Under normal circumstances, it’s important to pay attention to the name that an artist carves into a giant work of public art.
In this case, we are talking about a statue — both majestic and ironic — by the African-American artist Kehinde Wiley of New York City. I will let The Washington Post describe that statue in a moment, in this lengthy feature: “With a brass band blaring, artist Kehinde Wiley goes off to war with Confederate statues.”
The key, in this case, is that an African-American artist has made a statement judging the long history of art in the American South that pays tribute to the region’s Civil War heroes and, in the eyes of critics, supports the “Lost Cause ideology” that tries to justify their actions.
I chose that word “judging” carefully, because the artist is making a moral statement on a grand scale. And the name he chose for this statue? He called the statue “Rumors of War.”
My question: Did journalists who covered the unveiling of this statue realize that, with this title, Wiley was adding a very specific note of BIBLICAL judgement with a direct reference to Matthew, chapter 24? I am referring to these famous words of Jesus:
… Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake.
It would be hard to find a piece of scripture with greater relevance to discussions of a civil war.
But did journalists the Post, and The New York Times, get the point?
Remember: We are talking about the NAME of the statue. Here is a quote from the overture in the Post arts-beat feature, describing the event last Friday in Times Square:
It all went mostly according to plan. Passersby stopped to look, registering the oddity of the event in their “only in New York” mental file, and around 2:40 p.m., the cloth fell off, revealing a horse with one leg raised and its tail extended as if caught by a sudden upswelling of wind. On its back, framed against the digital image of a woman in a lacy bra and panties on the American Eagle Outfitters billboard (“Pow when you want it”), sat a young African American man wearing Nike shoes and short dreadlocks gathered in a knot atop his head. Like the figure in the statue on which Wiley’s work is based — a memorial to the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart — the rider looks over his shoulder, as if about to turn and reengage with a battle raging behind him.
The sculpture, titled “Rumors of War,” will stay in New York until December, when it will be transported to Richmond. There it will stand permanently in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which commissioned the work, only a few blocks from the city’s great public art shame — the collection of Confederate generals memorialized on Monument Avenue.
As you would imagine, there is a personal story behind this massive statue, which is the same size as the famous J.E.B. Stuart statue.
Wiley, the Post noted, visited Richmond in 2016 for an exhibition of his works:
“He became enamored of the dark legacy of Richmond,” said Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “We thought he’d stay a day, but he came down with his whole entourage.” Wiley was fascinated by the now-infamous Confederate statues, which began filling the boulevard’s open spaces with the unveiling of a statue to Robert E. Lee in 1890, which attracted a crowd of about 100,000 spectators. Wiley proposed the idea of a statue that would question, or mock or somehow displace, the reflexive deference those statues have commanded for decades.
“It was the best idea I had ever heard,” said Nyerges, who persuaded his board to commission the work, the most expensive commission in the museum’s history. Nyerges sees the proximity of Wiley’s work to Monument Avenue as a “majestic, inclusive” and profoundly subversive response to the city’s Civil War dilemma: “Richmond is locked in a struggle over what to do with those memorials,” but with Wiley’s work, he says, “we change the whole conversation.”
That’s solid, essential material. But what about the NAME of the statue? Does Wiley’s title have anything to do with the meaning of the work and its judgement on Richmond’s artistic history? Did anyone ask him about this point? Did he address it in his speech at the Times Square event?
Is Wiley saying that HE is judging the Civil War legacy or that GOD is doing the judging?
Maybe The New York Times spotted this religion ghost that is hiding in plain view? Here is the relevant slice of the Gray Lady feature:
“Rumors of War,” Mr. Wiley’s largest sculpture to date at a towering 27 feet high and 16 feet wide, was inspired by the heroic, equestrian statues of Confederate generals in Richmond, Va., that line its famous Monument Avenue. After the sculpture leaves Times Square in December, it will be permanently installed in Richmond on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, a major thoroughfare, recently renamed after the Richmond-born African-American tennis icon, that crosses Monument Avenue.
Once again: This is valid, essential information — especially the Arthur Ashe reference.
But what about the central message here? What did Wiley mean when he carved “Rumors of War” into this landmark work in his own professional life?
Mr. Wiley first conceived of the sculpture while visiting the Virginia museum for the opening of his exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” in June 2016. He was struck in particular by a statue of General J.E.B. Stuart and its evocation of Lost Cause ideology, which holds that the Confederate states were the noble targets of Northern aggression.
“I’m a black man walking those streets,” he said at the unveiling on Friday, recalling his visit to Richmond. “I’m looking up at those things that give me a sense of dread and fear.”
Oh well. That’s that.
I guess all of that Jesus stuff really wasn’t all that important in the history of the Civil Rights Movement and its response to decades of racism, fear and hatred.
Nothing to see here. Move along.
FIRST IMAGE: Screen grab from Times Square Church video.