Come December 10 Richmond will finally have a monument we can all be proud of. Rumors of War, a gargantuan statue unveiled last month in New York’s Times Square, will find its permanent home late this fall in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
Unlike many of the other equestrian statues in Richmond that celebrate white men who tried to destroy our Republic while preserving the evil enslavement of human beings of color, this new monument describes a contemporary African-American man proudly mounted on a steed. Towering at almost three full stories, this iconic bronze sculpture is the handiwork of Kehinde Wiley, an internationally acclaimed artist known for his portrayals of men and women of African descent often cast in traditional European backdrops. Kehinde painted the portrait of President Barack Obama which is now housed in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and has become one of the most popular art destinations in Washington, D.C.
Artist Kehinde Wiley found inspiration for his sculpture while in Richmond a couple years back when the VMFA hosted a midlife retrospective exhibition of his work, which included more than fifty of the artist’s monumental paintings and sculptures. While in the former capital of the Confederacy, Kehinde encountered the J.E.B. Stuart bronze sculpture at Lombardy and Monument Avenue. Other Confederate luminaries—Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson—sit astride horses atop lofty stone pedestals further to the west on Monument.
These, and many of the other Confederate memorials throughout the South, were erected during the Jim Crow Era, years after Reconstruction ended. These monuments served a two-fold purpose. One was to commemorate the Lost Cause, which was often romanticized. The other was to remind African-Americans that the social order that enslaved their ancestors for centuries was still the order of the day, and terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan enforced the ideology of white supremacy. Virginia, incidentally, has more memorials to Confederates than any other state in the Union.
“The inspiration for Rumors of War is war, is an engagement with violence,” says Kehinde of his sculpture. “Art and violence have, for an eternity, held a strong narrative grip with each other. Rumors of War attempts to use the language of equestrian portraiture to both embrace and subsume the fetishization of state violence.”
Alex Nyerges, VMFA director, is extremely pleased with the installation of Rumors of War on Arthur Ashe Boulevard. “December will be a historic moment for our museum and for the city of Richmond,” he says. “We hope that the sculpture will encourage public engagement and civic discussion about who is memorialized in our nation and the significance of monuments in the context of American history.”
And here are the words of our mayor, Levar Stoney, an African-American. “The City of Richmond is proud and honored to be the future home of Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War. We have too many monuments in our city to the Lost Cause. Now we have a beautiful sculpture that speaks emphatically to a worthy cause – the diverse and inclusive city we are, and the equitable city we aspire to be, riding boldly and fearlessly into the future.”