Home > Art History, Rant, Sculpture, Uncategorized > Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument in Washington D.C. Made in China

Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument in Washington D.C. Made in China

Prior Artist of the Week Salem Baker recently advised me that the work of designing, sculpting and installing the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. was outsourced to Chinese nationals.  I never heard anything about this and I try to keep up on art news as best as I can.  This conflict has been an ongoing issue since 2007 and I just got a clue.

I can see the source of the stone being a problem, large pieces of monument grade stone are not available just any place.  The work could have been made in bronze or another material and I read criticisms that white stone was used to portray a black man.   If you think about the Washington Mall, and I’ve been there, you have a nation that’s been around -historically speaking- for about five minutes and has appropriated iconography from past civilizations that spanned millenniums: the Egyptian obelisk for Washington Monument, the Greco-Roman Lincoln Memorial.  The stone selected was probably an issue to make the tallest Mall monuments match.

Why couldn’t there have been an American sculptor and stone masons?  There are accusations that the use of Chinese artist Lei Yixian and imported Chinese workers working in Washington D.C. were used to save money by cutting costs with cheap labor.  At the time of this writing the Chinese artist and build team names are kept off of the “Design Build Team” portion of the official website.  The Washington Post article cites sources of criticism that the style is the kind of Social Realism propagandist art that is being torn down in the other nations where it still exists.  If you recall the Saddam Hussein statue that was ripped down in Baghdad during the US invasion of Iraq, that’s Social Realism.  The foreign creators are certainly is a slap in the face for American sculptors and the D.C. area stonemasons union.

Did black supporters for the monument play along just to get one at all?  Were they only told part of the information about the origins of the monument?  Did they know about the Chinese artist and imported labor?  MLK was assassinated while attending and supporting at a union labor meeting.  This monument was allowed to progress under PCR workers under a black President.  WTF?

Maya Lin caught racist shit for the Vietnam Memorial and she was born and raised in Ohio.  I don’t understand how the creators of the MLK monument could not have been a bigger national controversy.  I think it had to be a lack of information and exposure of the facts for the general public.  Political connections and a lot of money in play were problems.  Learning about this controversy after the fact is scandalous.

I’m all for global exchange in a peaceful fashion, but executing this monument is a form of cultural conquest to the People’s Republic of China [PRC].  There is no level playing field for the people who made the work given how the PRC controls artists and the general population.  The PRC controls or forbids American entrepreneurship and communications in China.  The controlled imported work team goes against our labor laws and seems like it was slavery, men kept in a hotel and carted around by chaperons.  Look at the slavery in Foxconn Technology Group.  How bad does life have to be if you would rather kill yourself than stay trapped somewhere?  There was no confirmation of fair pay for the imported Chinese laborers and repeated reports indicated the workers did not know their own pay scale; they said they would get paid when they got home.

I would like to side with the protesters who said that King, as a religious leader, labor advocate and someone trying to increase the strength of democracy, would have been against a monument to himself built by Communist workers.  I do not like the spin of this monument being the result of a “global marketplace”; $120 Million and the prestige of the commission gets you any artist you want hired.  Do we get to import human rights and democracy into China now?

HuffPo video on the subject here:   http://embed.5min.com/517120958/

More detailed information is in this Washington Post article from November 23, 2010 below:

As Chinese workers build the Martin Luther King memorial, a union investigates

By Annys Shin

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 1:33 PM

Francis Jacobberger’s plan was simple – show up with a six-pack of beer and talk his way into a Crystal City apartment. An investigator for the Washington area union that represents stonemasons, Jacobberger was working a case dear to the members: Who should build the centerpiece of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial – Americans or imported Chinese workers?

Chinese sculpter Lei Yixin works on the granite head that will cap the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall.

Chinese sculpter Lei Yixin works on the granite head that will cap the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall. (Courtesy Of Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation)

In September, the foundation building the $120 million memorial on the Mall promised in writing to use local stonemasons to assemble and install the 159 blocks of granite that will make up two massive sculptures at the center of the site, including one bearing King’s likeness.

But when construction of the sculptures began three weeks ago, it appeared that the foundation had reneged. Jacobberger, a wiry 32-year-old former bricklayer from Delaplane, was asked to find the Chinese laborers who were brought in to work on the King memorial and determine whether they were being exploited.

One evening last week, Jacobberger and a Mandarin translator, Josh Bassan, sat parked beneath the Arlington high-rise where the workers live. As they waited for the men to return from the construction site, Jacobberger schooled Bassan on how to chat them up.

“This should be easy going,” he said. “It’s like leading a horse to water.”

If all went well, Jacobberger would finally know what the workers were paid and what their living conditions were like. His suspicion was that they were not being paid anything close to the prevailing wage for an American stonemason – $32 an hour, plus $12 an hour in benefits.

Bassan’s efforts might not mean more jobs for American masons, but union members had demanded that their leadership do something. The possibility that cheap imported labor was being used to build any portion of the King memorial was anathema to them. King was assassinated in 1968 while in Memphis to support a sanitation workers strike.

The use of Chinese workers at the memorial is also deeply unsettling for a union that has had a hand in building every major monument in Washington since the end of the Civil War.

