been the art village’s guiding force at one time, but I think the direction has definitely shifted over to the nameless customer nowadays.


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