Art in Depth: Kehinde Wiley at VMFA

Art in Depth: Kehinde Wiley at VMFA

Learn more about two works of art by artist Kehinde Wiley on view at VMFA!

Grade Level:
Adult, College, Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12
Collection:
African American Art, Modern and Contemporary Art
Culture/Region:
America
Subject Area:
African American, Critical Thinking, Fine Arts, History and Social Science, Visual Arts
Activity Type:
Art in Depth

Kehinde Wiley, American, born 1977, Rumors of War, 2019, Bronze with stone pedestal
Virginia Sargeant Reynolds in memory of her husband, Richard S. Reynolds Jr., by exchange, and the Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2019.39
Originally presented in Times Square by Times Square Arts in partnership with Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Sean Kelly, New York

“The inspiration for Rumors of War is war – is 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. New York and Times Square in particular sit at the crossroads of human movement on a global scale. To have the Rumors of War sculpture presented in such a context lays bare the scope and scale of the project in its conceit to expose the beautiful and terrible potentiality of art to sculpt the language of domination.”

                                                                                                            –Kehinde Wiley

Introduction

In Rumors of War, American artist Kehinde Wiley depicts a contemporary African American male on horseback inspired by the history of European equestrian portraiture. This is Wiley’s largest work to date and it is mounted proudly on a large stone pedestal. The statue is based on a series of paintings that Wiley made in the early 2000s (also called Rumors of War) where the artist replaced traditional white subjects on horseback with young black men wearing current fashions. At that time, these works were a reaction to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as part of Wiley’s ongoing investigation of traditional European art and concepts of masculinity. Nearly two decades later, Wiley’s completed public sculpture was redefined as a response to Confederate monuments. The work takes its name from a biblical phrase found in Matthew 24:6, addressing that war continues not just in the Middle East but every day on the streets of this nation. As Wiley’s first monumental public sculpture, Rumors of War was initially installed in Times Square in fall 2019. Following its presentation in Times Square, it was moved to the historic Arthur Ashe Boulevard in Richmond at the entrance to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for permanent installation.

Rumors of War in its first location in Times Square, New York, New York.

Watch the unveiling of Rumors of War at VMFA in this video!

 

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley is an American painter (born 1977, Los Angeles) who splits his time between studios in China, New York, and Senegal. As a child, Wiley’s mother enrolled him in weekend art classes where he learned to paint and draw.  He often recalls the frequent field trips to local museums as a kid, and the lasting impact those visits had on him.  His artistic interests and talents continued to grow throughout his youth, and in 1999, he received his BFA from San Francisco Art Institute, followed by his MFA from Yale University in 2001.  After Yale, Wiley became artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem where he began to rethink portraiture and develop his method of “street casting.” Wiley’s career has focused on addressing and remedying the absence of black and brown men and women in our dominant visual, historical, and cultural narratives. Wiley’s subjects have ranged from street-cast individuals the artist encountered while traveling around the world to many of the most important and well-renowned African American figures, including President Barack Obama, The Notorious B.I.G., Nick Cave, LL Cool J, and Carrie Mae Weems.

Learn more about Wiley’s street casting process in this video!

 

Wiley’s Approach to Representation

Kehinde Wiley is known for his reinterpretation of historical artworks where he replaces traditional white subjects and inserts contemporary Black figures in their place. Wiley has said that while growing up in Los Angeles, he often frequented the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where he was drawn to works that depicted the Black experience. He recognized from a young age that Black artists and representations were not commonly seen in a museum setting. Wiley has said about his art: “I do it because I want to see people who look like me.” VMFA has two works in the collection by Wiley where he implements his own take on traditional European portraiture. Kehinde Wiley’s work Willem van Heythuysen is a reimagining of the Frans Hals’ work of the same name that is in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany. Wiley places a fashionably dressed Black man in the same pose, leaning on a sword, as the original Willem van Heythuysen is seen doing in his portrait made in 1625. Ultimately, by placing an ordinary person of color within the classical, European artistic narrative, Wiley reframes the way viewers interpret Black Male Identity. 

