Dafen Painting Village, Shenzhen
Now that Moustache is almost a year old, we’re ready to do a touch of redecorating in our little shop, so Monday we hopped across the border and headed to one of the stranger corners of one of the strangest cities in the world: the Dafen Painting Village in Shenzhen. We’d been before a couple of years earlier, and while we shouldn’t have been given what we all know about China, we were surprised at how much bigger it had gotten; strangely, though, the increase in size had almost no impact on the character of the place- now there are just more shops selling the same paintings. For those not familiar with it, which likely includes anyone not living in Hong Kong and a not insubstantial number of those that do, Dafen is something between an art market and a painting factory. It seems to exist primarily for the hospitality sector, though I suppose it would be useful if one suddenly needed to move from a studio apartment into an unfurnished castle and had to decorate on a budget.
Quite a few of the shops have a painter-in-residence, who can be spied down the side alley producing stock or perhaps doing a custom order: all the shops will turn your photo into a painting, rendered in the shop style, which is usually something vaguely renaissance-esque, but can also include photo-realism, air-brush, or classical Chinese. While a painting of your husband as Napoleon at Waterloo or a wall size portrait of Hu Jintao might make an amusing China souvenir, sadly we were not able to find anything in the Moustache style.
The “frustrated face”
A day, or a few hours, spent wandering this lazy, leafy little low-rise, low-density village though is still a pleasant way to pass some time and is about as far in spirit from the Shenzhen most of us see at Luohu as is possible without actually leaving the city.
Young painters and framers and shop clerks mill about on bicycles, chat with one another over styrofoam boxes of rice and vegetables or doze languidly on plastic chaise lounges. There is even a nice little cafe in the Non-Formula Gallery serving all manner of espressos, lattes and cappucinos.
This lovely gallery and teahouse appears to occupy the premises of a sprawling old temple. While we were not overly impressed with the artworks on display, the space itself merits a look around inside.
One might expect to find a few public arts institutions in a neighborhood of painters. Since our last visit this very modern-y new space has appeared on the periphery of Dafen, looking every bit like a contemporary art museum.
But on closer inspection, alas, it turns out that the building is an exhibition hall for trade shows: more pragmatic, of course, in Shenzhen, but still a touch disappointing, as it is shut all the days of the year it is not hosting an event. We consoled ourselves with this amusing sculptural scene of ancient Chinese village life.
And then the Dafen Louvre, across a busy freeway, came into view: promising!
More of the same, of course, though I wonder if the point is to trick the non-savvy into thinking they’re getting a real bargain? In any case, the only public building we ended up seeing after all was a colorful primary school.
There was something oddly consoling about this school. Obviously no one is trying to pass anything in Dafen off as high art, but is the concept really so different from 798 in Beijing or M50 in Shanghai? There certainly does seem to exist an unselfconscious mingling of art and commerce here that is either something to be criticized or embraced, like Andy Warhol to the nth degree. Say what you will though, for the kids at the very least, it’s better than working at FoxConn.