Kehinde Wiley’s monumental statue, “Rumors of War,” was unveiled Tuesday at its new home at the entrance of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, just steps from the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a brisk walk from the controversial Confederate statues on Monument Avenue it was created in response to by the artist.
“I’m nervous and overwhelmed by not just the amount of people, but the sheer history that we’re dealing with,” said Mr. Wiley, dressed in an eye-catching Nigerian print suit and Converse sneakers, in addressing an enthusiastic crowd of thousands gathered on the museum grounds.
The sculpture, depicting a young African-American man on horseback sporting dreadlocks tied atop his head, a hoodie, ripped jeans and Nike high-top sneakers, stands 27 feet tall, 25 feet long and 16 feet wide, not including the limestone base.
It provides an “alternative narrative” to the city’s many Confederate monuments, Dr. Monroe E. Harris Jr., chairman of the VMFA Board of Trustees, said in a brief Free Press interview.
“This statue means so much to so many on so many levels,” Dr. Harris said earlier Tuesday in addressing the crowd. “A black man on a horse in all of his regal splendor — it’s never been seen before on this scale. It says that no matter what your background or your lot in life, you are important. This is a turning point for Richmond.”
It is the largest sculpture created by the 42-year-old Mr. Wiley, who was commissioned to paint the official portrait of President Barack Obama in 2017.
The inspiration for “Rumors of War” came during a trip Mr. Wiley took to Richmond in 2016 for the VMFA premiere of an exhibit of his work, “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic.” Seeing for the first time the equestrian statue of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart among the five memorials to Confederates lining Monument Avenue, Mr. Wiley sought to create a piece that would reflect and respond to the imagery of “domination” the sword-wielding Stuart statue presents.
“I want this sculpture to be not about an individual, but rather about black men and their place in this society and, in a much broader way, a society that can say ‘Yes’ to black men.”
He called the statue and the moment “consequential on a scale that goes beyond museum walls. It’s about how we choose to give birth to the next group of people,” he told the crowd.
While “Rumors of War” carries the element of destruction common to equestrian artwork and the Stuart statue, Mr. Wiley said it also carries an element of creation, while hopefully inspiring others “to feel just as engendered to the power that this sculpture represents.”
“I think that what this thing represents is not just a story about race or gender, but a story about openness,” Mr Wiley said. “It’s a story about America 2.0. The 21st century will have to be a series of yeses to moments like this.”
Alex Nyerges, director and chief executive officer of VMFA, said the statue was funded entirely through private donations, rather than state funds. The Associated Press reported that it cost $2 million, with the museum spending about $600,000 to $700,000 for additional expenses, including the cost of having the 30-ton sculpture shipped to Richmond and installed. It initially debuted on Sept. 21 in Times Square in New York City.