Lei Yixin (Chinese: 雷宜锌) is a sculptor most famous for carving the centerpiece of the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial for the United States.
Born in 1953 in Changsha, Hunan Province, to a scholar’s family, Lei was sent to the countryside for “reeducation” during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). There, instead of farming the fields, he started drawing and developed a keen art sense during his seven-year toil.
After the Cultural Revolution, in 1978, he was accepted into the Sculpture School of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. Since then, his career has been full of domestic prizes and honors. He has sculpted some 150 public monuments, including statues of Mao Zedong. Several of his works are now in theNational Art Gallery’s permanent collection.
Lei gain the attention of the American public in 2006, when the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial Project Foundation chose Lei as the head sculptor to carve Dr. King’s likeness. Critics believed a Chinese artist could not capture the essence of a great black hero, while others complained about his earlier work in carving Mao and even compared the creases of the suit in King’s statue to the folds of Mao’s statue’s suit.
One artist, Ed Dwight from Denver who is black and was on the committee that selected Lei, was quoted by USA Today as saying, “Dr. King would be turning over in his grave if he knew” that Lei was from a communist country.
Lei reacted sharply to the sarcastic remarks. “Art should be appreciated beyond boundaries,” he said. “In China, there are also lots of architectures and sculptures completed by foreign designers. How could you tell a nationality of a man only from the creases of his suit? And if Dr. King does jump from his grave, he would be moved by my works.”