WORLD

IS THAT SADDAM?

A new statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. is raising hackles

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE June 9 2008
WORLD

IS THAT SADDAM?

A new statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. is raising hackles

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE June 9 2008

IS THAT SADDAM?

WORLD

A new statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. is raising hackles

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

The first of many controversies swirling around the long-awaited national monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been the fact that his likeness is being Made in China by a Chinese sculptor from Chinese rock. A new $100-million Washington monument to the civil rights leader is planned to open next year, on four acres of hallowed ground flanking the Tidal Basin on the axis between the memorials to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, at whose marble feet King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech—and they couldn’t find an American, let alone an African-American, to do it? “The granite to be used for King’s sculpture will be harvested using slave labour,” protested outraged African-American artists in a petition that also noted that the sculptor, Lei Yixin, had previously sculpted Chairman Mao. “Would we allow an artist famous for his statues of Hitler to sculpt Anne Frank?”

Perhaps King himself would not have minded, given his global vision—drawing inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi—and belief that people should be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character, or for that matter, the skill of their chisel. Perhaps he’d see it as proof of his status as an international icon. Or maybe he’d sympathize with the memorial foundation’s director, Harry Johnson, who said the world’s only sculptor who specializes in 30foot granite slabs happens to live in China.

But “outsourcing” wasn’t the end of it. The sprawling memorial conceived by a San Francisco design firm was chosen from more than 900 entries in an international competition, and will include rocks, trees, waterfalls and streams, weaving in quotes from King (“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”). But it is dominated by the colossus of King emerging Mount Rushmore-like from the stone (“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope”). The sculpture was supposed to be based on a familiar photograph of King, in which he stands in his office, in contemplation, a portrait of Gandhi behind him. But once a model for the sculpture began to emerge from the rock, it had a rather foreign feel to it. It wasn’t just not American; the stiff and bulky shape struck some people as downright un-American: a little too Stalin, or even Saddam. “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,” declared the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a seven-member group that is required by federal law to approve aesthetic aspects of monuments in Washington. Their April 25 letter “strongly recommended” that the sculpture be “reworked.” They suggested the sculptor check out Michelangelo or Rodin.

IT’S BEING MADE IN CHINA, AND SOME CRITICS SAY IT MAKES KING LOOK TOO CONFRONTATIONAL

But the style wasn’t the end of it either. The commission was also concerned about Dr. King’s mood. This hulking figure with his granite arms crossed was a little too menacing, maybe a little too in-your-face. “Confrontational in character,” is how they put it. Where was the conciliator of the Dream speech, and who was this angry black man? Under pressure, the memorial’s executive architect, Ed Jackson, Jr., was soon announcing that back in China, the furrows between King’s gigantic eyebrows were being dutifully removed.

But the backlash sparked a backlash of its own. “The arts commission, for some reason, was not comfortable with the image of a sternfaced, 28-foot-tall black man who has his arms crossed,” wrote Eugene Robinson, a columnist in the Washington Post. Black commentators, he said, are rushing to “slam the arts commission for trying to make a righteously angry man look like Mister Rogers without the cardigan.” And, he added, “It’s clear some people would prefer to remember King as some sort of paragon of forbearance who, through suffering and martyrdom, shamed the nation into doing the right thing.” In truth, he was a “man of action” who used pressure, not shame, Robinson wrote.

The pose was originally chosen to show King emerging from the “Mountain of Despair” to face Thomas Jefferson in his monument across the Tidal Basin, said Clayborne Carson, a historian at Stanford University and the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, who advised the architects on their winning design. “This is the King who challenged Jefferson’s conception of the Declaration of Independence. That’s what the T Have a Dream’ speech was: here you wrote these words that all men are created equal and now we have to live up to them.”

Carson says the pose was not intended to be confrontational. But he said that in his lifetime King was perceived similarly to Barack Obama’s controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. “He was perceived during his lifetime as stirring up trouble and even as a militant,” he says. King led economic boycotts, spoke out against the Vietnam War, and led an unpopular campaign to create an “army of the poor” to engage in civil disobedience. “If he had lived, he would be the controversial person he was at the time of his death,” said Carson.

If this were any other monument at any other time, it would make for lively academic discussion: public art touching a nerve, launching arguments over history, biography, and the limits of representational art. But as America flirts with the possibility of its first African-American president, the debate means more. The biracial Obama has based his meteoric presidential bid in part on eloquent rhetoric of racial healing and national unity that he says is “in my DNA.” But his promise of transcending division and grievance was undermined when it emerged that standing in the wings behind his soothing persona was his own grimacing and shouting pastor, Wright, who thundered “God Damn America” and showed that grievance is very much alive, if not in Obama’s speeches, then in his community. Obama first defended and then rejected Wright, whose shadow promises to follow him all the way to November. “I think that is part of the baggage that a black figure has to carry—there is a fear that many white Americans have of black Americans, the fear of retaliation for past wrongs. I think any black person who wants to transcend the racial divide and be a crossover leader has to allay that fear,” says Carson.

As Obama blazes his unique trail, one of his few lights to navigate by is King, who may not have been president, but a moral leader with his own national holiday. And as he labours in distant China, an unsuspecting sculptor may be setting in stone what quota of “righteous anger” American history will accept, and carving out a delicate space between Obama and Wright.