Huge equestrian sculpture an “important national conversation”

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The unveiling of Rumors of War in Times Square on Friday. 
The unveiling of Rumors of War in Times Square on Friday. © 2019 Kehinde Wiley. Used by permission. Presented by Times Square Arts in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Art and Sean Kelly, New York. Photographer: Kylie Corwin for Kehinde Wiley.

A massive equestrian sculpture has been unveiled in New York City’s Times Square, and will later be permanently installed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Rumors of War is the first monumental public sculpture by artist Kehinde Wiley, who is best known for his vibrant portrayals of contemporary African-American and African-Diasporic individuals. Rumors of War, his largest work to date, continues Wiley’s career-long investigation of the politics of representation, race, gender, and power.

Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley

Mounted proudly on its large stone pedestal, the bronze is the artist’s direct response to the ubiquitous Confederate sculptures that populate the United States, particularly in the South. Standing at just under three stories tall, Wiley’s young, African-American figure is dressed in urban streetwear sitting astride a massive horse in a striking pose. It stands 27 feet tall and nearly 16 feet long.

The project originated when the artist encountered the equestrian monument to Confederate States Army general James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart while visiting Richmond, Virginia for the opening of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in June, 2016. A few blocks away from the museum is Monument Avenue, a nationally landmarked boulevard lined with Confederate statues, including monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. These monuments have particular resonance because they function to continually commemorate the Confederacy.

Rumors of War will be permanently installed on historic Arthur Ashe Boulevard in Richmond at the entrance to the VMFA.

The state of Virginia has more memorials to the Confederacy than any other state in the country. As with many Confederate monuments, erected in the aftermath of Reconstruction, their function was meant to not only memorialize the dead but also to reestablish social order. This also accounts for the relatively few monuments that recognize women and people of color, making the VMFA a powerful place to site Wiley’s historic work.

“The inspiration for Rumors of War is war — an engagement with violence,” Wiley said.

“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. New York and Times Square, in particular, sit at the crossroads of human movement on a global scale.”

Wiley’s work presents a powerful visual repositioning of young black men in the public consciousness while directly engaging the national conversation around controversial monuments and their role in perpetuating incomplete narratives and contemporary inequities. In recent years, efforts to better contextualize such monuments have resulted in both the addition and removal of monuments in more than 30 states and New York City.

Rumors of War
Rumors of War. © 2019 Kehinde Wiley. Used by permission. Presented by Times Square Arts in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Art and Sean Kelly, New York. Photographer: Kylie Corwin for Kehinde Wiley.

Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins said Wiley was uniquely equipped to “challenge how we use our public space, to ask the critical question of ‘who matters?’.”

“We are honored to be premiering this historic work, and to join the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in supporting Wiley’s contribution to this important national conversation.”

In conjunction with the installation, Times Square Arts has announced a new initiative — a team of 15 rotating Public Art Ambassadors will be stationed by the work every day from 2 to 8pm to act as “tour guides” for the hundreds of thousands of visitors and local New Yorkers who will encounter Rumors of War each day in Times Square.

Wiley’s career has focused on addressing and remedying the absence of black and brown men and women in dominant visual, historical, and cultural narratives. Wiley’s subjects have ranged from street-cast individuals the artist encountered while traveling around the world to many of the most well-known African-American figures of this generation, including The Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Carrie Mae Weems, Nick Cave, and President Barack Obama.

In the early 2000s, the artist created a series of paintings entitled Rumors of War, which explored the iconography of wealth and warfare in historical paintings, drawing upon the visual language of glorification, heroism, and violence. True to his practice, these large-format paintings, inspired by the history of equestrian portraiture, anachronistically replaced the white, aristocratic subjects typical of the genre with young, African-American men in street clothes.

Those works were developed out of a reaction to the Gulf War and the Iraq Conflict. Nearly two decades later, Wiley’s new public sculpture at once serves as an important reminder that violence continues every day on our streets while simultaneously offering an exquisite example of how to imagine and enact a more complete and inclusive American story.

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