The Richmond Times-Dispatch sat down with Kehinde Wiley, the 42-year-old New York-based artist, on Dec. 10, after the unveiling of “Rumors of War,” his monumental sculpture of an African-American man on horseback acquired by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Wearing a colorful suit with a Nigerian print on the front and British pinstripes on the back, Wiley was full of smiles and magnanimous .
The unveiling of “Rumors of War” had been exciting, provocative, celebratory and dramatic, especially when the tarp covering the statue snagged on its hair at the last moment.
Wiley joined the crowd, waiting, watching and laughing, while Richmond’s All City High School Marching Band struck up a peppy tune to keep the crowd entertained.
“Rumors of War” is a massive sculpture: 27 feet tall, 25 feet long and 15 feet wide.
It was created in direct response to the monument to Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart on Monument Avenue, which Wiley saw when he was visiting Richmond for his career retrospective “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” at the VMFA in June 2016.
How are you feeling? Were you concerned that the statue might be damaged [when the tarp wouldn’t come down]?
I knew that it would come down. I just wanted it to happen in a timely manner because people came from far and wide to see it.
It added a new layer of drama and suspension, and I’m kind of happy it went down the way it did (laughs).
What are your thoughts on its new home?
I think that I couldn’t think of any better place to have this than the former capital of the Confederacy, in a place where we see America at a crossroads.
Also in the way that we grapple with monuments in public spaces. What do we do with them? Do we throw them into graveyards? Do we melt them down?
I believe that conversation is going to be the most important part of this. We can take cues from World War II, the experience with Holocaust deniers, the sense in which history is something that should be returned to, but also kept within the right context.
That said, we should also recognize that these objects were designed and created as totems of terrorism. They were designed to terrorize the black communities and to allow them to know exactly where they sat within the social hierarchy.
They [the statues] were not built during the Civil War. They were built during the early 20th century as a means of communicating a type of state terror and white supremacy at once.
I think today we can find new ways of contextualizing those sculptures. Not melting them down but creating more speech that allows the language of domination, of monumentality, to be recycled, towards the betterment of society.
To use the language of the monumental towards underserved communities, people who deserve to be seen on the great walls of museums, people who deserve to imagine themselves in their best light. That’s what the sculpture was designed to do. I think that’s how I want it to be seen within this current political moment.
Can you talk about the six faces you used to create “Rumors of War”?
I started off by interrogating a type of black masculinity that is propagated in American popular culture.
I wanted to explore the dissonance between the body that I walk through and the images I’m being fed through television media and social media and global media.
It was a true desire to examine a society but also examine myself. It was a type of self-portraiture in a strange way.
Why did you choose J.E.B. Stuart from the monuments?
Because of the dramatic horse pose.
J.E.B. Stuart had a very unremarkable career as a general. He was chosen for that monument for his family’s wealth and social connections. In the end, J.E.B. was largely responsible for the loss at Gettysburg and tons of death.
It wasn’t about him as this great man but rather how convincing and stylized and evocative and strangely beautiful the monument that he has is. My job has always been about taking the beautiful and the terrible and to occupy those spaces equally and to imagine new fields of providence within that flawed past.
How was the sculpture made?
I work with UAP, a company that does large-scale sculptural projects with artists internationally.
They’re based in Australia, but they have studios here, as well as in China. We started with the clays in China. We did some of the molds in southern China, then transferred them to North America for patina work, for welding, then the engineering. It was a real global effort to get [it] done with a team of over 30 sculptors, welders and engineers.
What was it like working in monumental sculpture for the first time?
Monumentality is something that I’ve always used — as one of the colors on my palette.
I’d go into the Louvre and see those grand [Jacques-Louis] David paintings that occupy the entire room. They are really designed to contend with you on a human scale. They take up space in the world in three dimensions, and they’re bigger than you. You know? They demand respect .
Fast-forward to the ’50s and ’60s in America, and look at full-throttle abstract expressionism, where scale really matters: à la [Robert] Motherwell, à la [Jackson] Pollock, à la Franz Kline.
This sense of masculinity relating to painting scale is something that’s in the DNA in the way that we consider art and art viewing. This is something that I want to at once embrace and indict.