Exploring the Artistic Identity in China’s Van Gogh Village

Dafen is a village in Shenzhen, China that has transformed over the past three decades into what is known as the "world’s art factory." It is home to thousands of replicas of well-known paintings by Western masters such as Vincent Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Edgar Degas. A full-length documentary from Perspective called "China’s Van Goghs" offers an intimate look at life in Dafen, following painter Zhao Xiaoyong and his colleagues as they work.

The village’s art industry was established in 1989 by trade painter Huang Jiang, who moved his business from Hong Kong to the mainland hamlet. Dafen is characterized by an assembly line process that has traditionally relied on cheap migrant labor, where local workers are trained to paint in oil. As the manufacture of copies of paintings by Western masters expanded, so did the village, which now has more than 10,000 residents and has become a cultural center of Shenzhen.

The documentary raises universal questions about originality and significance as Zhao grapples with the difference between being a painter and an artist. He and his colleagues discuss feeling a connection to Van Gogh and a profound link with the work, but also reflect on the pressure of being asked if they made their own work and the difficulties of transitioning from a painter to an artist. Ultimately, Zhao and his friends question if they have anything that deserves appreciation.