27 August 2011
The triumph of a public art
"At issue now is the positioning and posture of King in the 28-foot-tall statue that will greet visitors when the memorial is completed in 2009. Last year, the foundation caused a stir among some in the African-American community, particularly the Black art community, when it chose Lei Yixin--a Chinese "master sculptor" who has carved monuments of many of China's most prominent figures, including Mao Zedong, father of communist China--to design the monument of King.
Lei's goal, which was approved early in the planning process by the commission, was to depict King as a towering figure emerging from the "Mountain of Despair" to the "Stone of Hope." But in a letter written to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation on April 28, the seven-member, all-White fine arts commission expressed concern that without further refinements, including changes to make King look more "sympathetic," the sculpture would be "inappropriate as an expression of [King's] legacy."
"The original concept showed an image of Dr. King that was asymmetrically composed, dynamic in stance, meditative in character, and modeled as if emerging from the Stone of Hope," the letter stated. "[But] the development as shown now features a stiffly frontal image, static in pose, confrontational in character-and appearing as if it had been affixed to the surface of the Stone of Hope."
The letter from the commission went on to criticize the technique represented by the statue, saying, "The colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries."
The commission "recommended strongly that the sculpture be reworked, both in form and modeling, to return to a more sympathetic idea of the figure growing out of the stone with increasing detail and emphasis of the upper part of the figure."
In an interview with JET, Thomas E. Luebke, secretary of the fine arts commission, said that, while the language in the letter is strongly worded, the changes being requested are relatively minor. "It's subtle things," Luebke said. "There seems to be a shift from where it was to where it is now. Our interest is aesthetic. The commission has always supported the concept, the idea and design of the memorial. What we are asking is nothing drastic."
Foundation President Harry S. Johnson said that the objections of the commission, whose approval is necessary for the project to move forward, are part of a long back-and-forth process that every memorial has had to go through. Johnson said that the foundation plans to make minor "tweaks," including setting King's body back into the stone more, in hopes of satisfying the commission's desire to make King appear less dictatorial.
"This is normal," Johnson said. "If you look at the big memorials on the Mall, they all go through a very lengthy, and important, discussion because everyone wants it to be correct."
But even with these changes, some Black artists, including sculptor Ed Dwight, who had vied to be the project's sculptor, believe that depiction of King is anything but correct. Dwight has said that King would "be spinning in his grave" at the idea of a representative of the Chinese government--which once called King "a political lapdog"--being the lead sculptor of the memorial.
"This guy knows nothing about King," said Dwight of Lei, who is collaborating with Black artists James Chaffers and Jon Lockard, both University of Michigan professors, on the sculpture. "I've seen his rendering. It's not a good likeness of King. King never stood like that. He's standing with his legs spread like he's guarding something. His brow is larger than it should be. King never wore a bulky suit on that. The suit looks like the kind of suit that the Chinese people wear.""