"Rumors of War" Arrives in the SouthBreaking News
tags: Civil War, memorials, Confederacy, historical memory, public history
Richmond, Virginia, now has Rumors of War. The enormous new monument, featuring a young African American man in contemporary street clothes astride a rearing horse, was unveiled on the front lawn of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) on December 10, 2019. Artist Kehinde Wiley’s response to the line of imposing Confederate leaders that tower over Monument Avenue only three blocks to the east, the statue is the latest and perhaps most profound contribution to the nation’s reexamination of the Confederate memorial landscape currently underway.
Wiley is best known for his vivid paintings of African-Diasporic subjects set within European art traditions, as well as his official portrait of President Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery. Rumors of War, his first monumental sculpture, grew from his time in Richmond during a major exhibition of his work in 2016. Amid debates over Confederate statues, Wiley was struck by the forceful sculptures on the city’s famed Monument Avenue. He has described them as “totems of terrorism,” which had been “designed to terrorize the black communities and to allow them to know exactly where they sat within the social hierarchy.”
Indeed, Monument Avenue’s place as a commemorative residential boulevard began a generation after the war with the unveiling in 1890 of the 21-foot-high Robert E. Lee equestrian monument atop a lavish 40-foot stone base. A sequence of similarly oversized Confederate monuments followed: the equestrian sculpture of cavalryman J. E. B. Stuart in 1907, the neoclassical memorial to Confederate president Jefferson Davis that same year, the equestrian sculpture of general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in 1919, and the recumbent sculpture of diplomat Matthew Maury in 1929. All were framed by roundabouts along the wide tree-lined avenue two miles west of Capitol Square. Their unveilings were accompanied by massive parades and reunions during the era of disfranchisement and racial segregation. Historians have called Monument Avenue “the centerpiece” of Lost Cause commemorative efforts in the early 20th century.
Revising that legacy would prove especially difficult for Richmond, as state law prevents localities from removing or modifying “monuments or memorials for any war” and a considerable range of opinion remains regarding their proper fate. A prologue to those conversations occurred 20 years ago, when the Richmond City Council helped arrange a tribute to African American tennis star and humanitarian Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, at the end of Monument Avenue. The resulting portrayal of Ashe, featuring a slightly larger-than-life figure, surrounded by children and holding aloft a tennis racquet and books, challenged the monumental power of the nearby Confederates—but in a limited way.
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