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King statue brings battery of complaints

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Prince C. at American Black, a new weblog that is coming along very well, has an entry about one of those situations that push all kinds of hot buttons. Some of my fellow Tarheels are in a tizzy over a work of art. The New York Times been down there.

It was supposed to bring them together. A bronze statue of Martin Luther King in the North Carolina town of Rocky Mount to honour a little-known but much cherished connection between a big moment in history and a small southern US town.

For on November 27 1962, a full seven months before he stood in Lincoln’s shadow during the “March on Washington” and addressed the country, King delivered, in Rocky Mount’s high school gym, one of the first renditions of his “I have a dream” speech.

Some people here remember it. And they want to make sure their children do not forget it. So a sculptor was found to build a statue to celebrate the man and his call for racial harmony.

But then everything started to go wrong. Residents in the black area where the statue was placed complained that it didn’t look like him. The face wasn’t quite right, the stance was haughty, the expression aloof. One even thought the pen he was carrying looked like an extra finger.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said 71-year-old Samuel Gray. “That’s not Dr King. There’s no likeness, none.”

The statue does resemble Dr. King, in my opinion.

But, I never saw him in person. Someone who did disagrees.

Elbert Lee, a 71-year-old Baptist preacher, walked with Dr. King and talked with Dr. King. “And that ain’t Dr. King,” he said. “The lips, the eyes, the head, the mustache, the cheeks. It don’t favor him.”

Well, maybe. But, I am still skeptical about there being something wrong with the appearance of the statue. Works by different artists tend to be styled according to their way of doing things, but that does not mean the works don’t represent their subjects.

Another complaint about the statue, which the Guardian reported, bothers me more.

Then they found out the sculptor was white. To the statue’s detractors race explained the artistic mistakes. “We need an artist who can relate,” one resident, Kimberle Evans, told the New York Times.

To supporters of the statue, the racial point explained why others would disparage it so readily. But, either way, the work of art meant something to almost everyone. For the town council that meant trouble. Views on how to rectify the situation diverged, from the drastic (getting the sculptor to cut the head off and replace it with a better likeness or do the whole thing again) to the problematic (finding a black sculptor to do another).

I don’t believe it is true that an artist from one ethnic background can’t understand or represent another. That strikes me as particularly true when it comes to visual art. Eric Blome, the sculptor whose statue is being assailed, says he had an image of a statue of King in his mind based on a photograph he owned for years.

Blome admits the sculpture is challenging. The Illinois sculptor has fashioned several historical black figures, including Rosa Parks (arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger), and Thurgood Marshall, the first black supreme court judge in the US.

He also previously completed a statue of King in Milwaukee, for which he won an award. “Most statues of King have him marching or holding his hand up and orating. I wanted to make something that shows his quiet strength and intellectual side. So he’s not standing in a way most people remember. But he didn’t spend most of his time marching and speaking. It’s a sculpture – not a death mask.”

Another aspect of the controversy is explicitly political. Some black citizens of Rocky Mount believe the white mayor intended the statue as a bribe for their support for his reelection. His opponent will be African-American.

Quite a crazy quilt, isn’t it?

I believe the statue should remain the way it is. If someone else, including a later municipal administration, chooses to erect another statue of King, later, fine. Works of the same subject by different artists can actually complement each other.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say ths controversy is progress of a kind. In some Southern cities, Richmond comes to mind, some white folks would be protesting the very existence of the statue. They would loudly lament spending city money to honor ‘Martin Luther Coon, a communist.’ We have come a long way — sort of.

Note 1: Is there something wrong with having ethnic features? The issue is examined at Mac-a-ro-nies.

Note 2: This entry also appeared at Silver Rights.

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About The Diva

  • great post. That’s a good mix of quotes, links, and commentary.

    I cringe that some are bringing race into this. If it doesn’t look like King then it just doesn’t. A black artist could have done the same thing.

    I do believe in someone of color getting comisioned as a way to “keep it in the family” but that’s an social preference that I have, not an artistic one.

  • A reminder that the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday is this week. (As is the Diva’s birthday. See my Amazon gift list, which I really need to update, here). This entry is not everyone join hands and sing “We Are the World” material. I think it would make a good MLK Eve or Day link for your blogs for just that reason. It is a reminder that the struggle for equality is ongoing and often confusing.

  • Oh I can’t wait.

    I am going to make my list of excuses I heard from a closet racist about why she think MLK day is the most horrible thing ever.

    *you won’t believe her excuses*

  • I have only seen 2 dimensional photos of the work myself, so I cannot get an accurate picture of it, but having seen MANY of Erik Blome’s other pieces of sculpture personally in 3 dimensions, I can say they are so lifelike, it looks like they are reincarnations of the person they depict. This sounds entirely like a case of politicization of a work of art. I have seen more than my share of unrecognizable public sculptures that neither capture the essence of the person they intend to depict nor offer any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Nothing Erik Blome has ever created was anything less than sublime art of the highest quality, and I have no doubt that could I see this piece with my own eyes I would feel any differently about it.