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Lifting the Veil 

What it was like on the ground at the slow unveiling of Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War.”

click to enlarge New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley waves at the "Rumors of War" public unveiling in front of the VMFA on Dec. 10.

Scott Elmquist

New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley waves at the "Rumors of War" public unveiling in front of the VMFA on Dec. 10.

Poppy, lovingly called Pops, has a medium front row seat to history.

Medium because she’s about a foot tall and a schnoodle – a miniature schnauzer and poodle mix – who has to be picked up by her owner to catch a glimpse of the unveiling of Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” in front of the VMFA. Her view of a 60,000-pound monument is partially obstructed.

Lower your umbrellas, people. Poppy’s trying to see.

Wiley’s gallerist, England-born Sean Kelly, would later joke that it’s a proper British day: gloomy with on-and-off rain, a cloud of overhead umbrellas and knee-length trench coats. This only calls more attention to the fact that irony is this event’s primary literary technique.

History’s being made with a 27-foot-high equestrian statue depicting a triumphant African-American man with a dread top knot, ripped jeans and Nikes and it’s 50 degrees and pouring. Still, thousands of people have showed up for the occasion.

The sculpture faces the United Daughters of the Confederacy, is on the land of a former Confederate veteran settlement and neighbors the Confederate general that inspired this piece in the first place: J.E.B Stuart. So naturally, starting right at 3:30 p.m. seems ambitious.

At 3:38, a VMFA employee takes a quick shot of the crowd. People begin to pull out their phones in anticipation but alas, still no unveiling – just a selfie opportunity missed. He comes back for round two. Then round three. This guy cannot get enough.

A wave of tubas bobbing atop the crowd halt the photoshoot and introduce Richmond Public Schools All City Marching Band playing “Swag Surfin’” by Fast Life Yungstaz. The ceremony begins. When Gov. Ralph Northam takes the stage, he says it’s no coincidence that this is happening during the same year as the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans arriving to the English colonies.

“We are changing, and Virginia is better for it,” says Northam. “So today, as we welcome ‘Rumors of War’ to its permanent home in Virginia, we also say to Kehinde Wiley, the gentleman from New York, ‘Welcome. This is your home, too.’”

Mayor Levar Stoney follows.

“My brother, you are our righteous warrior,” Stoney says to Wiley. “These things don’t just happen. People make it happen … it’s taken more than 100 years for the rest of Richmond to finally have a monument of a man on a horse who looks more like them.”

He thanks the VMFA before focusing on Bill Royall, saying Richmond has this monument because of him – except his wife Pam Royall, an established art collector and civic leader, was a joint part of the effort. Subtly, VMFA Board of Trustees President, Monroe E. Harris, corrects him in his speech after making a pun about monuments, enunciating “Pam” when talking about his gratitude toward the path that led to a unanimous decision in making “Rumors of War” a permanent fixture on the lawn of the VMFA.

Then the man of the hour, New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, emerges with a self-described “unprepared speech.” Regardless it moves the audience, which includes his mother in the front row.

He begins by saying he wants the monument to be about a society that says yes to the black man.

“Power wielded correctly can be a thing of beauty,” Wiley continues. “I think what we want here tonight is to be able to honor when those moments of power can be correctly held in the hands of someone who creates rather than destroys.”

As he introduces “Rumors of War,” the veil begins to lift. Then it doesn’t. A fish-like hook gives it a shake here, a shake there. It’s no good.

“It’s stuck on his locks!” says Lacette Cross, laughing.

Later after the event, Lillian Dunn, an executive assistant to the deputy director for communications at VMFA, notes that the drape weighed 175 lbs and the museum feels the wet conditions made it even heavier, which led to the delay.

She confirms that the VMFA hired the same company to install and manage the process for draping that was used in Times Square – and even had three successful practice unveilings earlier on Saturday.

As the co-founder of Virginia’s first black pride LGBTQ festival, Cross says seeing intersectionality and diversity means progress. When thinking about how “Rumors of War” faces the United Daughters of the Confederacy, she takes a step back and exhales.

“It is a calling out of white women who are the lynchpin to the upholding of white supremacy. You probably can’t print all of that,” she says. “White women really do have a role to play … and white women are the ones who often fail us, but they’re also the ones that want to cry the tears.”

Shortly after, the ladder is extended. It shudders slightly as a stage hand gets on. The crowd gasps. Leave it to Richmond to turn a historic event into an episode of “Survivor.”

After a brief back-and-forth between excitement and disappointment and the addition of firefighter John Lukhard on a ladder 27 feet in the air, it happens. His hair is free.

Lingering behind after people disperse, in his signature top knot, is Najee Wilson, the Brooklyn-based model for “Rumors of War” who spent the earlier part of the day speaking with students at Binford Middle School. Now his audience is slightly older, shaking his hand sturdily and asking for pictures. The line to meet him wraps the statue and Wilson takes it all with the calmness of a veteran muse. He knows what this means to them.

“This is an exhilarating moment for everybody who’s black like me. Anybody who’s ever been held back,” he says. “I don’t even have words for it, but it means everything. The artist can make the invisible visible. So we’re here. We’re here forever.”

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