Forty-five years after his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. will return to the scene as a three-storey statue made in China by a man known for his sculptures of Mao Zedong.
But Lei Yixin, who will sculpt the centrepiece of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, DC, sees nothing unusual about being entrusted with shaping the lasting image of such an iconic American figure.
“Martin Luther King belonged to the whole world,” Lei said, taking a break from perfecting a 1.2-metre (four-foot) clay model of the statue in his studio in central China’s Hunan province.
“His spirit, his ideas and his influence do not belong to one country alone. They are worldwide.”
The job appears to be in capable hands.
Looking every bit the archetypal artistic genius in his clay-daubed smock and shoulder-length hair, the restless, chain-smoking Lei is considered one of China’s greatest sculptors.
The 53-year-old’s distinguished body of work ranges from vibrant figures of peasants and workers to statues of political leaders such as Mao that burst with a life not normally seen in political statues.
He has been labeled a “First-Grade Artist” by the government, one of China’s highest art honours.
But Lei admits being humbled by his latest project, which will occupy hallowed ground on Washington’s National Mall between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials when it is erected next year.
“When we first started talking about it, I thought, ‘that doesn’t sound too complicated’. But then they showed me a map of the location—right on the National Mall! What a shock!” said Lei, his tobacco-coarsened voice rising with excitement.
The final product will feature King emerging from a 10-metre (30-foot) block of granite from China’s southeastern Fujian province, chosen for its beige colour and stability.
Coupled with two other granite pieces, the work will weigh a combined 1,000 tonnes and will be transported to the United States by barge.
Lei said he first heard of King as a middle-schooler in the 1960s when the Communist Party had students read King’s “dream” speech, viewed as an eloquent summation of the social equality the party espoused.
Lei recently came across an article suggesting that the honour of creating the statue should have been awarded to an African-American like King.
The artist’s pride bursts through in his response.
“Look at that one, it’s no good,” Lei said, pointing to a picture of another King statue done by a black artist.
“There may be a lot of sculptors in America who wanted this project and hope that I give up, I don’t know. But I will do better than the other King sculptures.”