The Decade We Tore Down Our Racist Past

December 10, 2019

December 10, artist Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War will be unveiled at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The bronze sculpture will reside permanently on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, blocks from Monument Avenue in the former capital of the Confederacy, where massive three-dimensional likenesses of Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson have loomed over traffic, and memory, for more than a century.
Rumors of War is quintessential Wiley: At 27 feet tall, the statue is large in scale and rich in braggadocio. His use of a young black male subject — the presumed hero — subversively repurposes a recognizable art trope: the equestrian statue. With this work, Wiley modified the artistic conceit that made him famous: portraits of young models of color in neoclassical poses framed against color-drenched, blinged-out backgrounds befitting Renaissance oligarchs. Wiley was inspired to create his first public sculpture during a 2016 visit to Richmond. While in the city, he saw the Monument Avenue equestrian statue of James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, a Confederate general who, barely in his thirties, died from a war wound in Richmond. Rumors of War features a young man on a steed, half rearing back, like Napoleon leading his troops. But this unnamed hero wears a hoodie and dreadlocks.

The placement of Rumors of War is a fitting coda to a decade where monuments have been put up to remember the unremembered, taken down by city governments, toppled by force, defaced with paint, and placed at the center of white supremacist violence. This activity picked up mid-decade, after 2015, when mass murderer Dylann Roof killed nine black Charlestonians and photographs showed him posing with the Confederate flag, a monument in cloth.
Monuments have the potential to educate and inflame because they make arguments about what and who is noteworthy enough to be publicly memorialized in marble or bronze — and they require access to power, land, and capital. As Wiley noted in a description of the project, “Art and violence have for an eternity held a strong narrative grip with each other.” Even many in colonial America understood the potentially anti-democratic sway monuments can have. Kirk Savage, author of Monument Wars (2011), said in a Smithsonian interview at the beginning of this decade, “After the Revolution, grandiose monuments were associated with the monarchy and the British aristocracy.” And who, in a young upstart country, wanted to spend “$100,000 on a pile of stones”?

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