“Why do they need to come over to do the work when there are so many people here who can do it?” asked Scott Garvin, president of the Washington area local of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers union, whose membership has dropped in the past three years from 2,000 to 850 because of a decline in building projects. “It’s kind of a thumb in the eye.”

Years of controversy

The flap between the memorial foundation and the union is the latest in a series of disputes since Congress approved the project 14 years ago. In 2007, the foundation wascriticized for choosing the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin instead of an American artist. The next year, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which reviews plans for monuments and memorials, complained that the “colossal scale and Social Realist style” of the King sculpture “recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries.” The commission asked for a reworking.

In June, the meltdown of the Greek economy delayed delivery of the granite blocks that will make up the two main sculptures, the Stone of Hope and the Mountain of Despair, named for a line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The partially carved pieces that Lei will finish on site finally arrived in Baltimore in August, around the time the union learned that Lei intended to bring close to a dozen workers with him from China to assemble the sculptures.

Within weeks, the union began passing out handbills in front of the foundation’s offices, protesting the use of foreign labor. In late September, after foundation President Harry E. Johnson Sr. met with James Boland, president of the bricklayers’ parent union, the foundation posted a statement on its Web site saying that it “will employ skilled craft workers from the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC) to work with Master Lei Yixin, Sculptor of Record, to complete the assembly and installation of the Mountain of Despair and Stone of Hope sculpture pieces.”

But when work on the sculptures began without union masons, local president Garvin sought an explanation from Johnson. Garvin said the foundation chief never called back.

Johnson did not respond to a request for an interview, and the foundation declined to make Lei available. Instead, the foundation sent a Sept. 8 statement by Johnson that reads: “While 95% of the work is being done by American workers, we strongly believe that we should not exclude anyone from working on this project simply because of their religious beliefs, social background or country of origin.”

Stymied, the union asked Jacobberger to get some answers.

For workers, ‘national pride’

Inside the Crystal City apartment building, the investigator directed the translator to one of two apartments occupied by the Chinese workers. (The investigator allowed a Washington Post reporter to come along.)

Bassan knocked once. No answer. For several minutes he stood perfectly still, a six-pack of Miller in one hand. (Jacobberger wanted to bring Tsingtao, a Chinese beer, but the store he went to didn’t carry it.)

Bassan knocked again. Still, no answer.

Finally, after some minutes, he knocked again. This time, he heard muffled voices, and from behind the door appeared a young Asian man with tussled short hair and a gray T-shirt. Behind him, the apartment looked barren but spacious, with beige walls and beige carpet that reeked of cigarette smoke.

Bassan launched into his rehearsed spiel, asking for a friend who might still live here. The man in the T-shirt told him that person wasn’t there and closed the door.

After a few minutes, Bassan knocked again. This time, he held up the six-pack and said something about needing to practice his Mandarin for an interpreting job the next day. Would the guy do it for a six-pack of beer?

He was in.

Bassan spent the next hour on a couch talking to the Chinese man, while the apartment’s three other occupants lay about watching a movie on a laptop. The apartment was less a hovel than a poorly kept bachelor pad in need of a thorough wipedown. None of the men offered their names, nor did they ask Bassan for his.

The man told Bassan that the rest of the Chinese crew lives in another apartment, but all the workers gather for breakfast and dinner, which they make themselves. They work for a sculpting company in Hunan province and have no idea what they will be paid for their work on the King memorial. They expect to be paid when they get home.

The translator asked: Why are the workers okay with not being paid until they return to China?

Because they are working for “national honor,” the man said. “To bring glory to the Chinese people.” He said the workers felt patriotic pride in having been chosen to work on the King project. He said they knew there were Americans who wanted their jobs, didn’t get them and were mad that the Chinese did.

The man said the workers get free room and board, and lunch delivered at the job site. Their work breaks last only as long as it takes them to eat. When they had been in the United States for one month, they were treated to dinner at a restaurant. Like any good tourists, they planned to go to New York City over Thanksgiving and maybe Niagara Falls.

What difference that information will make for American stonemasons, Jacobberger is not sure. He was disturbed that the workers didn’t know what they would be paid.

But he couldn’t take issue with the apartment building, which has a 24-hour concierge, Olympic-size pool and fitness center. “At least we know their living conditions are good,” he said.

  1. Doug Dupin
    July 30, 2012 at 8:10 am

    This is a story for the history books. The fact that it garnered so little attention is astounding. Some of the people on the job site knew how shameful it was –

    • July 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      I’m from Chicago, so I’m used to monolithic power structures controlling the arts. Seeing it roll on a national level is a new twist. The statue is ugly and looks Chinese. I think the American tendency to want things fast was a problem. A lot of people handed up a lot of money, so they want results. Also, anxiety was a problem, maybe an implied threat that if the foundation did not get a monument made, right now, under Obama, there would never be one at all.

      Seriously, the foundation and organizers did a terrible job on contracting this out to foreigners. Maybe someone needed to use that thing, that thing.. oh yeah, it’s called the internet, and contact some sculptors. Or cal me, I’l give you the number to e ery single sculptor I know.

      Thanks you for the video clip. I will embed it in the main blog post. Hands on by-the-people documentation and journalism like this is important to me.

      Also, I like how much the workers are hiding themselves with the hoodies and dust masks. So very uniform.

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