A King Statue 'Made in China'?
U.S. Critics Blast Selection; Artist Is Bewildered at Outrage

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.

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.

But more important than material rewards, sculptors, painters and others say, is the artistic license that the government gives them. "Foreigners think we artists in China have no freedom, that we are told what to create. That's not true," said Zhu, chairman of the Hunan Association of Artists.

The opportunities for sculptors of monuments are especially numerous.

In the United States, artists may wait a lifetime for the chance to create a public monument. But in China, thanks to an unprecedented construction boom, even small towns are clamoring for artists to build monuments honoring local heroes.

Lei can boast of more than 150 public monuments that bear his name. Roughly a fourth are of prominent historical figures, such as busts of Mao Zedong. Other famous works include "Crossing the Border," which features a family of anxious but excited rural peasants taking its first trip abroad, and a totem pole decorated with copies of relics unearthed during the recent excavation of an ancient village near his home.

Xiao Xiaoqiu, 39, a protege of Lei who first helped Lei on his projects and now leads his own teams, said it was obvious to him why a Chinese artist was chosen for the Martin Luther King memorial. "Chinese sculptors have many more opportunities to practice," he said.

Lei usually spends just a few months on one project, but for the King memorial -- which he describes as "the most important work of my life" -- he will take 18 months.

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.

Lei has hired 10 other Chinese sculptors, many of them local university professors, to help him create the giant monument. But it is Lei who will carve critical features such as King's face and hands.

Lei said there was much internal debate at the foundation about how King should look. Some thought the statue should reflect King as an ambassador of peace. Some wanted to present his urbane, intellectual side. Still others wanted to make him into a towering heroic figure. "If there are 1,000 readers of 'Hamlet,' " Lei said, "you will have 1,000 interpretations."

For months, Lei buried himself in King's readings and speeches. At one point, every wall in his studio was covered with pictures of King. In the end, Lei's interpretation was this: Martin Luther King was a great man but also an ordinary man. "He is short and doesn't stand out in a crowd," he said. "But when his voice comes out, he's a leader. His charisma has attracted millions of Americans to follow his cause."

So in his first clay model, Lei showed King standing, arms folded across his chest, his left hand grasping a pen. The goal, Lei said, is "when you see the statue of Martin Luther King, you might think of the injustices around the world, which call for our collaborative efforts . . . to bring to justice the things that King himself was unable to finish."

Staff researcher Wu Meng and wire services contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company