At Large  September 7, 2022  Effie Jackson

Powerful Role Reversal in Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War”

© Kehinde Wiley. Presented by Times Square Arts in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Art and Sean Kelly, New York.

Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War, 2019. 

Kehinde Wiley (1977- ) was born in Los Angeles, California, where he began painting classes at the age of eleven at California State University. The classically trained artist went on to earn his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and his MFA from Yale University in 2001. Wiley’s work draws inspiration in color and grandeur from the aesthetics of illuminated manuscripts and Islamic, Baroque, and Rococo art.

His first renowned works are from the series Passing/Posing (2001-2004) in which Wiley replaced white royalty, nobility, and saints with young Black men, establishing a trend of narrative role reversal that has become his trademark. In part, this role reversal is inspired by Wiley’s rejection of the elitism of fine art; it also stems out of a necessity to showcase Blackness without abjection.

Wiley’s artwork frequently features street-casted Black models posing as royalty and classical heroes and heroines, which asserts a narrative about the representation, or lack thereof, of Blackness throughout art history. Dubbed by some as an “anti-monument," Rumors of War (2019) is a continuation of this theme that tackles America’s violent history of slavery. The inspiration for the heroic equestrian sculpture, according to Wiley, was a reaction to the abundance of Confederate monuments in Richmond, Virginia.

Kehinde Wiley, LE ROI À LA CHASSE II, 2007. Oil on canvas. 122 x 119 in. (209.9 x 302.3 cm).

Kehinde Wiley, LE ROI À LA CHASSE II, 2007. Oil on canvas. 122 x 119 in. (209.9 x 302.3 cm).

Kehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of Philip IV, 2017. Oil on canvas, 114 × 118 in. (289.6 × 299.7 cm), Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Wikimedia Commons.
Wikimedia Commons.

Kehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of Philip IV, 2017. Oil on canvas, 114 × 118 in. (289.6 × 299.7 cm). Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Kehinde Wiley Passing/Posing Annunciation signed, titled and dated 05 on the reverse acrylic on canvas, in artist's frame 81 1/4 by 106 1/8 in. 206.4 by 269.6 cm.

Kehinde Wiley, Passing/Posing Annunciation, 2005. Acrylic on canvas. 81 1/4 x 106 1/8 in. (206.4 x 269.6 cm).

The equestrian portrait of power is not a new addition to Wiley’s catalogue; Equestrian Portrait of Philip IV (2017) directly challenges the narrative of whiteness being synonymous with power and wealth. Rumors of War seeks to do the exact same thing, originally debuting in Times Square, where it stood for several weeks prior to the unveiling of its permanent homesite at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. 

Monument Avenue in Richmond is a mile-and-a-half boulevard that, until recently, celebrated defenders of slavery, according to art historian Noah Randolph. The statues of Confederate generals such as J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee have since been removed from Monument Avenue after public backlash and outrage against their existence reached new heights during protests over the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor in 2020. Randolph asserts that such monuments sought to place slave owners and white supremacists on a pedestal of morality in an effort to manipulate the narrative of the Civil War.

Photo by Will Fisher. Flickr.

Crowds surround the graffitied Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, VA on June 7, 2020.

This manipulation is referred to as the myth of the Lost Cause, a mythology that claims the Confederacy was just and heroic and fought for states’ rights. This disillusion continues today with the erasure and criticism of critical race theory, blocking of voting rights in predominantly Black areas, disproportionately high rates of police brutality against Black Americans, and the demonization of The 1619 Project.

The physical presentation of Wiley’s hero is significant to its function—from the figure's clothes to his dreadlocked hair. British art historian Kobena Mercer argues that hair has historically been used to create a polarizing system of worth associated with race. European, or white, hair has often been classified as aspirational, clean, and healthy, whereas African, or Black, hair has had negative connotations of dirtiness, poverty, and inappropriateness attached to its symbolism.

The American class structure is heavily reliant on these ideals of hair and race as they are historically rooted in the colonial social structure of plantations. Wiley makes a point in his works to include contemporary fashion, as it directly places historical figures in contemporary society and highlights the difference in which Black and white consumers interact with luxury.

It is important to note that monuments of Confederate figures on Monument Avenue have been removed two and three years after the installation of Rumors of War. It could be argued that Rumors of War challenged more than the city of Richmond’s past. Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which resulted in the atrocious lynching of over 200 enslaved people, happened in Southampton County near Courtland, Virginia, only an hour south of Richmond. Thus, the placement of a Black heroic figure within Richmond directly confronts its larger environment and redefines what, and how, American history should be memorialized. Since 2020, more than 160 Confederate monuments, memorials, and objects have been removed from public spaces.

About the Author

Effie Jackson

Effie Jackson is a contributing writer for Art & Object and graduated from UNC Asheville with a BA in Art History, where she received the University Research Scholar award in recognition for her undergraduate thesis. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Meredith College in preparation for a career in gallery/museum administration. When she is not working or studying, she loves doing yoga and playing with the family pup.

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