Questions of Race and Inequality Among ‘Urban Cowboys’
By: Jason Farago
Cowboys remain an American emblem to the French. They have seen enough westerns to have a clear idea of what cowboys should look like: proud, rugged, dirt-flecked — and white.
African-Americans, both enslaved and free, in fact, accounted for large percentages of cattlemen on horseback in the Old West. Yet images of black horsemen are rare in the American imagination — and in the Hollywood depictions that are broadcast worldwide. (The stereotype of a white cowboy is so enduring that Quentin Tarantino, in his subversive “Django Unchained,” made a running joke of bystanders being scandalized by Jamie Foxx’s avenging freed slave riding into town.)
Redressing that inaccuracy became a project for the Algerian-French artist Mohamed Bourouissa, who spent nearly a year in Philadelphia living among the young men of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, one of several remaining equestrian societies founded by black riders who migrated north in the early 20th century.
After months of studying, listening to the community and making preparatory drawings, the artist and the horsemen came together to hold a daylong competition that combined art and horsemanship, staged for the neighborhood. The results are on view now in “Urban Riders,” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which unites Mr. Bourouissa’s films, sculptures and drawings with the festive, resourceful costumes the men of Philadelphia designed for their four-legged collaborators.
Mr. Bourouissa, who was born in Algiers in 1978 and is shortlisted for this year's Prix Marcel Duchamp (France's most prestigious art prize), began his career as a photographer. His magnificent series “Périphérique” (2005-09), a precise but devastating clapback to stereotypes of the French suburbs, with pictures of black and Arab youths in the stairwells and underpasses they traverse every day, but posed with the meticulousness of formal portraiture.
With “Urban Riders,” Mr. Bourouissa took his half-documentary, half-creative approach to a country with a different history of race and inequality. In Philadelphia, the Fletcher Street Club has taught young black men to ride for nearly a century, conferring pride and duty on those often denied such rewards. Today, the men and the horses ride on ungroomed green spaces hemmed in by dilapidated housing, in a northern section of the city primed for gentrification.
Their collaboration inevitably came with cultural and linguistic misunderstandings. At first these horsemen wondered why a French artist would be interested in them. Mr. Bourouissa won their trust over time, though, and eventually the club invited him to organize a “Horse Tuning Expo,” a cross between a riding competition and a pageant. Mr. Bourouissa encouraged the Fletcher Street riders to design bridles, saddles and decorative caparisons, echoing souped-up cars. Some riders put on custom regalia themselves.
At the Musée d’Art Moderne, a wall is plastered with posters Mr. Bourouissa made for the competition, in which a young black boy appears before a pile of urban detritus, sitting astride a brown horse festooned with red and silver ribbons. Hanging above the posters is another photograph of a boy climbing concrete stairs on a white stallion. The raised front hooves echo some of the most famous equestrian paintings in art history, from Rubens’s “Saint George and the Dragon" to Jacques-Louis David’s propagandistic image of Napoleon on a mountain-climbing steed.
Also on view are the horses’ costumes, some made in collaboration with local Philadelphia artists: white Pegasus wings, fake flowers or blank CDs glinting in the gallery light. Dozens of drawings and collages by Mr. Bourouissa, made in preparation for the competition, integrate European painting, screenshots of American westerns and maps of the Schuylkill River and the city’s deprived outer reaches.
The competition itself, which took place in 2014, is documented in “Horse Day,” a two-screen video that scrambles the tropes of westerns, documentaries and hip-hop. Competitors negotiated obstacles and received points for horsemanship and artistic style, while the neighborhood cheered them on. Mr. Bourouissa intermingled documentary footage of the competition with dialogue that appeared partially scripted, partially improvised. This is no ethnographic recording by a privileged outsider; it’s a collaboration across disciplines and languages, whose final form resulted from artist and riders in tandem.
Mr. Bourouissa’s approach in “Urban Riders” — staging an event to create a fictional overlay on reality — owes much to an earlier generation of French artists, led by Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, who also used fiction as a tool to reshape real life. Mr. Huyghe and his colleagues rejuvenated French art after many sluggish decades, and it has fallen to a younger generation to apply their techniques to questions of race and inequality, both at home and abroad.
Alongside Mr. Bourouissa, these artists include Kader Attia and Neïl Beloufa, both currently presenting hard-hitting exhibitions on colonialism and contemporary France at the Palais de Tokyo (next door to the Musée d’Art Moderne); the duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, winners of last year's Prix Marcel Duchamp, who explore French and Arab history in both documentary and fictional videos; and Mathieu K. Abonnenc, who excavates the colonial history of museums through dreamy video installations.
Viewers at the Louvre or the Met have been trained to read a portrait of a white man on horseback: The pairing signifies the rider’s wealth, dignity, perhaps military prowess and above all dominion — dominion over animals and the land he gallops across. A black man on horseback, especially young and casually dressed, will always appear as a disruption. What Mr. Bourouissa achieves in “Urban Riders” is much more than a mere redressing of gaps in representation. He puts fiction in the service of these city horsemen, so that we may look not with shock but veneration.