Sometimes the most perceptive voice in a controversy comes from an artist who sees it up close.
Last week I mentioned that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond has just installed a monumental new sculpture by an artist named Kehinde Wiley, the first work of sculpture he’s created. And it might just be one of the most powerful works of art you’ll ever see.
Wiley based the form of his work on a 1907 equestrian statue of Confederate General JEB Stuart that sits prominently on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. In content, however, Wiley’s statue is quite different. Well, the horse is the same. But sitting on it in an equally heroic pose is a young African American man in street clothes with dreadlocks, torn jeans, and Nike shoes. The effect is overwhelming.
The piece is entitled “Rumors of War,” and before being unveiled at the museum a few weeks ago, it spent a couple of months last fall drawing crowds in Times Square in New York City.
The work started coming together in Wiley’s mind on a previous trip to Richmond. “When I came here, all those years back, and I saw Monument Avenue,” he said, he saw art that he called powerful, beautiful, elegant, and…menacing.
What he has created is both an artistic response from today to art from over a century ago, and at the same time a powerful political statement on civil rights, equality, and the echoes of the Civil War that are still deeply reverberating in our culture.
Hearing this will likely cause you to remember the ongoing controversy about whether statues of Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee should be removed from public spaces.
“Disappearance is not what I'm asking for,” Wiley said when a reporter asked if he thought the Monument Avenue statues should be taken down. “What I'm saying is, the answer to negative speech is more speech, positive speech.” This work of his needs those other works to remain up in order to be so effective in its context. When he was asked if he thought of his work as speaking back to those controversial statutes of Stuart, Lee, and Jackson, he replied “I want my statue to be speaking back to the people looking at those statues.” This is a wonderful example of artists getting right to the heart of the matter when other people don’t. You can’t look at those other statues the same way once you’ve seen his.
Passions run high on both sides of the question of what to do with such sculptures. What gets overlooked in this debate is a profound if unspoken acknowledgement that art is powerful. It can convey messages at so a deep level that sometimes people can miss what it really says. What Wiley is, in part, up to is to remind us of that power and of the civic responsibility to wield it justly. He is also demonstrating that in the midst of heated political controversy, maybe the best response to art comes from other art.