Making New Histories: Rumors Of War Sculpture Unveiled In Richmond
VPM’s Ian Stewart, Angela Massino and interns Alan Rodriguez Espinoza and Alyssa Johnson contributed audio for this story.
After Kehinde Wiley visited Richmond for his 2016 retrospective at the VMFA, he couldn’t get the massive Confederate statues he saw out of his head. Two years later, he saw the museum’s leadership in New York and pulled out a rendering how he would reimagine these monuments.
VMFA Director Alex Nyerges said they told Wiley to “run with it.”
“We were just absolutely convinced that this was hugely important. And of course it is,” said Nyerges. “It changes the dialogue about monuments, it changes the dialogue about who should be given the privilege and honor of nobility and honor of power and majesty.”
The VMFA unanimously approved the acquisition of “Rumors of War,” a nearly 30-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a young African American riding a horse in the equestrian style of the statue of Confederate General J.E.B Stuart on Monument Avenue.
Nyerges says the sculpture of the horse and rider was carved from clay at Wiley’s studios in China.
“The clay is the same size as the bronze that you see, so it's 13 feet tall.” said Nyerges. “There's a scaffold modeling erected for Kehinde and his assistants to work on the sculpture. It’s a tremendous amount of work. I mean, that is a massive sculpture and not something that's easily done.”
Nyerges said then a combination of VMFA exhibitions and collections staff, along with engineers and architects, needed to design the stone pedestal so it was strong enough to hold the 32 ton statue.
“It is an engineering marvel,” he said.
Unveiling Kehinde Wiley’s Vision
After spending two months in Times Square, “Rumors of War” was carefully shipped to Virginia for the unveiling this week. More than 1000 people waited in the rain, with colored umbrellas and clear plastic ponchos. The formal event kicked off with the Richmond Public Schools All City Marching Band. Dancers, drummers and horn players led a procession to the base of the covered statue.
After speeches by elected officials, the President of VMFA’s Board Dr. Monroe Harris Jr. told the crowd how pivotal this day was.
“I am here standing here today, a descendant of slaves who has ascended to the board room, times will change, times will change,” Harris said.
Harris is the first Black chair of VMFA’s board in its 80 year history.
“This is a turning point for Richmond,” said Harris. “We are turning away from the past and embracing the future. We are turning away from rejection to acceptance. We are turning away from division for inclusion."
A few moments later, Kehinde Wiley stepped up to the platform to enthusiastic applause. Wiley said his work has gone through the “treasure trove” of history. For this new piece, he took inspiration from the century old statue of Confederate General J.E.B Stuart. Instead of a bearded white man, Wiley’s subject is a majestic Black youth, with a hoodie, ripped jeans, and dreadlocks.
“It’s about cultural appropriation from the past, it’s about temporal appropriation from the past but it’s also about a deep and overwhelming respect for the present,” said Wiley. “It’s about a deep and overwhelming love for the people who raised me, the women who showed me a sense of grace, a big hand out to my mom who’s sitting in the front row, [applause] thinking about the women who show you what grace means in this world.”
Wiley didn’t have prepared notes. He was speaking from the heart. He said he was nervous and overwhelmed by the amount of people and the “sheer history” of this.
“This is consequential on a scale that goes beyond museum walls. It’s about how we choose to give birth to the next group of people who are then going to take that as their clarion call to what we mean as a society,” said Wiley.
"A Gift To Richmond, A Gift To The World"
The All City Marching Band provided an energetic soundtrack for the next 40 minutes - as VMFA crews struggled to remove all the tarp covering “Rumors of War.” Determined staff climbed a tall yellow ladder to try to dislodge the last bit of metallic gray fabric stuck on the statue’s dreadlocks. A local firefighter finally cut it free and the crowd erupted.
The diverse crowd was celebratory, and also noted the statue is a sign of progress. Richmond resident Rameek Gordon says the sculpture makes a powerful statement.
"This is a gift to Richmond, this is a gift to the world,” Gordon said. “This guy [Kehinde Wiley]-- he done did it. Rumors of War. It’s awesome. Nikes, dreadlocks, hair cut, cut up jeans, other than the dreadlocks, that’s my style."
The face of the rider in Rumors of War is a composite of six different Black men and women. For the body, Wiley used a model - Najee Wilson who spent a few days in Richmond speaking to students and community members. Recognized by City Council, Wilson said he was moved by the people he met in Richmond - many who are a lot like him.
“The place that I’m from Charleston, South Carolina is plagued with some of the same issues that Richmond is plagued with, but I understand that through expression of creativity we can change the world in which we live,” Wilson said.
And that creativity, in the form of this new public sculpture, will spark dialogue for decades to come. VMFA Curator Valerie Cassell Oliver hopes the statue will get more people asking questions.
“I hope they'll ask who is the rider. I hope they'll ask who is the monument dedicated to,” said Cassell Oliver. “I hope they'll ask and understand the harder questions about what monuments are built, why they're built,” said Cassell Oliver.
VPM asked Cassell Oliver what she’d want people in 50 or 100 years who see Rumors of War to know about this moment, when it was unveiled in Richmond.
“We're making new histories and we weren't afraid to make new histories,” said Cassell Oliver.