Meet Lei Yixin, the Chinese Artist Behind D.C.'s New Martin Luther King Monument

Meet Lei Yixin, the Chinese Artist Behind D.C.'s New Martin Luther King Monument
The 30-foot-tall sculpture by Lei Yixin
(Courtesy of ehpien via Flickr)
Even before its grand public opening on the National Mall, the new Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C., has attracted controversy not only for its imagery, but also for its creator: a Chinese master sculptor named Lei Yixin, who worked with a team of craftsman in Hunan province to carve the 30-foot-tall work. Some critics have said that, given his nationality, Lei is an unorthodox choice for a monument memorializing an African-American hero.

Inspired by a line from King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, the "Stone of Hope" sculpture depicts the civil rights leader emerging from a block of white granite. Standing stiffly to attention with arms crossed and a serious expression on his face, King is depicted as stern and authoritative. The statue oddly seems to evoke Social Realist monuments — an impression heightened by its monolithic composition, with King standing as part of the rock face. Photographs show the memorial already easing into its place on the Mall alongside such company as the Washington Monument (both of which sites were closed due to today's brief earthquake).

Attending an art university directly after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, Lei Yixin graduated in 1982 and went on to work as a draftsman, and was later encouraged by a government official to move into designing public sculpture. Lei has created over 150 monuments, including statues of Mao Zedong. But it was the artist's 2006 "Contemplation" sculpture that caught the eye of Ed Jackson, the executive architect of the Martin Luther King Foundation, who named Lei the head sculptor for the "Stone of Hope" monument in 2007.

Jackson's choice was immediately controversial. African-American sculptor Ed Dwight was quoted by the Washington Post at the time as arguing that because Lei is not black, "he doesn't know how black people walk, how they stand, how their shoulders slope." In May 2008, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts called the artist's design "too confrontational," and recommended that the monument be rethought.

Although chosen by the foundation because of his experience in the medium of large-scale granite sculpture rather than his artistic aesthetic, Lei has clearly sought to sensitively portray his subject. At the soft opening this week, Lei said that "you can see the hope" in King's face, according to the Tribune Chronicle. "But his serious demeanor also indicated that he's thinking."  

Public reaction to the new monument has been largely favorable, with viewers calling the sculpture "inspiring," "breathtaking," and "emotional."  President Barack Obama will preside over the official dedication ceremony on Sunday, marking the 48th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.