The massive figure stands more than 27 feet high — 60,000 pounds of bronze and stone, beautiful and intimidating. But unlike the Confederate giants on Monument Avenue just two blocks away, this rider is an African American man, a modern urbanite with Nike shoes and spiky locks of hair.
And the bronze is covered in a silky, dark patina.
Modeled after a statue of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart on Monument Avenue, the Wiley sculpture appropriates the look of Lost Cause glory to elevate the very people — African Americans — whom the old statues were meant to intimidate.
Richmond greeted the unveiling on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as a major event, with Mayor Levar Stoney (D), Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and other dignitaries making speeches and a high school marching band whipping up the crowd.
“People in Richmond will recognize its shape and its form, but it depicts a person who looks different from every other statue in this city,” Northam said in his remarks. “So today we say welcome to a more progressive and inclusive Virginia.”
Northam also pointed out the significance of dedicating such a statue in the year that Virginia marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans to the English colony in 1619.
No city has a psyche more intertwined with the Civil War than the former capital of the Confederacy, and no state has more Confederate monuments than Virginia.
The art museum itself stands on property that was R.E. Lee Camp No. 1, a settlement for Confederate veterans. The old Confederate chapel still stands out back.
But things are changing. This year the busy thoroughfare in front of the museum was renamed Arthur Ashe Boulevard in honor of the native Richmonder who won Wimbledon after being denied entry to the city’s white tennis courts. New monuments are up — to black businesswoman Maggie Walker on Broad Street, and to historic female leaders and civil rights activists on Capitol Square — and more are planned, including a memorial to enslaved workers.
The city’s American Civil War Museum transformed itself and reopened this year with a comprehensive look at the conflict from all perspectives — those of women, free blacks, enslaved people, the North and the South.
What all those efforts lacked, though, was a grand central statement. Stoney, Richmond’s young African American mayor, said the Wiley statue instantly puts it all into context.
“It shows the world that we’re more than just Confederate generals on Monument Avenue,” Stoney said in an interview. “That we have heroes in our current day, and some of them are nameless . . . I’m proud of my city because of it.”
Stoney commissioned a group to study removing the city’s Confederate monuments, but after months of contentious public hearings the group last year issued an inconclusive report. Members recommended taking some down — especially a statue of Jefferson Davis — putting up new statues and creating context that explains the city’s complicated past. “Rumors of War” outflanks that whole discussion, coming in from a new angle with a new idea.
“It takes a different vision to say, ‘Leave them up.’ Let’s see how we can appropriate, reverberate, echo. It’s an eloquent call and response,” said Valerie Cassel Oliver, the museum’s Sidney and Frances Lewis curator of modern and contemporary art.
Wiley, famous for his official portrait of President Barack Obama, came to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2016 when it hosted a traveling exhibition of his work. Several days after the show, the museum’s director was surprised to run into Wiley at the Richmond airport. Why was he still here?
The artist said he had seen Monument Avenue and couldn’t stop thinking about those big Confederate statues, so he had stayed to study them.
Two years later, in 2018, Wiley approached the museum’s leaders at a dinner event in New York. According to Cassel Oliver, he put his arms around the group and said: “I’m working on something and you’re going to love it, and it belongs in Richmond, Virginia.”
When he later sent images of a mock-up of the statue, “we were ecstatic,” Cassel Oliver said.
On Tuesday, Wiley was greeted by the throng of Richmonders like a rock star. Wearing a colorful African-print suit and Converse sneakers, and with his mother sitting in the front row, Wiley spoke of the Monument Avenue figures that inspired him.
“I saw some extraordinary sculpture. People took a lot of time to make something powerful. Beautiful. Elegant. Menacing,” he said. “We can do better.”
Now, he said, is a time to appropriate the images of the past and update them for a new era. “There’s something moving in the culture. There something changing in the winds,” he said. “I’m tired of the dysfunction; I’m tired of the strife.”
And a voice in the crowd called out, “We are, too!”
Behind Wiley, the statue was covered by a 600-pound shroud. When he gave the word, workers pulled ropes to release the silvery cloth — but it snagged on the statue’s hair. As workers tried to uncover the rider’s head, Wiley laughed, talked with the crowd and visited with the marching band, which kept on playing.
“I’m always suspicious of stuff that’s, like, tied in a bow, perfect,” Wiley said as onlookers came up to thank him for the statue. “Life is messy — it’s like this unveiling, which in a strange way adds even more sort of gravity to who is underneath there. Who is this? . . . We’re all waiting to see what he looks like.”
After about 40 minutes, a firefighter climbed a ladder and cut the cloth away to cheers and applause.
The museum has not disclosed the cost of the acquisition, which was covered by private donations. But board member Bill Royall, who with his wife, Pam, has been a longtime collector of Wiley’s art, told the trustees before they voted that this was a key moment for the institution and the city.
“It’s our opportunity to make a stand,” Royall said in an interview. “Richmond is the most important city for this discussion we’re having about the Lost Cause and statues, and I just thought this would be the time for our generation.”
“I’m tired of hearing — every time there’s a story in the press . . . it can’t mention Richmond without saying ‘the former capital of the Confederacy,’ ” Royall said. “It’s time to get past that.”
State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) grew up feeling torn about the city’s famous monuments. Today she lives a few blocks from the epic statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that forms the focal point of Monument Avenue.
“I drive past it every day on my way to the Capitol, where he took command to lead the [Confederate] army,” McClellan said. As a black elected official, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams come true, and I am probably every one of those men’s worst nightmare,” she said.
So far, community reaction has been positive, though the museum has beefed up security.
The Virginia Flaggers, a group of Confederate enthusiasts who wave battle flags in front of the museum about once a week, made no appearance last week as the site was being prepared for the statue. The group could not be reached for comment.
On Monument Avenue, a preservation society that has argued that the Confederate monuments should remain but be placed into historical context took a vote of support for “Rumors of War.”
“Absolutely — it’s fantastic,” said Bill Gallasch, president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society. “Put in new statues that tell a more complete story. . . . We all gotta live in this world, so let’s make the best of it.”
The statue was cast in Shanghai and shipped from Hong Kong to New York in four pieces: the base with three horse legs; the body of the horse with the legs of the rider; the horse’s raised front right leg; and the upper body of the rider. It was assembled in New York for a debut in Times Square in September, then disassembled and trucked down to Richmond.
The Richmond site was selected for maximum visibility. Wiley had said he wanted to replicate the Stuart statue’s place in the center of a traffic circle; “Rumors of War” stands along Arthur Ashe Boulevard on an island between two driveways leading onto the museum grounds.
Late Friday afternoon, when the statue was fully assembled, Paul and Monique Flowers arrived at the museum for an evening jazz concert. The two, both African American and lifelong Richmonders, were unprepared for the statue that greeted them out front.
“It’s amazing. Amazing,” Paul Flowers, a pastor, repeated in a hushed voice. “I never thought I would see this day.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Monique, a middle school teacher. “The details of his features — showing the beauty of the ethnicity . . .” Her voice trailed off. Then she noticed one more detail.
“And the fact that the statue itself is all black, it’s just beautiful. Everything is black, just solid black.”