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‘Horse Day:’ exploring the black cowboy

The black cowboy is a traditional, classic figure of American history that’s often been forgotten about and glazed over. But the Studio Museum in Harlem is paying tribute to them, in an exhibition appropriately titled Black Cowboy. Curated by Amanda Hunt, the exhibition features artists Deana Lawson, Chandra McCormick, Ron Tarver, Brad Trent, and filmmaker Khalil Joseph (one of the main directors of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which also showcased black cowboys).

 

One of our favorite works came from Algerian-born, Paris-based artist Mohamed Bourouissa. His 2015 video Horse Day features the riders of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club of West Philadelphia, and it’s a necessary revision of the traditional Western.

 

“I was really interested in the representation of the cowboy," he said over the phone from France. "For us, every representation of the cowboy was only white. So when I started looking into this I was really fascinated, and I was really curious about the history of the black cowboy. When I started to do my research, I saw that it was something really traditional and common. But the idea that we have on the outside makes it feel exceptional, because the representation doesn’t really exist. It’s almost like they were hiding in plain sight.”

 

 

To make Horse Day, Bourouissa became fully immersed in the culture of the club. He stayed in Philadelphia (which also happens to be Hunt’s hometown) for nine months, renting a room from one of the riders. “For me it was really important to be there and understand how I wanted to film this experience with these guys,” he said. “There’s also a lot of history in the city that I was really curious to understand. It was really important to experience how people live there.”

I didn’t want to come into this place and just take pictures and go away.

 

Filming was somewhat difficult at first. “When you want to create the connection between the artist and the rider it was difficult, because they didn’t really understand why I wanted to do an art project,” said Bourouissa. “It’s not digestible.” But he was adamant about making a film that was an accurate representation of the riders—something that came from attempts at joining the community.

 

“I didn’t want to just take a simple photo of [the riders]; I wanted to work with them and really engage with them,” the artist explained. “Some of them were really engaged, and at the end of the of the day, everyone was surprised and they asked me to do it again. They were really happy to participate. It was something different—I didn’t want to come into this place and just take pictures and go away.” The effort shows.

 

Black Cowboy is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 5th. 

 

All Horse Day stills courtesy of the artist and Galerie Kamel Mennour, Paris/London.