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Artist Kehinde Wiley's 'Rumors Of War' Now Stands In Former Capital Of The Confederacy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The artist Kehinde Wiley yesterday unveiled his monumental addition to Richmond, Va.'s, collection of equestrian statues. The former capital of the Confederacy is now home to "Rumors Of War," a 30-foot-high bronze statue of a young black man riding a horse. NPR's Bilal Qureshi was there and has this story.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Kehinde Wiley came to Richmond three years ago for an exhibition of his work and was unsettled by the massive Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.

KEHINDE WILEY: They're designed to terrorize and menace. They're designed to remind the black citizenry of Richmond that they have a place in society and that they need to stay within those confined spaces.

QURESHI: Wiley is known for his paintings of black men and women in the style of European masters, including his presidential portrait of Barack Obama. Wiley's art is all about appropriating from the past to present contemporary black life, so "Rumors Of War" takes its inspiration from a nearby statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart.

WILEY: Simply by virtue of announcing on the same scale, in the same language, in the same bronze and stone that a young black man can be positioned in the same monumental language, it allows you to see someone who's oftentimes relegated to the peripheries elevated to the status of an icon, to the scale of a god.

QURESHI: "Rumors Of War" is Kehinde Wiley's largest three-dimensional work, and it made its debut in Times Square in September. But its permanent home is here, outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, just two blocks from Monument Avenue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND PLAYING)

QURESHI: A hundred-person marching band from Richmond Public Schools played for the statue's homecoming as it stood draped under a mysterious gray tarp. More than a thousand people came out in the rain to hear Wiley introduced by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who recently survived a blackface controversy from a school yearbook. Northam referred to the Scripture from which the sculpture takes its name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RALPH NORTHAM: When they talk about rumors of wars, it's a sign that times are changing and hearts are changing. So today, as we welcome "Rumors Of War" to its permanent home here in Virginia, we also say to Kehinde Wiley, the gentleman from New York, welcome; this is your home, too.

QURESHI: After a few remarks from Kehinde Wiley, it was time to unveil the statue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILEY: Ladies and gentlemen, "Rumors Of War."

(APPLAUSE, CHEERING)

QURESHI: But then the mysterious gray tarp draping the statue got stuck on the statue's dreadlocks, masking the face of the young black rider. Richmond resident Brittany Ross was appalled.

BRITTANY ROSS: Here we are at this big moment, and we've all been waiting. We all had our cameras out waiting to see this unveiling, and it stuck. And now people are leaving. And it's unfortunate 'cause I'm trying to stay until I see his face. It is super important to me to see it.

QURESHI: Eventually, a fireman climbed 30 feet up on a ladder and unsnagged the tarp from the dreadlocks with his pocket knife.

(CHEERING)

QURESHI: Brittany Ross describes Kehinde Wiley's figure, who finally emerged from behind the mask.

ROSS: He has him up here in his jeans and his Nike shoes and his sweatshirt. And I think that that's just so cool because it helps people to understand that the black man is nothing to fear, you understand? Like, it's - the black man is just as beautiful and he's just as normal. And to have that hoodie on when so many black men have been killed by having a hoodie on is a beautiful - I just think that it all - every piece and detail has a meaning.

QURESHI: Artist Kehinde Wiley took a poetic view of the delayed unveiling.

WILEY: You start thinking about national time. We've waited a long time for this moment. And by this thing being slowed down and heightened, it only made that sense of time much more precious and prescient.

QURESHI: I asked Brittany Ross what she would like to see happen now with the original generals of Monument Avenue.

ROSS: It doesn't bother me that there are statues from the Confederacy that are up. I just think that the people of color in this country need to be represented a little bit more as well, especially in the state of Virginia. So keep up the Confederate ones, but put up Harriet, OK? Put up Frederick, and put up Nikki Giovanni. Put up James Baldwin. Like, put up those people, too.

QURESHI: Richmond's latest monument, "Rumors Of War," is imbued with the present and is forever inscribed with the year it made its debut, 2019.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE KNIFE SONG, "HEARTBEATS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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