Kehinde Wiley’s Willem van Heythuysen, 2016, and Frans Hal’s Willem van Heythuysen, c.1625.

Inspiration for Rumors of War

J.E.B. Stuart Monument as previously seen on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA.

Wiley’s monumental bronze sculpture, Rumors of War, is the artist’s direct response to the Confederate sculptures that populate the United States, particularly in the South. He developed the idea for this sculpture during his visit to Richmond in 2016, coinciding with A New Republic, an exhibition of his work at VMFA. While visiting Richmond, he passed down Monument Ave and was struck by the monuments and considered:

“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.”

This sculpture takes its inspiration from the statue of Confederate Army General James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart that was previously situated on Monument Avenue. As with the original sculpture, Wiley’s rider strikes a heroic pose while sitting upon a muscular horse. However, in Wiley’s sculpture, the figure is a young Black male wearing streetwear, serving as a commemoration to African American youth lost to the social and political battles being waged throughout our nation. In recent years, efforts to better contextualize the controversial Confederate monuments have resulted in both the addition and removal of monuments in more than 30 states. Installing Rumors of War in the former capital of the Confederacy situates Wiley’s work as a counteractive, revisional element to erased cultural narratives  – where the black body of Wiley’s subject can become itself the warrior for evoking change.  The J.E.B. Stuart monument that is the basis for Wiley’s work was removed from its location on Monument Avenue on July 7th, 2020 following racial justice protests nationally and locally in response to the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and far too many others. 

Rumors of War: One Year Later

The 2020-2021 Museum Leaders in Training cohort produced a video on Rumors of War. Working with VMFA staff, M.LiT students explored the contextualization of Wiley’s Rumors of War in Richmond and considered the themes of representation, race, gender, and power. Students interviewed VMFA staff and the staff of partner institutions, local community members, and organizers to capture and include a variety of perspectives on the subject. The following interviewed participants are featured: Free Bangura, Princess Blanding, Valerie Cassel Oliver, Alex Criqui, Hamilton Glass, Dustin Klein, Sandra Sellars, Luis Vasquez La Roche, Sandy Williams IV.

Learn more about Museum Leaders in Training!

 

 

To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of “Rumors of War” by Kehinde Wiley, VMFA commissioned Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui, Richmond artists who have garnered national attention for their thought-provoking projections onto the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue. Specially created for VMFA by Klein and Criqui, a captivating visual presentation of animation, digital collage, and projection mapping was projected onto the museum near “Rumors of War.” Audio recordings of Kehinde Wiley’s 2019 remarks filled the air, amplifying the unpredictably profound relevance of “Rumors of War” and the dialogue it continues to inspire.

 

Monument Avenue in Context

Racial Disparities in the Antebellum South

The aftermath of the Civil War, known as the era of Reconstruction (1863-1877), was a period of large-scale social revolution mixed with continued internal strife among the recently reunified states. As many within the former Confederacy retained strong support for state sovereignty and opposed federal interference in state affairs, Reconstruction was not only a tenuous time for amending differences in political beliefs, but also American ideologies. Having delivered the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, a speech that declared the freedom of enslaved people, President Abraham Lincoln continued to advocate a progressive platform that promoted the equality of African Americans for post-Civil War America (as seen with the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865). Possessing such a standpoint, however, led to his assassination in April 1865. His successor, former Vice President, Andrew Johnson was by comparison a firm believer in state’s rights. During his presidential term, Johnson sought to institute policies that were lenient on southern states and reversed many of Lincoln’s programs for Reconstruction, resulting in the implementation of subversive policies like the black codes of 1865-1866 (also known as Black Laws).

While the black codes followed federal legislature to a degree and granted certain freedoms to African Americans, such as the right to buy and own property, they otherwise restricted and regulated African Americans’ daily activity and labor – from their occupation to their wage allowances. These terms, however, were met with resistance from the southern states, as their governments often imposed parameters limiting African Americans from fully exercising their granted freedoms, like the institution of literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent black men from voting. With such conflicting values between the states, reunification did not happen until 1870, with Virginia the third to last former Confederate state to be readmitted into the Union the same year.

