Kehinde Wiley (born 1977) is an American artist known for repositioning black youth within the classical European tradition of power and status. With Rumors of War, he expands this concept while directly engaging the national conversation around monuments and their role in perpetuating incomplete histories and inequality.
As a direct response to the Confederate statues that line Monument Avenue in Richmond, Wiley conceived the idea for Rumors of War when he visited the city in 2016 for the opening of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at VMFA. Rumors of War takes its inspiration from the statue of Confederate Army General James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart created by Frederick Moynihan in 1907. As with the original sculpture, the rider strikes a heroic pose while sitting upon a muscular horse. However, in Wiley’s sculpture, the figure is a young African American dressed in urban streetwear. Proudly mounted on its large stone pedestal, the bronze sculpture commemorates African American youth lost to the social and political battles being waged throughout our nation.
First unveiled on September 27, 2019, in Times Square, where the statue has remained on view for several weeks, Rumors of War will be unveiled December 10, 2019, at VMFA, its permanent home. The artist’s vision will be complete when the statue is installed there with the city of Richmond as its backdrop. While this is Wiley’s first monumental public sculpture, it is a continuation of his career-long investigation of representation, race, gender, and power.
In Rumors of War, Wiley draws from a series of paintings he created in the early 2000s when, inspired by the history of equestrian portraiture, he replaced traditional white subjects depicted in large-format paintings with young African American men in street clothes. At that time, these works were a reaction to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly two decades later, Wiley’s public sculpture, taking its name from a biblical phrase found in Matthew 24:6, addresses the violence that continues not just in the Middle East but every day on the streets of this nation. Rumors of War also offers an exquisite example of how to imagine and develop a more complete and inclusive American story.
Wiley’s career has focused on addressing and remedying the absence of black and brown men and women in our visual, historical, and cultural narratives. His subjects range from individuals the artist encountered while traveling around the world to many of the most important and renowned African American figures of our generation, including President Barack Obama.
Also in the VMFA collection, Kehinde Wiley’s 2006 painting Willem van Heythuysen, is located in the Museum’s Tapestry Hall.
Photo: The Washington Post (Steve Helber/AP)