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Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War

Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War, 2019, patinated bronze with stone pedestal, overall: 27’4 7/8” x 25’5 7/8” x 15’9” 5/8” (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) © Kehinde Wiley. A conversation with Valerie Cassel Oliver, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Valerie] We're at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, looking at an enormous equestrian sculpture by Kehinde Wiley. - [Beth] Kehinde Wiley came to Richmond in conjunction with his exhibition entitled A New Republic. When he was here, my colleague Sarah Eckhardt took him on a small tour of the city. They drove down Monument Avenue, which at the time was peppered with these large monuments of men who were engaged in the Lost Cause, who were heroes of the Confederacy. - [Valerie] Kehinde Wiley had already engaged on a series of paintings of equestrian figures using historic images of rulers, but replacing them with contemporary black men, and so it makes sense to me that he was interested in seeing Monument Avenue, especially the equestrian sculptures that were there. - [Beth] That series alluded to the fact that black bodies were often not seen within classicism. They were always viewed in a sense of marginalization of those to be conquered, not as conquerors. - [Valerie] When we think about classicism, we think about white marble, and we don't get the black body until after the Civil War. - [Beth] You have people like Edmonia Lewis, who is the only one working in marble with black, or even indigenous American subject matter. But it's not until you get Augusta Savage, Barthé, really looking at the black body, and casting them in bronze. Elizabeth Catlett continues that trajectory. But seeing those equestrians sculptures, Kehinde Wiley speaks of it so beautifully that they were both giving him a feeling of awe and dread as a black man standing beneath them. Kehinde Wiley sculpture is modeled after the J.E.B Stuart sculpture, and Kehinde had the vision of what the impact of a sculpture such as this could have, not only on the city, but on the region. Monument Avenue stood as a narrative, and there was no counter-narrative, so for him to intuit that monuments and monumental framing such as that really needed a monumental response was so acute in its understanding of visual symbols. - [Valerie] The artist is conceiving of this project on his visit in 2016. He completes it in 2019, months before the civil unrest that happened in this city. - [Beth] 2020 Started with the death of Ahmaud Arbery, and on the heels of that, the death of George Floyd, and people felt exceptionally vulnerable. It brought a raw awakening. It's not that people weren't aware, but maybe in the face of the pandemic, people realized in real stark terms that we were dealing with two pandemics, and the pandemic of racism, where the license to enact violence upon black bodies has an historical underpinning. - [Valerie] So the artist does something remarkable. He draws on the long history of art, back to the ancient Romans erecting bronze equestrian monuments to honor victorious generals, images of rulers on horseback. There's this very long tradition of creating an image of power on an animal that is itself powerful. - [Beth] That was one of the whole underpinnings of the J.E.B. Stuart, the Stonewall Jackson, the Robert E. Lee monuments. I think Kehinde found the J.E.B Stuart monument the most dynamic. J.E.B. Stuart was a leader in the calvary of the Confederacy, and this particular image was of J.E.B. Stuart charging northward very courageously, but looking very longingly and lovingly back at the South. - [Valerie] So instead of Jeb Stuart, we here have a contemporary black man in jeans, in a hoodie. - [Beth] And high-top fade with the hair dreaded at the top, and placed in a bit of a bun. Kehinde sees this person as the every day youth that would be most vulnerable to that police or state-sanctioned violence. - [Valerie] The figure is pulling back on the reins with his left hand, using his left foot as leverage to turn his torso around, and look behind him, as though he was a ruler looking back at his troops, or perhaps about to turn his horse around. There is a whole narrative, a whole unfolding of time that happens when we look at this sculpture. Comparing this to the Stuart monument that this was inspired by, I noticed that the figure seems so much more upright, and there's something very much about projecting a sense of hope into the future. - [Beth] We could bring in the biblical scripture. it's Matthew 24:6, "And there will be wars, and rumors of wars," but what Matthew implores is for us not to lose hope, that at the end of all of this chaos, there will be a moment in which the downtrodden are elevated. - We can think about Kehinde Wiley offering us a solution to the problem of inheriting these monuments. Do we destroy them? Do we put them in a different kind of museum? Do we leave them where they are, and recontextualize them? But here, a new kind of monument that reflects who we are, and the best of ourselves today. - [Beth] He allows the city to move forward into the 21st century with a new narrative, and a new symbol of that narrative. (upbeat piano music)