Case Study: 'Rumors of War' Sculpture – Richmond, Virginia, USA
'Rumors of War' is a statue designed and sculpted by artist Kehinde Wiley in 2019 and acquired by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the following year. The bronze monument, on a traditional stone plinth, depicts a young African American man on horseback dressed in contemporary streetwear, striking a heroic pose. Wiley’s artwork is intended as a counter-monument – a direct response to the statues of Confederate Army generals which historically lined the nearby Monument Avenue in Richmond. The grand and heroic portrayal of an African American youth draws attention both to the lack of statues depicting Black people in Virginia, and sparks discussion on how to mark Confederate leaders, who fought to preserve the institution of slavery during the Civil War.
- Site and type of structure: Sculpture at the entrance to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA)
- Location: Richmond, Virginia
- Country: USA
- Legal protection: Not relevant to this case; a new statue within the campus of the VMFA
Kehinde Wiley is a New York-based artist renowned for depicting African American people through Baroque themes of power, status and nobility. In 2016, when his major survey exhibition toured to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, he encountered Confederate monuments for the first time.
The artist was struck by the numerous statues dedicated to Confederate Civil War leaders that lined the nearby Monument Avenue, as well as in other prominent sites around the city of Richmond.
These statues have attracted growing concern from many local residents, as they memorialise figures who fought to defend slavery during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Almost half (47%) of Richmond’s residents identify as Black or African American; yet almost all its statues are of white figures.
The notable exceptions are a sculpture of tennis champion Arthur Ashe, unveiled in 1996 and the presentation of the African American banker, entrepreneur and civil rights activist, Maggie Lena Walker in 2017.
In 2018, Wiley began independently designing the Rumors of War statue as a direct response to these monuments, to prompt discussion on the controversial legacy of the Confederacy in America and the comparative lack of Black representation in Richmond’s statues.
The bronze sculpture, of an African American youth on horseback, does not portray a specific individual. It is instead intended as a commentary on violence against Black bodies, and in particular "Black men and their place in society”, addressing their lack of representation in visual and historical narratives.
The context for reinterpretation
After an 1808 Act of Congress abolished the international slave trade, Richmond became the largest centre in the Upper South for trade of enslaved people.
The city was then later established as the capital of the Confederate States of America throughout much of the Civil War, at which time approximately 550,000 people in Virginia – one third of its population – were enslaved people.
Many of the statues were designed and installed several decades after the Civil War in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as part of a re-assertion of white supremacist values.
At the time, the planned community, Monument Avenue Park, became a segregated whites only space under Jim Crow laws, where real-estate marketers established covenants stating that: “no lots can ever be sold or rented to any person of African American descent".
Since 2010, there have been a rising number of protests in Richmond and across the USA contesting the ongoing memorialisation of Confederate leaders. This has led to disputes between residents who would like these statues to be contextualised or removed, and conservative nationalist groups who believe Confederate servicepeople should be commemorated.
In 2017, a large demonstration was held at the Richmond statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, calling for it to be removed. [See footnote 1].
This was also met by a smaller group of counter-protesters chanting ‘Heritage Not Hate’. The protests remained peaceful; yet concerns around violence were high.
In nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, separate protests at another statue of Robert E. Lee had made international headlines after a white nationalist drove into a group of demonstrators, killing a woman.
Assessment of options
Kehinde Wiley’s plans for 'Rumors of War' did not seek to alter existing statues in Monument Avenue. It was instead a powerful counter-memorial, responding directly to the Confederate memorials in its scale, form and materials, and aimed at encouraging discussion around the representation of a young generation of African American voices in historical narratives and public artwork.
Wiley prepared a digital rendering of the proposed statue, sharing it with the VMFA. The Museum’s curatorial department and leadership then took immediate interest in the project. The Museum board voted unanimously to not only purchase the statue, but also to fundraise for its installation costs.
What was done and who was involved?
