Black artists being passed over in major art projects on Black icons
Sculptor Uzikee Nelson and his installation ?Paul Robeson: Here I Stand,? at a park in Washington, D.C. Photo: Askia Muhammad
WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) - When the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. takes its place on the National Mall facing the Jefferson Memorial, it will not be alone among iconic Black statues created by artists who are not Black.
The King Memorial, the “Stone of Hope” will be created by Lei Yixin, from Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province in China.
“As many as 95 percent of the bronze statues and monuments to African leaders on the African continent are not done by Africans, but instead have been crafted and manufactured in China or North Korea,” New York sculptor Nijel Binns told The Final Call in a statement.
“This is responsible for inaccurate representations of national heroes such as Patrice Lumumba, whose $10 million statue stands in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
The King Memorial is a $100 million project which has raised nearly $70 million so far, mostly from corporate gifts. When it comes to the Washington community and city-art, Black artists complain that there are even fewer opportunities for positive images of Black leaders and Black life, produced by Black artists.
“It’s gotten out of hand,” as far as statues and murals of Blacks are concerned, internationally known sculptor Uzikee Nelson told The Final Call, “Because they even gave the Carter G. Woodson sculpture to a White artist who had never done a Black person in his whole life.”
That project is sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in collaboration with the D.C. Commission on the Arts, who commissioned a White artist to create a statue in honor of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the author of “The Miseducation of the Negro,” and the Father of Black History Month.
On top of the Woodson sculpture, which will be dedicated near his home in the Shaw neighborhood, murals of Duke Ellington, Frederick Douglass, and the Black Family Reunion, in prominent locations, were all painted by a White artist.
“They have a contract with him,” said Mr. Nelson. “He just paints all the murals of Black people. No other artist has a chance because they go behind closed doors and vote, and say this guy, let him paint the things for us.
British newspaper The Guardian quoted a Black artist in Dr. King’s hometown of Atlanta as saying that it was a “slap in the face” of Blacks to ask a Chinese to sculpt “the centerpiece of the most important African American monument.”
Nevertheless, since last summer Mr. Yixin has been reading about Dr. King, listening to his speeches and watching his videos, according to published reports. Mr. Yixin told China Daily that his Stone of Hope will focus on “the unyielding spirit of (Dr.) King.”
The sculptor said he shares Dr. King’s ideals, especially his belief in non-violence and perseverance in the face of pressure. “I have suffered myself, so I know what suffering is,” said Mr. Yixin. “Though I was not tortured as much as the African Americans, I can understand how they felt, and I adore the hero who fought for the equal rights of all the people.”
The panels that select artists for these major works in Washington are mostly White, said Mr. Nelson. “Since the Martin Luther King thing, they used to tell you who were the judges. They don’t even tell you that any more. It’s all secret.
“It’s sad to say that, but as far as I know of, the better Black artists don’t even apply because it’s a waste of their effort,” Mr. Nelson continued. “You don’t have a chance of putting something up in this town, but D.C. being the colony that it is, there is just no chance for a Black artist to put up positive images. There’s just no chance.”
Ironically, said Mr. Nelson, Black people are desperate for their own positive images.
“This is a city of monuments,” Akili Ron Anderson told The Final Call. “This is a city of museums, but if you go to these monuments and museums and come from another part of the world, you would be hard-pressed to be able to see that African Americans were ever a part of this city, or ever contributed to it.”
Only the African American Civil War Memorial was done by a Black artist, protestors complain. But the use of White artists to depict Black historical figures goes way back. Even the Mary McLeod Bethune sculpture in Lincoln Park in Northeast Washington was installed in 1974 by a White artist.
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