"Freedmen Voting in New Orleans," 1867, Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Lost Cause Ideology

During the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, Southerners sought ways to both cope with the loss of the Civil War and  commemorate the ideals that they fought for. The term “Lost Cause” (coined from a book of the same name The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates by Edward Pollard)  emerged as a reference to both the South’s military defeat as well as the defeat of a pre-war Southern way of life. The Lost Cause was also an ideology that was underscored by a common set of beliefs, including the overwhelming belief in white supremacy. Paramount to this were the following ideas: the war was fought not over the institution of slavery, but rather states’ rights; the war was justified in the eyes of God, in part becuase slavery was a benevolent institution that Christianized African “savages.” 

The ideals of the Lost Cause were promoted by various means, including literature, text books, and commemorative activities. These commemorative activities included celebrating Confederate Memorial Day and perhaps, most visible, erecting Confederate monuments.. Leaders of the Confederacy were seen as heros still meant to be celebrated and Confederate statues were tributes to those who fought for the Southern cause. Approximately 700 Confederate memorials were built after the Civil War. Large waves of these statues were constructed from 1900-1920 and 1950-1960 to commemorate both the 50th and 100th year anniversaries of the Civil War. In later years when these statues were installed, these monuments served as propaganda and reminders to black Southerners that their attempts for civil rights were a futile fight as Confederate ideology was still part of Southern life. This concept was used as a tactic to suppress Black freedoms. In recent times, steps to in part rectify this, include the removal of Confederate statues all over the American South most notably in New Orleans, LA, Richmond, VA, Memphis, TN, and Chapel Hill, NC.

 

Race Relations in Antebellum Richmond

During the Antebellum (after the war) or Reconstruction period in Richmond, circumstances were no different than that of the rest of the nation. While elite, white conservatives aspired to maintain power over African American rights, locally, there were strides made to grant freedoms to people of color. For example, notable African American figures, like Maggie L. Walker (1864-1934), made significant contributions to the city by ensuring African American economic independence through the foundation of the first African American bank. By the late 1880s, however, white conservatives regained control of Richmond’s political landscape and gradually embedded racial policies into governmental law to restrict and disenfranchise African Americans, as seen with Jim Crow Laws (laws that demanded segregation of public facilities under the guise of “separate but equal”). Moreover, the later implementation of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which identified an individual’s race based on whether the person had “one drop” of non-white blood, further exacerbated interracial relations and limited African Americans as it sought to eliminate interracial couples from having children. 

Group of freedmen, including children, gathered by a canal in Richmond, Va., in 1865. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dugard Stewart Walker, Statue of Robert E. Lee, 1936, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Legacy of Confederate Statues

Alongside these socio-political and ideological developments, the United States sought to visually express national unity between the 1870s and 1920s through the erection of monuments honoring historical figures. As Erika Doss explains in her essay, “Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America,” the anxiety to reify a “national ideology of militarism and masculinity” caused a period she coins as “statue mania.” By producing thousands of monuments dedicated to figures from Christopher Columbus to Robert E. Lee during this era, the United States was able to instill in the public a collective, white supremacist, monolithic national history. Though the commemoration of revered white men and moments of the past assisted in establishing a linear, unified American narrative, the monuments however “say more about the people, times, and places of their creation than they do about the people, times, and places they honor.” As a result, the monuments erected during the post-Civil War era were ultimately physical embodiments of white-centered nineteenth century public sentiment. 

