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Statues are a great way to remember our fallen heroes just as they exist in our romantic imagination: frightening, dead-eyed, and lacking any distinctive identifying features. At least, that seems to be the conceptual conceit of a Buffalo, New York memorial installed in 1983, apparently intended to recognize civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The eight-foot-bronze monument, created by artist John Woodrow Wilson, is a giant, terrifying, matte black head that overlooks MLK Park, and has been the subject of a recent attempt to create something a little less … impersonal.
As reported by The Root, thousands have stepped up to sign a petition demanding the offending statue be replaced by one that at least in some way resembles the iconic activist. The petition, which was initiated by Samuel A. Herbert on MLK Day of this year, has garnered over 6,000 signatures, according to its organizer. Though the Buffalo News reported that the statue was not intended to look like Dr. King, but rather, as an “everyman” that “young Black men and others” could identify with, a 1981 concept sketch by Wilson suggests an intention for the sculpture to more closely resemble Dr. King. It also begs the question about what young Black man, or literally anyone, could identify with the oddly blank statue. I mean, besides Doctor Manhattan.
It is, of course, a great honor for an artist to receive a commission for public sculpture, especially one that commemorates a beloved public figure — but perhaps artists enter into these projects without recognizing the potential peril of misrepresenting the likeness of a figure that looms large in the public sphere. Just ask artist Emanuel Jorge da Silva Santos, who was met with ridicule and vitriol at the unveiling of his bronze bust of Real Madrid forward and national treasure Cristiano Ronaldo, to honor the rechristening of Madeira International Airport as the Cristiano Ronaldo Airport. Santos eventually created a revision of the bust, which rendered the handsome hero in a less cartoonishly spooky un-likeness.
John Woodrow Wilson passed away in 2015, so it seems unlikely that he would be tapped to revise the statue, even in the event that the city of Buffalo responds to this movement and undertakes to replace it with something closer MLK’s image. Wilson is also responsible for a three-foot-tall MLK bust that stands in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC, the details of which indicate the artist was capable of presenting a sculptural work in King’s approximate likeness — so perhaps the issue here is the decision on the part of civic leaders to present a genericized icon for the memorial.
At any rate, it seems there is a vocal faction among art, equality, and park-loving citizens of Buffalo that would love to see a bust that is a little less, er, busted. Maybe next MLK Day will see their dreams realized.