Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Photo of the Day: ‘Rumors of War,’ Times Square, NYC

Last Thursday, a massive limestone base inscribed "Rumors of War," along with the artist’s name, Kehinde Wiley, drew curious onlookers like me to Times Square. Whatever this was going to be, I figured, would be fundamentally different from any other public artwork in this midtown crossroads.

And, once I got a look at the bronze statue placed atop it the next day (and took this photo), so it proved to be.

This was not any old artwork in Times Square. No, this one got a lengthy article in the Arts section of The New York Times. Hundreds of miles south, even The Washington Post took note of it, in a piece equally long.

The lager-than-life coiled body atop the horse makes you think you’re looking at Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or J.E.B. Stuart. You know: the Confederate generals lionized on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. 

But that’s no cap on this figure’s head: those are dreadlocks. And that’s not a gray uniform he’s wearing, but a hoodie and ripped jeans. 

With a shock, you realize you’re looking at an African-American—a male descendant, you don’t have to think twice, of someone that Lee, Jackson, and Stuart devoted their considerable military prowess to keeping in slavery.

This is the first statue created by Wiley, a 42-year-old painter whose portrait of Barack Obama now adorns the National Portrait Gallery.

In a sense, the statue is undertaking a journey that reverses the movement of the Underground Railroad north. This time, once Rumors of War leaves Times Square in December, it will travel to Richmond, the capital of the short-lived Confederate States of America, to be placed near the entrance to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, just a few blocks from Monument Avenue.

The white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. brought to the surface the powerful emotions left over from the Civil War. In this context, Wiley’s statue would not only be seen as a response to the tumult two years ago but, by the revanchists in the area, as a provocation of its own. 

In various parts of the country, statues of Confederates—or, more broadly, slaveholders—have inspired desecration. Don’t be surprised if this statue experiences something similar—unless the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts decides to safeguard it in some kind of glass enclosure. 

The Civil War ended 150 years ago, but it's opened a new front in the culture wars of our century.

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