Inside a cavernous studio in this steamy inland city, Lei Yixin is molding clay into the shape of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Lei scrutinizes every inch of the models—the direction of King’s gaze, the crinkle of his clothes, the way his arms are folded—knowing that the final product will make its home among the other great American monuments in Washington.
For China‘s artists, the selection of Lei as the lead sculptor for the project, to be unveiled in 2009 on the Mall, is a triumphant moment. It is a recognition of how rapidly their status has progressed in the generation that has grown up since the repressive years of the Cultural Revolution.
Not everyone feels this way.
Atlanta resident Lea Winfrey Young says the “outsourcing” by U.S. companies and organizations to China has gone too far this time. She and her husband, Gilbert Young, a painter, are leading a group of critics who argue that an African American—or any American—should have been picked for such an important project.
“Dr. King’s statue is to be shipped here in a crate that supposedly says ‘Made in China.’ That’s just obscene,” Winfrey Young says.
By awarding the contract to a Chinese artist, the foundation financing the project has touched on sensitivities at the core of U.S.-Sino relations: nationalism, racism and worries about what China’s emergence as an economic and cultural world power means for America.
A former adviser for the memorial has accused the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation Inc. of promoting Lei to head artist in the hopes of getting a $25 million donation from the Chinese government to make up for a shortfall in funding. In a 13-page critique, Ed Dwight, a sculptor who has created seven King memorials, called Lei’s proposed statue a “shrinking, shriveled inadequate personage.”
Dwight, 73, said in an interview that the model Lei submitted to the foundation “didn’t look like Martin Luther King. He had a whole bunch of wrinkles and great big bulky clothes. It wasn’t right.”
Harry E. Johnson Sr., president of the foundation, denies ever having conversations with Chinese officials or companies to ask for money. He said scouts for the foundation spotted Lei’s work at a sculpting workshop in St. Paul, Minn., and approached him. The sole criterion for choosing him, Johnson said, was artistic ability—Lei’s skill at capturing personalities in sculptures, his expertise in hewing granite and his extensive experience with large public monuments.
“This is no different from the Houston Rockets working with Yao Ming, or Jackie Chan in Hollywood movies,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to take the stand to say African Americans can only work on this project. We appreciate the diversity we have.”
Johnson emphasizes that Lei was selected by a design team that included mostly African Americans, and that the artist is collaborating closely with Jon Onye Lockard, a painter and a University of Michigan lecturer, and Louisville-based sculptor Ed Hamilton, both of whom are African American.
Lockard says that Dwight had been vying for the position of head sculptor and that he’s simply “a sore loser.”
In Lei’s home town of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, talk of the controversy in the United States draws not anger but bewilderment.
Wasn’t it King’s dream to end all racism? Lei asked.
“He has always dreamed that people from all over the world will not be judged by the color of their skin—that we would all be brothers and sisters and enjoy equal opportunity. Now I have the luck to get this opportunity,” he said.
The statue Lei is creating—which at 28 feet will be a full nine feet taller than the statue in the Jefferson Memorial—will be the centerpiece of the tribute to King. The memorial will span four acres near the Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, facing Jefferson. Visitors will first walk through a grove of spruce and magnolia trees by a waterfall and read a selection of the civil rights leader’s famous words carved on walls. At the end of their walk, they will see King’s likeness emerging from a chunk of granite.