Fulham Palace Examines Chinese Art-Copying Sweatshops

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 17 August 2007
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photo of two me in shorts standing up in a room painting

Artists in Dafen only receive about 20 pence per painting and often work 16 hour days. Courtesy Fulham Palace

While much is made of the astonishing economic growth of the Chinese economy, many millions of ordinary Chinese people still live in poverty.

An exhibition at the Gallery in Fulham Palace, London, is focusing on a shocking form of sweatshop labour in southern China which helps fuel the western demand for cheap art.

Dafen is a small suburb of the city of Shenzhen, which has developed a reputation as an ‘art village’, where thousands of artists go from all over the country to find work in factories, churning out copies of western masterpieces for export to Europe and North America.

painting of a man in regal costume of ermine cape and decorated robes

Dafen-made copy of Kneller's William III. Courtesy Fulham Palace

The exhibition, Made in China, runs until October 27 2007 and features Dafen-made copies of 19 paintings with connections to Fulham Palace, like Hans Holbein’s portrait of King Henry VIII and Godfrey Knellers’ William III, plus landscapes depicting the building itself.

Many of the Dafen artists are Chinese art college graduates who work in the picture factories there for up to 16 hours a day. They usually get paid around 20 pence per painting and may have to produce anything up to 30 pieces a day to make a living wage to support their families.

The artists work in temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius and often sleep above the factory floor to reduce living expenses.

Their works are exported en masse with some being sold for hundreds of pounds. American retail giant WalMart recently commissioned more than 50,000 paintings from Dafen.

painting of king henry eighth

Works by old masters, like Holbein's Henry VIII, are popular subjects. Courtesy Fulham Palace

“It’s hard to imagine such an appalling situation existing in modern times, however acute poverty drives people to things they would not otherwise contemplate,” said Councillor Frances Stainton, cabinet member for Culture and Heritage.

“Being a painter myself, I can well imagine how wonderful it would be for the students to be able to express their own creative skills as opposed to being obliged to make copies of works where they have little or no knowledge of the history and condition that inspired those works.”

Made in China hopes to remind people that, in the bicentenary year of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, western societies continue to support the exploitation of people in developing countries.

photo of a gallery showroom with lots of paintings all over the walls

The works are sold en masse for European and North American markets. Courtesy Fulham Palace

The exhibition has been produced in conjunction with the Institute of Contemporary Observation (ICO), a Chinese-based non-profit organisation that aims to promote the value of the global supply chain. It has already been recognised by many agencies as a major force for raising international awareness of fair labour and intellectual property rights.

All works in the show are being auctioned to raise money to support Dafen artists via the ICO’s work. The proceeds will help to establish an art organisation in Dafen called the China Contemporary Art Club, to provide a platform for local artists to engage in artistic dialogue, protect the rights of artists, support production of contemporary art and promote China’s own cultural traditions.

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