Araceli Cruz, The Guardian, December 10, 2019
As a national debate continues to unfold in the US about the fate of Confederate statues, in the Virginia capital of Richmond a monument that sends a very different message will be unveiled on Tuesday.
Though like many of the Confederate statues and memorials it features a martial-looking man riding a horse, Rumors of War by Kehinde Wiley is a very different piece of art.
The enormous statue outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond is almost three storeys tall. The rider sports dreadlocks and wears a hoodie.
According to the museum, the sculpture is a direct response to the Confederate statues that line Monument Avenue just a few blocks away.
The Los Angeles native and New York-based artist Wiley was inspired by a visit to Richmond in 2016, during the opening of his exhibition at the VMFA. Wiley’s subject is a reimagined version of Confederate general Jeb Stuart, created by Frederick Moynihan in 1907.
“In these toxic times, art can help us transform and give us a sense of purpose,” the 42-year-old artist said in a statement. “This story begins with my seeing the Confederate monuments. What does it feel like if you are black and walking beneath this? We come from a beautiful, fractured situation. Let’s take these fractured pieces and put them back together.”
Rumors of War is now just a mile away from Moynihan’s original on Monument Avenue, which is adjacent to the first and most significant piece in Richmond, the Robert E Lee Monument created by French sculptor Antonin Mercié.
Since 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that at least 114 Confederate symbols have been removed from their plinths and resting places.
The first Confederate monument was taken down in New Orleans as a response to a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, when nine black congregants were gunned down by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Roof, who was sentenced to death in 2017, was frequently pictured posing with a Confederate flag.
At the museum’s ticket counter on Monday, a VMFA employee said the public response to the statue has so far been positive. “Ninety percent good,” the young black man said. He added the other 10% comprised of negative emails and phone calls.
In June, the New York Times reported that some Confederate statues were auctioned. A Robert E Lee statue that was removed in Dallas, Texas, sold for $1.4m. Other figures cannot be sold as they are too damaged. Last week a Confederate monument in Nashville was vandalized with red paint, the words “They were racists” spray-painted across it.
After the 2017 Charlottesville protests that led to the death of Heather Heyer, North Carolina residents toppled a Confederate statue in front of the old Durham County Courthouse.
Wiley’s statue now lives in the shadow of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Memorial Building, with its grand bronze doors and double cannon.
According to Newsweek, the UDC is the group responsible for commissioning and funding most of the Confederate statues in the south over the past century – as well as many recent attempts to obtain custody of unwanted statues such as “Silent Sam,” which was also removed in 2018 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In a settlement reached last month, the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans obtained the rights to the Silent Sam statue along with $2.5m by the university to ensure the preservation of the statue.
The title of Wiley’s statue, Rumors of War, alludes to Jesus’ speech from Matthew 24:6. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”