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U.S. icon outsourced, critics say

The choice of a Chinese sculptor for a capital monument to the Rev. King sparks outcry.

July 23, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

CHANGSHA, CHINA — Someday, a great monument in Washington may bear the name of Lei Yixin. For now, you can find him down a pockmarked road in a grungy industrial suburb of this Chinese provincial capital.

The monument won't be built to honor Lei, who is scarcely famous in his own hometown, much less the United States. It is being built in memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and will rise along Washington's Tidal Basin, between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.

Lei's role will be to carve the statue of King that will be the centerpiece of the tribute. His selection as sculptor for the prominent memorial honoring the civil rights leader has outraged some who believe that an African American, or at least an American, should have gotten the job.

"This is an AMERICAN monument -- not a Communist Chinese one!!" declared one entry in a website, kingisours.com, that is devoted to the controversy. Said another, "Can I just say one word? 'Outsourcing.' "

The outcry over the King statue recalls an earlier uproar over the choice of a young Asian American sculptor, Maya Lin, to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In the case of the King statue, critics of Lei have received a boost from CNN's Lou Dobbs, who recently asked David Hamilton, a member of the committee who picked the sculptor, "What in the world were you folks thinking?"

A prominent African American sculptor who says he was pushed aside in favor of Lei believes he knows the answer. The sculptor, Ed Dwight, who also holds the distinction of being America's first black astronaut, says the backers of the King memorial told him they hoped the choice of a Chinese sculptor would persuade the Chinese government to give $25 million to the King memorial fund, which has a target of $100 million.

A spokeswoman for the King memorial foundation said that was not true. "We have had no discussion with the Chinese government prior to or post the sculptor selection," Rica Orszag said in an e-mail. "We have had no internal discussions about a contribution from the Chinese government."

The decision to select Lei, she added, was based solely "on his artistic ability and experience carving large-scale granite projects.... We did not select a sculptor based on politics, country of origin or financial incentives."

The man at the center of this hullabaloo could hardly be less ruffled. Earthy, reflective and unabashed, with stringy, shoulder-length hair, Lei, 53, is one of a small number of sculptors recognized as "masters" by the Council of China, in effect making him a living national treasure.

He is a man deeply rooted in his place. Changsha, a steamy river town in central China, is the place where Mao Tse-tung spent his formative years as a student and, later, a teacher. Mao's imprint remains strong here.

During the Cultural Revolution, when Lei was a boy, his parents were targeted for being intellectuals. In his teen years Lei was sent to the countryside to work as a farm laborer instead of going to high school. Perhaps in rebellion, he became a voracious reader, favoring books that had been banned, including a Russian artist's sketchbook. That rekindled a childhood yearning to become an artist.

Later, when he realized his dream, he was commissioned to carve busts of Mao, whose policies had caused the Lei family's troubles.

Lei's status as a master sculptor, which comes with a lifetime stipend, hasn't given him widespread fame, although he has carved and cast many prominent statues. But it has insulated him from some of the petty political and bureaucratic pressures that many Chinese artists face.

And it hasn't hurt his self-esteem.

'I can do better'

Although sympathetic to his American detractors, Lei remains serenely confident that he was the best choice for the job as King's sculptor.

"They love Martin Luther King -- I understand," he said with a deep, tobacco-charred voice during an interview in his loft office, part of a large studio compound he has built in the shell of an abandoned plastics factory. "But...."

He rose and led a visitor to a wall plastered with photographs of King.

"OK, here," he said, pointing to pictures of two statues of the assassinated civil rights leader, one in Buffalo, N.Y., the other at Morehouse College in Atlanta, King's alma mater. With his glasses perched halfway down his nose, Lei's eyes registered something between distaste and disdain.

"These sculptures were done by Americans," he said. "It's not fair that I judge them, but you can tell for yourself. I've seen sculptures of Martin Luther King in America, and none of them was perfect. I think I can do better."

The King memorial, which is expected to be completed in 2008 or 2009, was authorized by legislation President Clinton signed in 1996. A foundation to build it was formally established two years later. In September 2000, a design submitted by the ROMA Design Group of San Francisco was selected from more than 900 entrants.

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