Wed, May 14, 2008 - Page 15 News List

More MLK, hold the Mao

The cult of personality created around Mao Zedong gave Chinese artists like Lei Yixin mastery of large sculptures — but is the style appropriate for a memorial to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr?

By Craig Simons  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BEIJING

Lei Yixin's sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr in Changsha, China. The sculptor has been asked to rework the statue of the civil rights leader, which will stand on the National Mall in Washington, to make it look less like Lenin.

PHOTO: AFP

The Chinese artist chosen to sculpt a giant statue of Martin Luther King Jr defended his work and charged critics with showing the kind of cultural bias and misunderstanding the civil rights leader fought against.

“I wasn’t trying to express that King was confrontational but that he was thoughtful,” Lei Yixin (雷宜鋅), the sculptor said in a telephone interview.

“He was a global leader and an example for humanity of the struggle for democracy and equality,” he added.

Some members of the US Commission of Fine Arts have called the work too confrontational and that it “recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries.”

But the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Project Foundation has not asked Lei to alter his design for the 8.5m-tall statue, said Lei and Ed Jackson, the foundation’s executive architect. The sculpture is part of a privately funded US$100 million memorial in Washington slated for completion next year.

Lei’s design shows King emerging from but still partially embedded in a block of granite called the Mountain of Despair. King’s pose — based on a photograph taken by Flip Schulke, King’s official photographer — depicts the late civil rights leader with his arms crossed and his lips drawn in concentration.

Jackson said Monday that two members of the commission expressed concerns and he and other executives of the foundation were “trying to … make up in our own minds whether or not the suggestions can be accomplished without compromising the integrity of what Lei has already produced.”

The federal fine arts commission last year initially approved the design of the statue. But the panel, which must approve the monument’s final design, considered the sculpture “inappropriate as an expression of (King’s) legacy” and called for the design to be reworked, according to a letter written last month by commission secretary Thomas Luebke.

The Washington-based commission’s criticisms are the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the statue.

Last year, critics complained that Lei should not have been chosen to lead the project. Ed Dwight, a Colorado-based artist originally retained to help create the statue, has called Lei’s proposed statue “a shrinking, shriveled inadequate personage.”

Atlanta-based artist Gilbert Young said last year that Lei’s selection was “an insult to me and to all black people.” A letter on a Web site he set up — www.kingisours.com — argues that hiring Lei was “a travesty of justice” because Lei had sculpted statues of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), the late Chinese leader.

Mao’s legacy is troubled in China. He made education available to hundreds of millions of Chinese and elevated the position of women in society, but he also spurred violent persecution and oversaw economic failures that led to a massive famine.

In a telephone interview on Saturday, Lei called Young’s attacks biased and contrary to King’s message that people should not be judged on their race or nationality.

“Martin Luther King is a hero for the whole world,” Lei said. “People are still striving for equality and freedom, so his ideals remain strong everywhere.”

He added that while Mao “had made some mistakes, he isn’t as bad as some people think.”

“I understand why (Young) is critical, but he should study about Mao’s life before he judges me,” he said from his home in Changsha, the capital of China’s Hunan Province.

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