Richmond’s newest monument got a one-of-a-kind unveiling in Times Square on Friday.
Kehinde Wiley unveiled his massive monument, called “Rumors of War,” in Times Square on Friday.
Created in response to the monument of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in Richmond, “Rumors of War” depicts a young African American in urban streetwear, sitting astride a horse in a striking pose. The figure incorporates both male and female characteristics.
"Rumors of War” will remain on view in Times Square until Dec. 1.
After that, it will be moved to Virginia where it will be permanently installed at the museum’s entrance on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, just a few blocks away from the J.E.B. Stuart monument.
Best known for his official presidential portrait of Barack Obama, the 42-year-old artist has built his career on creating larger-than-life, regal portraits of minorities in classical poses, positioning his subjects in ways typically associated with wealthy and powerful white men.
Wiley first encountered the J.E.B. Stuart monument when he was visiting Richmond for his career retrospective “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” at the VMFA in June 2016.
Alex Nyerges, the director of the VMFA, said that Wiley was exploring Monument Avenue and became transfixed by “ the monuments to the Confederate generals and the notion of the Lost Cause.”
Which became the seed for Wiley's next big project, "Rumors of War." The monument is Wiley's first public art work and his largest three-dimensional work to date.
Wiley approached the museum in 2018 and said that he was working on “Rumors of War” and that he was looking for a home for it.
"Wiley’s monument makes perfect sense for us and in this moment as we celebrate 400 years of the Commonwealth. We are looking at our collective histories and their legacies on our contemporary lives. The sculpture belongs right here on our grounds," Valerie Cassel Oliver, the museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, said. “It allows us to shift the gravitational pull of Monument Avenue and the conversation in general. Given that Virginia has the largest number of memorials and monuments dedicated to the Confederacy, it is a watershed moment. We are expanding conversation about monuments -- who gets memorialized; who is edified."
Confederate monuments and statues around the United States have become a controversial topic with calls for contextualization and removal.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney appointed a commission to study the monuments on Monument Avenue in 2017. The commission recommended removing the monument to President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and adding context to the four other Confederate statues.
But state law currently protects the removal of statues as war memorials and it is a still question whether localities can assert control over their monuments.
“The installation of ‘Rumors of War’ at the VMFA later this year will be a historic moment for our museum and for the city of Richmond and the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Nyerges said in a statement.
“When you look at Virginia as a whole, at least 20% of all Virginians trace their heritage directly to Africa. The fact that Richmond itself is a black majority city, it is important to us to be able to put this in context with a great work of art which will hopefully further the conversation about these 19th and early 20th-century monuments,” Nyerges said.
Since 2015, the VMFA has been building its African American art collection with the goal of becoming one of the top three in the world for African American art.
Museum organizers hope that visitors can explore Wiley's monument by foot or car on Arthur Ashe Boulevard and then proceed to explore the Confederate monuments just a few blocks away on Monument Avenue.
William Martin, executive director of the Valentine, described adding the Kehinde Wiley monument it as a "moment of axis" to Richmond's collection of Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue.
"This is a perfect monument to mark where we are in this very moment, in a language we’ll understand," Martin said. "Nothing expresses Richmond more than these things together: the monuments on Monument Avenue and the new Wiley sculpture."
He talked about how the monuments in Richmond are changing with the dedication of the Women's Monument in Capitol Square in October, the addition of the Arthur Ashe monument back in 1996, and now the addition of the Kehinde Wiley monument in December.
The Valentine records Richmond history and recently hosted an exhibit where artists reimagined Monument Avenue and ways to contextualize the Confederate monuments.
"Sometimes it takes art to encourage conversations in ways we don't anticipate," William Martin, executive director of the Valentine, said. "This is the moment for Richmond when the conversation begins between these monuments."
"Rumors of War" was acquired by the VMFA in late June for an undisclosed sum and is the most expensive acquisition of a sculpture the VMFA has ever made.
The acquisition was funded by an endowment of private donations, not state money.
"The monument is an evolutionary leap in Wiley’s practice. It is a stunning work of art. It will change the face of the VMFA," Oliver said.