Even when set in stone, said Swati Pandey in the Los Angeles Times, Martin Luther King Jr. can still arouse the nation’s passions. Chinese artist Lei Yixin discovered that soon after being chosen to create a statue of the slain civil-rights leader for the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Initially, critics complained that “the artist should have been African-American.” Now the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which has final approval over the project, is unhappy with Lei, too. The commission has deemed his proposed 28-foot rendering of a stern-looking King—with his arms folded over his chest, and a steely glare—to be too “confrontational.” The statue’s “colossal scale and social realist style,” the commission said, recalls “political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries.” Under pressure, Lei is softening King’s glowering visage, but he’s publicly complaining that the commission caved in to political pressure.
Let’s be grateful it did, said Georgie Anne Geyer in Tulsa World. Lei’s initial proposal—for a thoughtful-looking King “emerging organically” from a rock base—perfectly captured the dynamism of the man who devoted his life to the gospel of racial justice. But Lei’s latest, a grim and lifeless model, is utterly devoid of “any of the human expression that so informed King’s spirit and his life.” In his native China, said Blake Gopnik in The Washington Post, Lei once made overbearing, ponderous sculptures of Mao Tse-tung. He has endowed his King piece with that same stiff menace. This is a profoundly “reactionary” work, one that “comes straight out of an age when blacks had to sit at the back of the bus.”
I completely disagree, said Eugene Robinson, also in the Post. Lei’s sculpture is “admittedly chilly,” but it provides a badly needed reality check. Forty years after King’s assassination, some people would prefer to remember him as a “paragon of forbearance who, through suffering and martyrdom,” gently nudged whites toward racial harmony. Actually, he was a “supremely impatient” activist. “He didn’t ask for an end to Jim Crow repression, he demanded it; he didn’t request equal justice, he required it.” King was, in short, confrontational to his core, and Lei’s resolute, indomitable statue reflects this. “Lei’s design is not only an accurate depiction of the image we should see of King in our historical memory,” said Ibram Rogers in TheRoot.com. It’s a “prescient depiction” of how he would likely look if he could return and see how much of his work remains undone.