By Japhet Davidson, with agency reports
IT WAS a another honour well deserved for renowned Nigerian-American portraitist Kehinde Wiley as he recently unveiled a monumental public sculpture in Times Square, New York on the Broadway Plaza between 46th and 47th Streets. Following its presentation, Rumors of War will be permanently installed on historic Arthur Ashe Boulevard in Richmond at the entrance to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), as a recent acquisition to the museum’s world-class collection. An installation ceremony will take place at VMFA on December 10, 2019.
Wiley who was commissioned in 2017 to paint a portrait of former President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is best known for his vibrant portrayals of contemporary African-American and African-Diasporic individuals that subvert the hierarchies and conventions of European and American portraiture. Rumors of War, his largest work to date, continues Wiley’s career-long investigation of the politics of representation, race, gender and power. With this new sculpture, Wiley returns to equestrian portraiture to engage its complicated visual rhetoric of warfare and heroism on an epic scale.
Mounted proudly on its large stone pedestal, this monumental bronze sculpture, is the artist’s direct response to the ubiquitous Confederate sculptures that populate the United States, particularly in the South. Standing at just under three stories tall, Wiley’s young, African-American figure is dressed in urban streetwear sitting astride a massive horse in a striking pose.
Wiley states, “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. The sculpture attempts to use the language of equestrian portraiture to both embrace and subsume the fetishisation 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.
Standing as a statue to the violence afflicted against bodies every day, Wiley’s work presents a powerful visual repositioning of young black men in our public consciousness while directly engaging the national conversation around controversial monuments and their role in perpetuating incomplete narratives and contemporary inequities. In recent years, the discourse and actions around these monuments have included efforts to better contextualise them and have resulted in both the addition and removal of monuments in more than 30 states and New York City. Premiering Rumors of War in Times Square situates Wiley’s work at a global crossroads of civic engagement where the black body of Wiley’s subject can become itself the battleground for evoking change and where the epicentre of Manhattan can become a space for citizens of the city, the country, and the world to come together to discuss the most important issues of our time.
Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins states, “We are incredibly excited to be working with Wiley, one of the most celebrated and important artists of our time, and one uniquely equipped to challenge how we use our public space, to ask the critical question of “who matters?”, and to speak to the power of monuments to reflect and reinforce our values, and ultimately, reimagine our world. We are honoured to be premiering this historic work, and to join the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in supporting Wiley’s contribution to this important national conversation.”