Organized Panel Session
In the small alleys of Dafen oil painting village, located in Shenzhen, China, galleries stand next to each other with a void between every three or four of them. With wooden boards and roller shutters attached to the walls, ceilings and lightings installed overhead, these gaps become tunnel-like studios where many painters execute and display their works. Wall painters first emerged around 2008 when the global financial crisis stroke Dafen, the world’s largest handmade oil painting production center which used to rely heavily on the foreign market. Due to a dramatically decreasing volume of overseas orders, many painters, or, more apt, migrant painter-workers, could not afford the rent of the studio/galleries, and the voids between galleries became viable solutions to shelter their painting careers from the global economic storm.
At present, these wall studios have persisted and grown. While most news reports depict these wall painters as those who subject themselves to an uncreative and aimless toil, this study problematizes this unitary image by delving into their diverse, changing, and at times intrinsically contradictory creative aspirations and practices in China’s post-industrial turn. Based on a three-month ethnographic study, this research explores how these painters live out their lives and work towards their dreams of becoming “original” artists through their creative use of the studio walls, how autonomy and precarity entailed by their liminal workspaces inform their life aspirations and open up new possibilities for their painting practices, and how the meanings of “originality” and “creativity” are negotiated through the process.