History and Legacy of Monument Avenue

Aspiring to reinforce Southern unification decades after the Civil War war, the ex-Confederate states memorialized Confederate military leaders, soldiers, and the fallen. One particular monument born from this initiative was Richmond’s sculpture of Robert E. Lee by Antonin Mercié in 1890. Shortly thereafter, Monument Avenue was constructed in Richmond’s wealthiest neighborhood with Lee as its centerpiece. Years later, other Confederate figures, including Jefferson Davis (1907) and J.E.B. Stuart (1907), were erected to line the remainder of the avenue. Scholars have commonly viewed Monument Avenue as a way for ex-Confederates to justify and reframe the Southern cause for secession and war “as a violent context among white men over high principles, having nothing to do with slavery” but everything to do with honorable duty, valor, and the right to local sovereignty. Memorializing the Confederacy years after the ending of the war was thus a means through which the new South could redefine itself as disassociated from slavery and, more specifically, as white rule “freed from the brutal footing of slavery.” In this sense, the Confederate monuments were visualizations of a continued legacy of white power from the old regime to the next – from the Confederacy to the modern South. Though the installment of Monument Avenue marked and confirmed “the hierarchical order of the white supremacist society,” as Kirk Savage explains in Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, the very presence of African Americans “threaten[ed] to destabilize that order.”

Read more about the history of Monument Avenue through On Monument Avenue with online exhibits about the origins and development of Monument Avenue featuring objects from the American Civil War Museum, the Library of Virginia, The Valentine, and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

The Lee Statue unveiling on Monument Avenue, May 29, 1890. Photo courtesy of Cook Collection, The Valentine.

Monument Avenue Today

Starting in the Summer of 2020, the Confederate statues became the focus of protest and graffiti due to public outcries over the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, and Richmond mayor, Levar Stoney, helped to create the legislation to have these symbols of oppression removed from Richmond’s most famous street, including the J.E.B. Stuart monument, the inspiration for Rumors of War.

The Robert E. Lee statue, the central gathering place for protesters who reclaimed and renamed the area the Marcus Davis Peters Circle, is the only statue that still remains. The logistics to remove the statue are still being discussed as is the legality to do so as it is state property. The statues are owned by the state of Virginia and the future of the statues has remained undecided. 

In December 2020, VMFA was honored to be invited by Governor Northam to help lead the reimagining of Monument Avenue. VMFA will work collaboratively, seeking involvement from the community, experts, and colleagues across the city and state.  While a lengthy and ambitious project, the overall goal is to ensure Monument Avenue becomes a place that is inspirational, equitable, inclusive and healing for everyone.

Explore Richmond’s response to racial injustice, both past and present in Richmond Uprising, an online exhibition from The American Civil War Museum.

Robert E. Lee Statue on Monument Avenue, July 2020. Photo by: Katie Domurat.

Sources

Clouser, Haley. (2019). VMFA Tour Guide Packet Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War. Richmond, VA: Author.

Doss, Erika. Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Kehinde Wiley. Retrieved February 15, 2021, from https://www.stephenfriedman.com/artists/kehinde-wiley/.

Kehinde Wiley Studio. Retrieved February 15, 2021, from https://kehindewiley.com/.

Landrieu, M. (2018, March 12). How I learned about the “cult of the lost cause”. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-i-learned-about-cult-lost-cause-180968426/

Levinson, Sanford. Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” In Untimely Meditations. Edited by Daniel Breazeale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, University of Michigan, MPublishing, 1997.

O’Brien, John Thomas. From Bondage to Citizenship: The Richmond Black Community, 1865–1870. New York: Garland, 1990.

Robinson,  Mark.“Mayor Stoney: Commission to consider removal of Confederate statues on Richmond’s Monument Ave.” Richmond Time-Dispatch. Last modified August 16, 2017. http://www.richmond.com/news/local/city-of-richmond/mayor-stoney-commission-to-consider-removal-of-confederate-statues-on/article_0120e8e9-d3f8-5b9e-8343-69902df255a6.html. 

Robinson, Mark. “Mayor Stoney: Richmond’s Confederate monuments should stay with context added; commission’s mission remains the same.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. Last modified August 14, 2017. http://www.richmond.com/news/local/city-of-richmond/mayor-stoney-richmond-s-confederate-monuments-should-stay-with-context/article_b8cbb743-410f-520f-9197-2a58450d128a.html.

Savage, Kirk. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Sculpture created By Kehinde Wiley For VMFA. Retrieved February 15, 2021, from https://www.vmfa.museum/about/rumors-of-war/.

Upton, Dell. Introduction in What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015.

Upton, Dell. “Why Do Contemporary Monuments Talk So Much?” In Commemoration in America: Essays on Monuments, Memorialization, and Memory. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2013.