Smells of Big Gee’s fried chicken and the sounds of Bob Marley’s voice filled the afternoon air Saturday as a small team unveiled Rumors of War, an approximately 5-foot statue designed by the renowned artist Kehinde Wiley.
The statue was installed at the corner of 52nd and Locust Streets in West Philadelphia and is a diminutive version of the 27-foot work that has been permanently displayed since December 2019 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The original work was unveiled in Times Square in September 2019.
Rumors of War is Wiley’s response to the Confederate statues that often depict generals on horses. In Wiley’s work, a Black man wears dreadlocks secured in a topknot, jeans that are ripped at the knee, a hoodie, and high-top Nikes. He sits atop a rearing horse — also a nod to European equestrian portraitures such as the 1805 painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps by French artist Jacques-Louis David.
The statue is part of a national touring public art exhibition called Monumental. Its unveiling was organized by Kindred Arts, a nonprofit based in New York City, and the Philly-based full-service creative agency Little Giant Creative.
“The [52nd Street] corridor just spoke to us when we were out scouting” for installation locations, said Marsha Reid, executive director of Kindred Arts. “Up in New York, there’s just not space like this. This is like an oasis.”
Activist Shakira King lives six blocks from where Rumors of War was installed and has resided in West Philadelphia for most of her life. During the uprising in June after the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, King was teargassed on the same block where the statue now sits.
“This is home,” King said at the unveiling. “It’s just right that a place that so many of us call home gets a great piece of art by an acclaimed artist. It’s not in some big place, it’s not downtown, it’s not inaccessible. Kids [of West Philly] can walk down this street every day and see the beautifulness that is this sculpture.”
Wiley is a Los Angeles-born, New York-based visual artist. His work is exhibited in several esteemed institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the Denver Art Museum. In 2002, he became an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. His 2018 portrait of President Barack Obama is in the permanent installation of presidential portraits in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
The statue at 5148 Locust St. is one of three artworks in the Monumental traveling exhibit and will remain in West Philly until Nov. 4. All Power to All People, the first sculpture in the collection, a 28-foot afro pick designed by multimedia artist Hank Willis Thomas, was first installed in West Philly on Sept. 30 but was relocated to North Penn Baptist Church in North Philly on Saturday. Thomas attended and spoke at the All Power to All People unveiling. Wiley was not present at the Rumors of War unveiling.
The last piece from the collection is by Arthur Jafa and has yet to surface. Details of its location are being kept mum to preserve the element of surprise. The collection will move to the West Coast after its time in Philadelphia.
Edwin Akrong, of Fairmount, came to Saturday’s unveiling because he’s an admirer of Wiley’s work.
“I love how [Wiley] shows Black people in environments that we’re usually not in,” Akrong said. “Seeing a Black man on a horse that’s Napoleon-like is just so great. ... If I had seen this as a 5- or 10-year-old, I would’ve thought, ‘Wow, the world is my oyster.’ It’s a great way to give hope to people in spite of everything that’s happening in the world right now.”