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MLK Memorial: From China, with love?

MLK Memorial plans have been dogged by controversy over links to China. The MLK Memorial was built by a Chinese sculptor from Chinese granite. But backers are pleased with the result.

By Staff writer / October 16, 2011

A visitor leans on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on Saturday. President Obama is to speak at the dedication of the memorial to the civil rights pioneer Sunday.

Jose Luis Magana/AP

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The stern, bulky visage of Martin Luther King Jr. now gracing the National Mall has brought forth tears of joy and redemption from onlookers. But for some Americans, the massive monument will forever be marred by where it was made: China.

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The MLK Memorial was created by Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin and the Dingli Stone Carving Co. out of 159 pieces of pink Chinese granite, and, its defenders say, is intended to embrace Dr. King's legacy as a global icon.

"Martin Luther King is not only a hero of Americans, he also is a hero of the world, and he pursued the universal dream of the people of the world," Mr. Lei said through a translator in August, before hurricane Irene pushed back the dedication of the memorial to Oct. 16.

To be sure, the ultimate arbiters will be onlookers, and so far those closest to King have been pleased. "This particular artist, he has done a good job," Martin Luther King III, King's son, told USA Today.

But as America prepares to dedicate its first National Mall monument to an African-American, the process continues to dog the product.

At issue are two philosophical ideas: One is that a sculptor's job is to simply put into stone the vision of a patron, and the other is that art is the reflection of its creator.

It's not the first time such questions have dogged US monument patrons. The decision to use a French sculptor to carve the likeness of Robert E. Lee for a late 19th century monument in Richmond, Va., was met with “a lot of rumbling and grumbling” from Confederate veterans, who argued that only a Virginian could sculpt an appropriate likeness of Lee, says Kirk Savage, a University of Pittsburgh art historian.

Mr. Savage, the author of this year's "Monument Wars," a book about the transformation of the National Mall, sees an equivalent in the debate over a Chinese sculptor carving King.

“The idea is that a portrait likeness is supposed to be more than the features of a person, should convey the character or soul of that person, and that a Chinese person can't do that [with King],” he says. “But the fact is a competent, good artist can certainly do a better job than somebody who is not a competent artist, but who has a personal connection.”

Someone new to King's legacy, as Lei was, could even offer a fresh look at a face so familiar to Americans, he adds.

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