Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Martin Luther King...Made in China?

The Martin Luther King National Memorial will be unveiled on the Mall in Washington D.C. in 2009.

Covering four acres near the Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, visitors to the King memorial 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, standing 28 feet tall - 9 feet taller than Jefferson's likeness nearby.

This statue will be sculpted by a Chinese artist.

And critics say that's outsourcing gone too far.

"Atlanta resident Lea Winfrey Young says the "outsourcing" by U.S. companies and organizations to China has gone too far this time," writes Arianna Eunjung Cha in the Washington Post. "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.

Why a Chinese artist? A former adviser for the memorial says the King Memorial Project Foundation did it "in the hopes of getting a $25 million donation from the Chinese government to make up for a shortfall in funding."

The accuser, Ed Dwight, was originally selected to design the memorial, but was removed over creative differences.

The foundation is rejecting the accusation. The president, Harry E. Johnson Sr., said yesterday that the foundation had raised $82 million of the $100 million needed to complete and maintain the project.

Another leading opponent of the Chinese project is painter Gilbert Young. He told Atlanta weekly Creative Loafing:

"The most grievous sin is these black men could have gotten together and said, ‘We could not find any blacks qualified to do the memorial.’ That’s insane.”

"Also insane, according to Young, is the foundation’s decision to use granite from China for the memorial. “We have beautiful stone right here in Georgia, and I know that some of the quarries offered granite at cost just so they could be involved,” he says.

“The worst thing as an artist and a black person is they took away my birthright to be first in line,” says Young. “Dr. King fought for the rights of black people in this country to have the fair opportunity to be equal. They selected an Asian from China, a country that has killed millions of their own people. They don’t believe in Christianity and they don’t believe in freedom. Giving my history away to someone from another country to interpret, I have a problem with that.”

This is sculptor Lei Yixin with his clay model of the statue in question. The citizens of his hometown, Changsha in Hunan, are "bewildered" by the controversy.

"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.

In that vein, King Memorial Foundation President Johnson says, "We don't want to take the stand to say African Americans can only work on this project. We appreciate the diversity we have. The sole criterion for choosing Lei Yixin was artistic ability, he says, citing Lei's skill at capturing personalities in sculptures, his expertise in hewing granite and his extensive experience with large public monuments.

NPR commentator and blogger John Ridley, who's African-American, sees both sides of the argument.

"When I heard it, my gut reaction was: no. No way should somebody who's not a black American do up the national memorial likeness of one of the most prominent of us.

"I wasn't the only one with the feeling in my gut. There's an entire Web site dedicated to keeping Dr. King "ours."

"But you give it a second, you put your initial passions aside, and it is possible to see things in a different way.”No" softens into "why not?" Why not let Dr. King go global? Weren't he and his message phenomena beyond the Lower 48? What King borrowed from Ghandi, he lent to the likes of Ivan Cooper, the Northern Ireland civil rights activist. And perhaps a Chinese person getting the job is not outsourcing work, but exporting the ideals of freedom. We've seen how well that plays when distributed by the muzzle of an army gun. Better we should try to inspire. Better we should try by sharing "our" man of compassion with the world.

"Being able to see Lei Yixin not as "the Chinese guy," but as one of Dr. King's "children" is what Dr. King preached: judging people by their content, not their pigment. I think you can extend that to a person's place of origin. Certainly it can be extended to the political system under which they live. And how wonderful would it be for an oppressed people to be able to sculpt an image of the personification of freedom? Not to mention the high irony as J. Edgar Hoover, among King detractors, accused the doctor of being a commie or a commie tool."

Read the whole post on his NPR blog, John Ridley's Visible Man.


Make a donation to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.

Here's the Gilbert Young website, King is Ours, which also requests support.

More on the controversy, on the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, in this Washington Post article.


Anonymous said...

Its about racism again! All men are created equal was his words. Not chinese, black or white. The person is an artist who is creating this. It should not be about racism AGAIN! Once again the critics are playing the racist card. People like them are the reason racism is still a factor.

Furnari-Barrett in NZ said...

The article about Lei Yixin sculpting the King memorial brought me to tears. I think Ridley's reaction captures some poignant thoughts. Over 20 years ago, 1985, I was a teacher of English in China. As foreign teachers we were asked to give "open lectures" in the evenings. I did one on the 60s. It was a two part lecture in which I first described the climate and events of the 50s, and how they gave rise to the amazing events of the 60s. During the second lecture on the 60s, I had four panellists from different generations, all Americans, discussing the events of the 60s from their perspective. At one point I read from the "I Have a Dream" speech. Suddenly there was a roar from the audience. I looked up to see 300 Chinese students standing, clapping, and yelling their approval so moved were they by the words of King's speech. I was speechless at their reaction. Those words from King's speech galvanized this group of 20-something college students like nothing I had seen before or after. That image will stay with me always.

Andre said...

Fighting over the color of the hand that carves the sculpt is supercilious. I can’t see how it is offensive because a Chinese artist carves the status of Dr. King. Speaking as a black man, Kings words do belong to me, I do not have special rights to the words because I am black. His words resonated with men of all colors, black, white, Chinese, India, etc. So why does it matter? I am more concern about the outcome of Mr. Lei Yixin’s work, and from what I see, great job! I own a Laser Crystal Company, ( where I produce personalized laser crystals, last week I produced one of Martin Luther King, and posted it on my web site. The next day I got a email from a users who said, I shouldn’t commercialize Martin Luther Kings because it takes away from his message, is that crazy or what? For the artist who miss the bid, and people like the one who email me. I have one thing to say, lighten up!