Basil Watson: Renowned Jamaican Sculptor Creates New Statue of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Basil Watson of Lawrenceville has been commissioned by the City of Atlanta to create a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. to be unveiled in October. Photo: Basil Watson

Ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021, the City of Atlanta unveiled the new statue of the civil rights activist, created by renowned Jamaican-born artist Basil Watson. 

The 12-foot-tall bronze sculpture, titled “Hope Moving Forward,” was unveiled on January 14 during a small ceremony attended by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and other city officials.

The statue stands at the intersection of Northside Drive and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive across from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

Basil Watson, the renowned Jamaican sculptor who created the statue, said it was a “dream come true” when he was chosen by the City of Atlanta to create a larger-than-life statue of Rev. King. 

“You start your career dreaming of possibly doing something significant that impacts the world, but you never really think about what it can be or if it can really happen. This is like a dream come true because it not only affects my world. I think this will have an impact on the world in general,” Watson shared. 

He was chosen from a pool of 80 talented artists for the project. The statue took two years to complete and features Dr. King releasing a dove. Watson said the work is a representation of his own concept of MLK.

“It was an evolution in terms of my concept of Martin Luther King Jr. and the key message that he wanted to communicate to the world,” he said.

While some Caribbean Americans may have just recently been introduced to Watson, his work is widely known in Jamaica. He has sculpted images of popular Jamaicans like Usain Bolt and Louise Bennett-Coverley, among others.

Basil Watson was born in Kingston in 1958. He is the son of another popular Jamaican creative artists, painter Barrington Watson, and the younger brother of sculptor Raymond Watson.

“My father being an artist/painter, I grew up around art and at an early age I developed a love for drawing that only grew through high school. From high school, I went directly to college to study art, and that’s where I found sculpture,” Watson was quoted as saying.

He attended the Kingston College in Kingston and later, the Edna Manley College of the Visual & Performing Arts also located in Kingston. 

After leaving university, Watson quickly established himself as one of Jamaica’s most talented artists. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he sculpted works including the George Headley statue at Sabina Park in Kingston, and other statues at the University of Technology and the Northern Caribbean University in Jamaica. 

He immigrated to Georgia in 2002 and established his studio in Atlanta, from which he has created public works for international locations including some in China, Guatemala, and the USA.

In 2005, he completed a statue of legendary Jamaican sprinter, Merlene Ottey. This was the first in a series of statues created by Watson at Jamaica’s National Stadium. In 2009, he added the statue of Herb McKenley, and most recently, Olympic champions Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown. 

These works were fitting for Watson, who considers himself an avid sportsman and sports fan. As a student, Watson played competitive football. He is also a teacher of karate and holds the rank of 6th Degree Black Belt.

Just as his father did with him, Basil seemed to have passed on his artistic ability to his son, Kai, who is a painter. In 2008, works by both Basil and Kai were exhibited in New York at the fifth annual “Art Off the Main” exposition, sponsored by the Savacou Gallery. That December, Watson was added to the list of artists invited to provide works for the National Gallery of Jamaica’s National Biennial exhibition.

In 2012, Watson was lauded by the Prince Henry of Wales, Prince Harry, after he created the ‘Rings of Life’ sculpture at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital (VJH). The statue was erected to mark the combined celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee; Jamaica’s Golden Jubilee as an independent nation; and the 120th anniversary of the founding of the VJH.

For his contributions to Jamaican art and culture, Watson was awarded the Order of Distinction (Commander Class) by the Government of Jamaica in 2016.

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