The VMFA had developed a relationship with Kehinde Wiley through their early support of the artist after presenting his first major touring exhibition, ‘A New Republic’, organised by the Brooklyn Museum. In 2016, when the VMFA presented this exhibition, Wiley spent a week in Richmond studying Confederate statues around the city. Outlining his central vision for 'Rumors of War' to the Museum curatorial team, he noted that: “monuments of this ilk deserved a monumental response.”
The subsequent design of 'Rumors of War' took direct inspiration from the nearby statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart on horseback, created by Frederick Moynahan in 1907. Repositioning a young African American man on the horse was intended to both contest the heroic memorialisation of leaders with connections to American slavery and also to symbolise the progress of American society towards a culture that values diversity and inclusivity, creating a monument in which diverse residents in Richmond could feel pride and ownership.
In September 2019 the statue was temporarily installed in one of the best-known public places in the USA, Times Square, New York, the artist’s hometown. A formal unveiling ceremony then took place in December 2019 outside the VMFA in Richmond, drawing a large and diverse crowd.
Public feedback on the sculpture has not been systematically recorded by the VMFA, and visitor numbers are hard to record as it is visible from the public realm outside the Museum. However, anecdotal evidence from the curatorial team at the Museum finds the response to be largely positive. The monument has, for example, attracted visits from younger generations and from African American families both from inside and outside of Richmond, who specifically travel to view the monument.
There were objections to the statue from some conservative members of the VMFA who felt the statue disrespected Confederate heritage. An estimated 3,000 people withdrew their membership (out of a total of approximately 40,000 members).
The site of the statue has not been used for any public protests. However, contestation of the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue has continued, particularly following the racial justice protests in 2020 and beyond. This has led to the de-installation of several prominent monuments, including the J.E.B Stuart statue which originally inspired 'Rumors of War'.
The warm response to the statue from local residents has encouraged further reinterpretation work in the area, including at a Confederate Memorial Chapel located on the grounds of the VMFA. Similar to the visual counter-narrative presented by Rumors of War, the Museum has opened a temporary exhibition with sound installations that have featured Donald Moffett’s Impeach (2006) and, most recently, John Sim’s 'AfroDixie Remixes' (2015) – a twelve track remix of the Confederate-era song Dixie, interpreted in a myriad of African-American musical genres.
Lessons and insights
The process of adding new, more representative counter-memorials, exemplified by the 'Rumors of War' case, can form a useful and constructive approach to reinterpretation. Counter-monuments can help draw attention to neglected historical narratives in a way that opens conversation between modern values of inclusivity and past injustices, helping to tell stories of societal progress through time. They can also provide a route towards wider representation in public memorials.
The monumental sculpture also highlights how reinterpretation projects do not always require the use of individual stories or historical contextualisation materials. Sometimes the use of artistic symbolism, in this case an unnamed African American youth in a formally resonant artistic manner, can encourage reflection about different interpretations of our past, and highlight the scope for expanding the memorial landscape in our public realm.
The leading role of Kehinde Wiley, an internationally acclaimed artist, was instrumental in this example to mobilising the support and resources for installing the counter-monument. The VMFA then offered local influence and substantial funds to enable the project to be realised. Engaging high-profile figures to support or design projects of this scale can help increase their potential to source funding.
- Counter-monuments can draw attention to neglected historical narratives and lead to public discussion about different interpretations of heritage that is contested
- Artistic visual or aural materials can offer useful forms of reinterpretation, to be used with or instead of historical contextualisation
- Reinterpretation should be viewed as a long-term process and custodians of heritage sites that are contested should remain responsive to public feedback. In situations of ongoing contestation, additional reinterpretation work should be considered over time
- Viewing heritage through a wider lens can facilitate a response to circumstances where it is not feasible or perhaps appropriate to impact directly on existing assets
- The statue was taken down in September 2021 and in December 2021 it was announced that the statue will be moved to Richmond’s Black History Museum.↩