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.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
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.

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.

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.

In this case, though, the creator is a state artist who has made dozens of heroic depictions of Mao Zedong, the brutal founder of Communist China. Seen this way, the statue is a corruption of King's liberation message and a PR coup for the Chinese government.

"Why are we letting the symbol of our human rights, the symbol of freedom for all Americans, to now be partially wiped out by a country – and the product that came from it – that represents repression and slavery?" asks Ann Lau, chairman of the Visual Artists Guild, a human rights organization in Los Angeles.

Since Lei was commissioned for the project in 2006, a coalition of quarrymen, artists, and Chinese human rights activists have protested the choice and the fact that American quarry companies weren't allowed to bid on the project. A federal investigation into the no-bid decision found no wrongdoing by the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, the group tasked with organizing the project.

Concerns have also been raised about the antiquated and dangerous working conditions of Chinese quarries where the MLK Monument stone was unearthed, the muscular Socialist Realist style that mirrors landmarks more common in totalitarian countries, and Lei's lifetime pension from the Chinese government – a regime that continues to take a hard line against dissenters.

The foundation, which raised most of the $120 million needed to install the monument, says having the job done in China also had aesthetic and practical advantages.

“Not only did we need an artist, we needed someone with the means and methods of putting those large stones together,” Ed Jackson Jr., the project's executive architect, told The Washington Post ahead of the original Aug. 28 dedication date. “We don’t do this in America. We don’t handle stones of this size.”

Foundation officials also said the kind of pink-hued granite needed to fit into the National Mall color palette was not available in the US.

The technical requirements for the MLK Monument may well have been beyond the reach of the stone-carving community in America, which hasn't been able to keep up with demand for larger, more intricate monuments that appeal to modern donors, and which ultimately require different sets of technical and artistic skills, adds Savage.

“It doesn't surprise me that they would go to somebody in China,” he says. “They're still making giant statues of great Communist leaders, and we had sort of stopped making monuments of that size and scale."

But granite sculptors in Vermont, a group of African-American artists, and even a bricklayers union, which handed out protest leaflets at the monument in August, deny these claims. Not only could Americans have done the job, but the monument also could have been an economic boost to America's struggling granite quarry business, which has seen large layoffs in recent years, said stone-carver Clint Button.

"Stone doesn't care what color you are, it tells the truth, and the truth that this stone tells is indicative of the process, because it missed the mark, and that's really sad," he says. "Everybody says it's awesome, incredible, and then they say, 'I can't believe they couldn't find anybody in America to do it.' "

Those who could have benefited economically from a US-made MLK Monument aren't the only ones who have been skeptical.

In 2008, the US Commission of Fine Arts criticized the visage, made from a photograph of King in his Atlanta office, as too grim and totalitarian, although the King family approved the image. American artists had favored a warmer, more "intellectual" portrait of King.

The California Chapter of the NAACP in 2007 passed a complaint resolution on behalf of African-American artists that charged that the foundation "has chosen to outsource the production of the monument to Dr. King to the People's Republic of China … which is an affront to the ideal of human dignity."

"Surely, having a black sculptor of a black civil rights icon – working on ground once toiled by black slaves, on the National Mall, designed and surveyed with the help of a black mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker – would have added to the King memorial’s symbolic power," wrote Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy.

The conflict comes at a time of deep insecurity in the US about its role in the world compared with China. In July, a Pew Research Center survey found a stunning statistic. The percentage of Americans who believe China has or is about to overshadow the US increased from 33 percent to 46 percent between 2009 and 2011.

Foundation members have also pushed back at criticism of Lei as the principal sculptor. "My response to critics who question why we chose a Chinese sculptor is Dr. King's words themselves, that we should not judge a person by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," foundation director Harry Johnson said in defense of the memorial.

What's more, a USA Today poll showed that 7 in 10 Americans are very or somewhat interested in visiting Lei's sculpture.

But American artists and quarry men haven't given up. Their goal is to build enough public sentiment against the MLK Monument to have it torn out and replaced by another rock, hewn in America, by Americans.

"Dr. King is held in bondage by his own arms, he'll never be free at last," said Mr. Button, the South Carolina stone carver. "He's always going to be made in China."

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