"Made in China" Martin Luther King Memorial Opens in Washington

Though the official dedication of Washington’s new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. was postponed today as Hurricane Irene blew up the east coast, the memorial had already been opened to the public on Monday. The event stirred up a long-running controversy over the nationality of the project’s Chinese head sculptor, Lei Yixin. From The Washington Post:

Some were weeping. Others were taking pictures of the statue and each other and giving high-fives, lending the unveiling of the memorial the feeling of one big block party.

“It’s beautiful, exquisite,” said Paulette Davis of Washington. “I’m remembering where he led us. This exceeded my expectations.” …

Sculptor Lei Yixin, who attended the opening with his son, who acted as his translator, declared himself satisfied.

“This is my most important project. Not hardest, most important,” he said in Mandarin. He added that he hopes visitors notice first the expression on Dr. King’s face, “looking forward,” and then his hands.

But the Changsha native’s position as head sculptor has attracted criticism ever since his selection in 2007. While his earlier work on statues of Mao Zedong has attracted particular attention, much of the objection to his appointment has concentrated on the choice of a non-American, rather than specifically Chinese, artist. Organisers claimed that the US no longer has the required expertise for a work on this scale; the finished monument was hewn from 159 granite blocks with an average weight of almost ten tons. At Politico, Roger Simon rubbished claims by executive architect Edward Jackson Jr. that no suitable Americans could be found:

The “Stone of Hope” statue of Dr. King was sculpted in China by a Chinese sculptor out of Chinese granite and shipped to the United States where it was assembled by Chinese workers ….

Was there no American sculptor, especially an African-American sculptor, who was capable of sculpting a statue of Dr. King?

Apparently not, at least according to the people who did the selection. What’s more, even though hundreds of thousands of experienced – – and unionized – – American construction workers are currently unemployed, did we really need to bring in workers from China to put the sculpture together?

Yes, Edward Jackson Jr., the executive architect of the project, recently told Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post. “Not only did we need an artist, we needed someone with the means and methods of putting those large stones together,” Jackson said. “We don’t do this in America. We don’t handle stones of this size.”

Jackson has worked long and hard to get the King memorial built, and he is deserving of recognition for his efforts and dedication. But his statement is pure baloney.

Simon refers to a Washington Post article from last year which accused project organisers of reneging on promises to employ local masons. It also reveals the findings of an investigation by an American stonemasons’ union into the treatment of Chinese workers on the project, whose possible exploitation is among the critics’ objections:

The man told Bassan that the rest of the Chinese crew lives in another apartment but that all the workers gather for breakfast and dinner, which they make themselves. They work for a sculpting company in Hunan province and have no idea what they will be paid for their work on the King memorial. They expect to be paid when they get home.

The translator asked: Why did the workers agree to not being paid until they return to China?

Because they are working for “national honor,” the man said. “To bring glory to the Chinese people.” He said the workers felt patriotic pride in having been chosen to work on the King project. He said they knew that there were Americans who wanted their jobs, didn’t get them and were mad that the Chinese did.

The man said the workers get free room and board and lunch delivered at the job site. Their work breaks last only as long as it takes them to eat. When they had been in the United States for one month, they were treated to dinner at a restaurant.

King’s son, Martin Luther King III, spoke highly of Lei’s work to USA Today, however:

“I’ve seen probably 50 sculptures of my dad, and I would say 47 of them are not good reflections — that’s not to disparage an artist,” King said in an interview last week. “This particular artist — he’s done a good job.” …

“You got him,” H. Beecher Hicks Jr., pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, of Washington and Largo, Md., told Harry Johnson, president and CEO of the memorial. Hicks met King as a boy when King would dine at his home. After viewing the statue, he said, “my impression was, to use the words of my grandchildren, was to just stand back and say, ‘Awesome.'”

Sources:

King memorial opens to the public today – The Washington Post
Dr. King’s hope for here and for China – POLITICO.com
MLK memorial gets union’s attention – The Washington Post
MLK Jr. memorial confronts controversy – USATODAY.com

August 26, 2011 12:00 AM
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