Monday, April 16, 2007

Chinese MLK Memorial Controversy Part Two

Associated Press

The Stone of Hope is a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being prepared for the National Mall by Chinese artist Lei Yixin.

King Sculptor Meets Stony Resistance

By Bartholomew Sullivan

April 11, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The selection of a sculptor from The Peoples Republic of China to carve the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chinese granite for his memorial on the National Mall has Memphis artist Morris T. Howard and many others upset.

"They've selected a Chinese sculptor from Communist China to do it," said Howard, 48, an oil painter. "There's a lot of dissatisfaction with that."

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation held a competition for the overall design of the four-acre memorial and decided on a winner in 2000 from the 900 entries it received. It then chose sculptor Lei Yixin after seeing his work last summer at a St. Paul, Minn., sculpting competition, said David L. Hamilton, retired program manager for the National Capital Planning Commission.

"It was absolutely incredible," said Hamilton, a member of the selection committee.

Hamilton said any time a major project is proposed for the National Mall, which he called "America's front yard," there is controversy. When Maya Lin, a Yale University architecture student from Ohio, was selected to do the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, detractors called her a "gook" and "the enemy," Hamilton recalled.

"Dr. King was a national and an international figure," Hamilton added. "Dr. King's message was spiritually based. Dr. King was talking about the content of a person's character, as opposed to the color of his skin. Quite simply, we were looking for the best sculptor."

A spokesman for the foundation, Rica Rodman Orszag, noted that 90 percent of the committee that selected Lei are African-Americans.

What has Howard and Atlanta artist Gilbert Young dismayed is that the committee even considered going outside the African-American community to make its selection for the artistic elements of the first monument dedicated to a black man on the Mall. Young says the project, which has raised $87 million of a planned $100 million, has been hijacked by corporate interests.

"It's a smack in our face.... It insults our community. It insults our craftsmanship," said Young, 65, who has created the Web site in protest. "You mean to tell me we couldn't find a stone in America that was good enough? You mean to tell me we couldn't find a black artist who was good enough?"

Young has taken to talk radio to drum up opposition to the selection of the ROMA Design Group, the selection of Lei, and the use of Chinese granite. He says the sculpture should come from rock hewn from Stone Mountain in Georgia, mentioned in King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The memorial will be along the Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.

Howard, 48, who as a Navy submariner served on both the U.S.S. Tennessee and the U.S.S. Memphis, said he called WDIA radio to raise the issue in Memphis but that there wasn't a lot of response. He said the selection of an African-American artist for such a high-profile project would lift the self-esteem of black youths.

"This is just another opportunity that I hope hasn't been squandered," he said.

Beverly Robertson, director of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, said she can understand how African-American artists could feel "slighted." She said that normally, when the centerpiece for a historic site is selected, a call for artists is made both in the U.S. and abroad, and a panel of judges selects the submission that best represents what it's seeking.

For the King memorial, the selection committee didn't invite submissions for the sculpture. It visited the Minnesota Rocks! International Stone Carving Symposium in St. Paul, began discussions with Lei, and then visited with him in China.

As for the selection of a Chinese artist, Robertson said King inspired admiration and respect around the world and "his impact is felt by all people of all races, colors, creeds, religions. ... He doesn't just belong to us in this country. He belongs to the world."

-- Bartholomew Sullivan: (202) 408-2726

Previous memorial controversies

Some objected to the architectural style of the World War II Memorial, dedicated in 2004, saying it was reminiscent of the grandiose projects of Nazi architect and planner Albert Speer.

When Maya Lin designed the sunken V in black granite now known simply as "The Wall" for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated in 1982, traditionalists objected and a sculpture of three servicemen by sculptor Frederick Hart was added in 1986. Scuptor Glena Goodacre's Vietnam Women's Memorial was added in 1993.

A group calling itself Save Our Mall has repeatedly suggested the public space is growing too congested -- with monuments.

African-Americans may see contracts

Harry E. Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, said that "if at all possible," the foundation hopes to award the $58 million to $66 million construction contract for the memorial to a firm headed by African-Americans.

Copyright 2007, - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

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