Posted on October 3, 2019

As Confederate Monument Debate Continues, Kehinde Wiley’s New Statue Challenges the Heroic Narrative

Ashlie D. Stevens, Salon, October 1, 2019


A new public artwork, which was unveiled in Times Square on Friday, dives into this question, too.

“Rumors of War” is an enormous — 27 feet high, 16 feet wide — statue of, yes, a man on a horse. But this one has his hair in dreadlocks and is dressed in ripped jeans and a hoodie. Created by artist Kehinde Wiley, who painted President Barack Obama’s iconic presidential portrait, the monumental work is meant to serve as an invitation to question our collective history and its heroes.

In a statement before the unveiling of the statue, Wiley said that he first had the idea for “Rumors of War” when visiting Richmond, Va. {snip}

In her article for JSTOR Daily, arts writer Allison C. Meier dives into the history of equestrian statues.

“From emperors and kings to generals and political leaders, a cavalcade of bronze riders stride through our public space,” she wrote. “They are mostly men, except for a few rare depictions of queens, empresses, and Joan of Arc. It’s a commanding visual of action and power. And the style achieved its popularity thanks to one statue in Rome.”

That statue is of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, dating to around 175 CE. In the centuries that have followed, the way numerous leaders have been portrayed mimic that statue’s pose and size.


Wiley has a history of creating work that places images of young African Americans in artistic traditions that have been typically reserved for wealthy white people — specifically portraiture in the style of what would have been commissioned by Renaissance aristocracy. His paintings are often a mash-up of the stylings of the Old Masters and references to modern street style; for example, Wiley’s piece, “Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps,” shows a young black man in modern army fatigues, a white bandana and hiking boots riding a white stallion.


The vast majority of monuments to the Confederacy were erected during the Jim Crow era as a larger-than-life glorification of white supremacy and a government that sought to perpetuate and expand slavery; they’re a reminder of past power — one that has a frightening and enduring hold on America today.

Wiley’s work seeks to empower those who have been systematically oppressed and ignored. Eventually, “Rumors of War” will be moved to Richmond. It will be be erected near the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, blocks away from the Confederate monument that inspired its creation.