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Horsing Around with Philadelphia's Urban Cowboys

August 28, 2017

By Julia Clift

Throughout his career, Mohamed Bourouissa has critiqued the political, economic, and social marginalization of various communities. Born in Algeria and living in France, the multidisciplinary artist first gained acclaim through his photographs of residents of the Paris banlieuesUrban Riders, his current exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, centers on his time with the Fletcher Street Urban Riders Club in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The show establishes Bourouissa’s commitment to action that is guided by social justice ideals as well as to a rigorous formal discipline.

The Fletcher Street Urban Riders Club aims to preserve Fletcher Street’s historical horse culture by teaching boys and young men from the area how to ride. Much of Strawberry Mansion is plagued by unemployment and crime, and the club provides local youth with a safe outlet. After discovering Fletcher Street through the work of American artist Martha Camarillo, Bourouissa traveled to Philadelphia in 2014 and spent eight months with the group, documenting their activities through photography, video, and drawings.

In time, Bourouissa proposed and organized Horse Day, a competition and community festival, which took place that summer. He partnered each rider with one or two local artists, then tasked each team with creating an equestrian costume. On Horse Day, the riders showcased their costumes and riding skills in freestyle and obstacle course rounds. The event was advertised throughout the neighborhood as a block party, with barbeque, drinks, games, and music, and scores of community members came out to see the show and partake in the festivities.

The Barnes exhibition comprises three sections. In the first gallery, we see works on paper, reminiscent of sketchbook pages, that Bourouissa made in Philadelphia. Including diagrams, written notes, sketches, and collages, the pages visualize the artist’s real-time processing of his experiences and recordings of his early ideas around Horse Day. Ephemera from the event is installed nearby. The gallery’s documentary tone positions Horse Day, and Bourouissa’s engagement, as the intangible “real work.” Meanwhile, Bourouissa shows his collaborative ideals by yielding space to other makers: costumes, sculptures, and an improvised mural in the gallery are attributed to more than 10 artists, while the circular scaffolding that houses the drawings was constructed by the Fletcher Street riders. It seems clear that Bourouissa is genuinely invested, intellectually and emotionally, in being useful to both the Fletcher Street community and Philadelphia artists more broadly.

The second room contains a 14-minute documentary video diptych entitled “Horse Day” (2015). The left projection shows riders ambling on horseback through the streets of Philadelphia and talking at the stables, while the right projection focuses on the contest. Bourouissa portrays the riders’ performances as bathed in glory; the costumes, music, and horsemen’s prowess meld into a moving spectacle.

In the West, equestrianism tends to symbolize power, aristocracy, and liberty — all privileges historically denied to black Americans. Are Bourouissa’s images subversive? The Fletcher Street riders don’t see themselves as making a statement. As Bourouissa explained at the exhibit’s press preview, “They’re just focused on their riding, on the horses.” The video illustrates his point. We see how un-self-conscious the riders are in their saddles; they’re poised and completely in their element. Moreover, there’s a robust tradition of black and brown cowboys in the United States. Throughout Urban Riders, Bourouissa’s images do capitalize on the horse’s associations and the riders’ blackness to challenge viewers, but not to a problematic extent. At a talk this past June at the Barnes, the president of the Fletcher Street Urban Riders Club responded emphatically when audience members raised concerns about exploitation. “I do not feel as if I’m being exploited,” he insisted. For him, the fact that Bourouissa is “making something positive,” and brought the Strawberry Mansion community together on Horse Day, makes all the difference.

The show’s third section features “The Hood” (2014–17)a series that Bourouissa completed in France in response to his time with the Fletcher Street riders. The sculptural collages are constructed of metal parts of cars and imprinted with Bourouissa’s photographs from Philadelphia. In the City of Brotherly Love, mangled car parts are a familiar part of the urban landscape, especially in impoverished areas. The equestrian images and junkyard fragments evoke contradicting associations in regards to wealth and class, complicating mainstream notions about “the hood.” The series was inspired by Bourouissa’s experience of noticing the riders’ reflections in the city’s omnipresent cars. He was particularly struck by the distortion of the boys’ images. These works on the whole feel metaphorical, alluding to distorted perceptions of black males in America today. It’s an elegant series that proves Bourouissa’s equal commitment to studio and social practice.

For the Barnes Foundation, presenting Urban Riders is a loaded decision. After building his famed collection, Dr. Albert Coombs Barnes founded the institution in 1922 as an art school. His educational programming had a social justice bent; he strove to enrich the lives of less-fortunate students, particularly working-class individuals and African Americans. The collection’s move to Philadelphia’s Museum District was controversial. According to the 2009 documentary film The Art of the Steal, the move amounted to a violation of Barnes’s will by cultural and political elite, greedy for glory and financial gain. Depending on one’s point of view, Urban Riders could be seen as confirming the persistence of Barnes’s founding principles — or as an effort at redemption.