A King Statue 'Made in China'?

Lei Yixin, left, says he feels lucky to be chosen lead sculptor for the King memorial. Artist friend Zhu Xunde looks on.
Lei Yixin, left, says he feels lucky to be chosen lead sculptor for the King memorial. Artist friend Zhu Xunde looks on. (By Ariana Eunjung Cha -- The Washington Post)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

CHANGSHA, China -- 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 said yesterday that the foundation had raised $82 million of the $100 million needed to complete and maintain the project. The most recent donation, valued at $1.5 million, came from media conglomerate Viacom Inc., which owns BET and MTV.

Viacom pledged $1 million in cash, plus promotions for the memorial that will include public service announcements on the company's networks and on its billboards in New York's Times Square, CEO Philippe Dauman says.

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