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A King Statue 'Made in China'?
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 53-year-old Lei is a reclusive figure with stringy, shoulder-length hair who shies away from the politicking that is typically required to succeed in China's art world. He was doing sketches for a publishing company when a local government official recognized his talent and encouraged him to build monuments.
After winning top prizes in national competitions three years in a row, Lei was given a rare honor -- recognition as a master sculptor, which came with a lifetime stipend from the Chinese government.
Zhu Xunde, 53, a painter and friend of Lei who is dean of the School of Art at Hunan University, said he and others have chided Lei for not spending enough time promoting himself and his work. Lei's response, Zhu said, was that "sculptors are not actors who perform on screens -- we are supposed to be invisible."
Born to a family of scholars, Lei was one of millions of "educated youth" sent to the countryside during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, a national campaign by the Communist Party to rid the country of all things "bourgeois." As a way to develop a skill other than farming during the seven years he spent toiling in the fields, Lei started drawing.
"Whenever I saw something interesting, like drum games, peasants smoking, I drew a picture of it. That was my diary. My diary was all pictures, with a few lines of comments," he recalled in an interview.
When Lei applied to college, he submitted the diary as his portfolio. In 1978, he became part of the first class after the Cultural Revolution to be able to go to art school. In 1982, when Lei graduated, there were no more than 100 art majors in the country, according to Sun Quan, vice president of the Hunan Sculpture Institute. In recent years the number has grown as high as 260,000.
Today, the art world in China is booming. Galleries from Shanghai to London and New York sell the work of contemporary Chinese artists for thousands of dollars.