The debate concerning Confederate statues has quieted down since the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, but many cities in the South are still grappling with how to handle or address the numerous statues that remain. Kehinde Wiley, the artist who painted Barack Obama’s presidential portrait, has unveiled a response and challenge to the hegemony of those honored by the iconic equestrian statues in question: “Rumors of War,” a new sculpture that currently resides in Time Square. It is massive—standing at 27 feet high and 16 feet wide is a man with dreadlocks tied back wearing ripped jeans and a hoodie as he pulls the reins of a horse that has one hoof raised. The work is Wiley’s first public sculpture and his largest work to date.
The Unite the Right rally was initially planned as a protest of the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. The rally escalated to violence as hundreds of the alt-right and counter-protesters shut down the city in a clash that left one woman dead. The events in Charlottesville led to a greater national debate about the alt-right and the significance of icons and imagery celebrating the Confederacy that can still be found south of the Mason Dixon line. The only minimally addressed enshrinement of the “Lost Cause” finally being called into question led to many citizens taking matters into their own hands and tearing down offending statues.
Often the toppled statues look “crumpled” or like deflated balloons due to the haste with which they were made. Originally intended to be propaganda during the early 1900s Jim Crow era years after the Civil War had ended, they’re no more than cheap idols to a failed ideology and fallen regime. “Rumors of War” is a one-man stand against the upwards of 1,700 remaining Confederate Monuments littered throughout the South.
The statue has an artist statement explaining that the bronze sculpture is “a powerful repositioning of young black men in our public consciousness, and engages the national conversation around monuments and their role in telling incomplete narratives and perpetuating contemporary inequities.” By electing to portray the everyman instead of a notable figure in Black heritage, Wiley avoids familiar debates about who specifically should replace individuals commemorated by Confederate agitprop. Instead, Wiley’s statue invites the viewer to consider all the possible riders.
In a statement on the Times Square Arts announcement of the piece, Wiley lays out the inspiration for the work as: “an engagement with violence. 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.”
The work’s status as a public monument is important because it is pushing back against the intimidation that was behind the erection of Confederate statues. This is also not the first project where Wiley has grappled with overt themes of violent intimidation in his own work. For example, his paintings of the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes show black women beheading white women. These are based on canonical paintings by Caravaggio and Gentileschi, and suggest a kind of chaotic retribution. “Rumors of War” succeeds where those paintings failed in positioning the merger of past and present. The statue is not a revenge fantasy, but the work of a mature artist handling his subject matter with refined gravity.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag addressed why America has so much difficulty confronting the nation’s history of enslavement. She said there was no “memory museum” to slavery because it was “a memory judged too dangerous to social stability to activate and to create.” She continued:
To have a museum chronicling the great crime that was African slavery in the United States of America would be to acknowledge that the evil was here. Americans prefer to picture the evil that was there, and from which the United States—a unique nation, one without any certifiably wicked leaders throughout its entire history—is exempt.
America is finally acknowledging and facing that evil. By subverting the power dynamic traditionally reinforced by the equestrian statue, Wiley demonstrates the capacity of art to move beyond the limits of photographic evidence and cinema in documenting the experience of people of color. It takes both the work of memorials and contemporary art to define cultural understanding for each generation. In the post-Obama world, we finally have the National African American History Museum, which highlights not only how far American culture has come but also the ways it has yet to go towards equality and equity. Wiley’s art is a knife to the museum’s whetstone of memory.
“Rumors of War” is epic—while it is in conversation with the past, it simultaneously ushers the viewer toward new possibilities and understanding. That is to say, it functions at the highest register of art—the capacity to explore the less immediately accessible, the potential, the future, without being constrained by present reality. While it does not eradicate evil, Wiley’s work does demonstrate the power of standing up to it.
The statue will be on display in Times Square until December, at which point it will go to Richmond, Virginia, to be permanently installed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.