Now Who’s on Top?
Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War Urges Us to Change
The inspiration for Rumors of War is war—is an engagement with violence. Art and violence have for an eternity held a strong narrative grip with each other. Rumors of War attempts to use the language of equestrian portraiture to both embrace and subsume the fetishization of state violence. — Kehinde Wiley
The installation of Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus — to be unveiled on Friday, April 22 — is an opportunity, if we choose to embrace it.
Inspired by Wiley’s encounter with the Confederate monuments that long littered Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue, Rumors of War talks back to that veneration of southern rebels and the white supremacy that was their legacy. Wiley asks us to contemplate, in our own time, how we are both complicit with and transcend the state violence the runs through our campus and our city. Inviting Wiley’s depiction of a young African-American man — with dreadlocks, ripped jeans and high-top sneakers, sitting atop a rearing horse — might be a starting place for the sort of reckoning that Rumors of War contributed to in Richmond.
How will we respond to the challenge that Wiley’s statute brings to our campus monuments including those to slaveholders such as Charles Carroll, William Wyman, and Johns Hopkins himself? Does the presence of Wiley’s figure take us down the road to disavowing such monuments, even inviting their removal, much in the way Rumors of War contributed to the removal of monuments in Richmond?
Violence, that perpetrated by the state, is at the heart of Wiley’s intervention with Rumors of War. On our campus, the statute insists that we ask about the violence that Johns Hopkins has been party to. That violence might be literal. Perhaps it is economic. It may come in the form of inequitable patient care or experimentation in medicine. It might be a companion to our new university police force.
On our campus, Rumors of War is likely a first, our first monument to young Black men, young men of the 21st century. Wiley’s figure is allegorical, telling a story about the displacement of the powerful men of the past and their replacement by young men of the present and the future. Who are the young Black men that we propose to elevate? Our students? Our faculty? Our staff? The young Black men of Baltimore city?
Wiley’s Rumors of War is a striking image that makes a powerful claim about who is beautiful, who represents us, and who among us can and should be memorialized? Made monumental? Wiley aims to move us, yes. But he also expects that we may be changed by our encounter with his work. At Hard Histories we look forward to learning how our community responds to Rumors of War and how we meet the challenge that the presence of Wiley’s work demands.
Read more about Wiley’s statute and the upcoming installation in this article from the university’s Hub.