Unveiled last week in Times Square, Kehinde Wiley’s new monumental sculpture Rumors of War (2019) presents an alternative to the Civil War monuments that have been the subject of much controversy in recent years. Presented by Times Square Arts, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) and Sean Kelly, New York, the sculpture is Wiley’s first monumental public sculpture.
Atop a marble base, a rider sits astride a rearing steed, just like the many other statues glorifying war heroes that sit in town squares across the US. This hero, however, is not Robert E. Lee or another figure from the Confederacy. Instead, we find a young, contemporary black man, sporting ripped jeans, a hoodie, and dreadlocks. His body is twisted in motion as he looks back, over his shoulder.
Commissioned by the VMFA, Rumors of War will eventually stand at the museum’s entrance on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, just a few blocks from Richmond’s most iconic street, Monument Avenue. This wide mall is punctuated by larger than life statues commemorating Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. These memorials, and many like them across the US, were erected in the early 20th century to promote the “Lost Cause,” the idea that the Confederacy fought a noble battle for state's rights in the face of Northern aggression, negating that the Civil War was about preserving slavery.
Placed in this setting, Rumors of War will give greater context to these monuments in a city that once prided itself on being the capital of the Confederacy. Wiley is known for his portraits of contemporary African Americans depicted in aristocratic poses in lush and richly detailed backdrops. Rumors of War does not stray from this theme, but it does take Wiley’s message out of the frame and into the streets. This new work allows Wiley’s vision of African Americans as nobles, deserving of the royal portraiture treatment, to directly confront those who would (and did) subjugate them.
The presence of a young black man among Civil War generals reminds us of the living people whose bodies and freedom were at the core of this physical and ideological war. Since the violence at Charlotteville in 2017, this conflict has felt ongoing to many. That fact that Wiley’s subject is a contemporary figure indicates that he and people of color are still waging a battle for thier basic human rights, and to be seen in the positive light that is so easily bestowed on white heroes of the dubious past.
Wiley, who lives and works in New York, wanted this work to be debuted in his city, where it would be seen by millions before moving to Richmond for its permanent installation. Set amongst the glowing neon and flashing LED screens of Times Square, Rumors of War looks torn between the past and future. A contemporary figure depicted in an old-fashioned style, Rumors of War is both anachronistic and futuristic, reminding us that though they are tied to the past, in the future and the present, anything is possible.
Wiley (b. 1977), along with Amy Sherald, is one of the first black artists to paint an official presidential portrait. Wiley has worked in smaller-scale sculptures before, and was inspired to create Rumors of War while attending the opening of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at the VMFA in June 2016. He has also featured equestrian portraiture in his previous works, which are found in museums around the world.