'Black Cowboy' Exhibition Reveals a Forgotten Part of US History

A new exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem challenges popular silver screen portrayals of the American cowboy.

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Jan 6 2017, 5:35pm

Ron Tarver, A Ride by North Philly Rows, 1993. Archival ink jet print, 28 × 30 in. Courtesy the artist

Those darn Westerns! A new exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem challenges popular silver screen portrayals of the American cowboy. Curated by Amanda Hunt, Black Cowboy pictures a distinctly different gaucho than the bank-robbin', bootstrappin' John Wayne of yore. Featuring photography and video works by artists Mohamed Bourouissa, Kahlil Joseph, Deana Lawson, Chandra McCormick, Ron Tarver, and Brad Trent, Black Cowboy gives visibility to the black boys and girls who have been excluded from the white, men's narrative.

Deana Lawson, Cowboys, 2014. Inkjet print mounted on Sintra, 41 × 51 in. AP1 from Edition of 3. Courtesy the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery

“In Philadelphia, where I grew up, there’s a large community of black cowboys,” explains Hunt to The Creators Project. I remember being in high school, and magically a kid on a horse appeared in North Philly and I was like, ‘What!’ That was my first engagement with the idea of the black cowboy,” she says. When the curator moved to Harlem many years later she saw, the Federation of Black Cowboys’ Ellis “Mountain Man” Harris riding the 3 Train. “Right before he got off the train I said, ‘Sir, are you a black cowboy?’” “Yes, Ma'am I am!” These two experiences led the curator to “begin to identify who was capturing these people in the most compelling way.”

Ron Tarver, Concrete Canyon, Harlem, 1993 Archival ink jet print, 28 × 30 in. Courtesy the artist

Black Cowboy features six artists who capture the contrasting lives of these men and women. Brad Trent's portraits, editorial images that ran in The Village Voice, present the New York chapter of the Federation of the Black Cowboys. The black-and-white prints are full-body performative shots of “Mountain Man” Ellis holding a lasso in one hand, Arthur “J.R.” Fulmore carrying leather saddles and “Mama” Kesha Morse, the chapter’s first black cowgirl, riding a pile of hay. Chandra McCormick’s Angola Prison Rodeo, Men Breaking Wild Horses is a disquieting image of inmates working and performing in the notorious Louisiana maximum security prison farm. Deana Lawson's Cowboys photograph shows two young males riding at night in Georgia, evoking the 19th century black American soldiers that natives nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers. The image also conjures the complicated legacy of the American cowboy, who ventured west and took land from native populations.The black cowboys, representing 25% of the more than 35,000 cowboys who rode in the west during the 19th century according to the Village Voice, played a role in the violent expansion of America.

The exhibition also features Kahlil Joseph's Wildcat, a single-channel film that explores the lives of an all black rodeo in Grayson Oklahoma. Flying Lotus soundtracks the slow-moving film, which forges through the lives of the cowboy and girls who live in middle-America. Mohamed Bourouissa’s Horse Day blends documentary and narrative forms to reimagine the American Western in Philadelphia. It provides a look at the ways the black cowboys living in urban areas have adapted traditions to fit their lives.

Shorts on Sundays S1 Ep3: "Wildcat" by Kahlil Joseph - NOWNESS from NOWNESS on Vimeo.

“The history of portrait photography plays a part in piecing together American history,” says Hunt. “That was something I wanted to bring out in the exhibition. The balance between what is primarily photography with two video works is because you can’t conjure up an image of a black cowboy without movement. The elegance of a horse moving and a person, white, black, or native, commanding this animal. I hope that there’s a power in the representation of the people and their animals.”

Brad Trent, Ellis “Mountain Man” Harris from “The Federation of Black Cowboys” series for The Village Voice, 2016 Inkjet print, 22 × 30 in. Courtesy the artist

Nearly 20 years since, Will Smith’s cockamamie film adaptation of the television series, Wild Wild West, a more replete image of the black cowboy has emerged in popular culture, too. A series of Beyoncé videos, including power-anthem "Formation," have featured black cowboys riding along. In “No Angel,” Beyoncé briefly appears as a black cowgirl dressed in white fur. The 2012 documentary and multimedia project, The Forgotten Cowboy, chronicles the lives of contemporary black cowboys; Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 alternative history revenge western, Django Unchained, was a rare, if overwrought, viewing of a black cowboy on the silver screen correcting injustice; Ron Tarver, a photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer who is also featured in the exhibition, spent the last two decades capturing  black cowboy communities in the city and across the country personally and for the paper. In The Basketball Game, Tarver shows a boy in motion, shooting a ball at a public court while his horse waits. The figure casts a long shadow that, for Hunt, “juxtaposes black life and the pressures of the urban landscape.” She says, “It’s the perfect metaphor for the long shadow of history and the expectations of the black male life.”

“We are always under the threat of erasure, communities of color, and that’s what make the story [of the black cowboy] so much more layered,” she explains. “It’s not John Wayne or an accepted popular cultural narrative. It’s a reality [...] one of grit and determination and sometimes violence. There is something about the independence and the power of what the image of the cowboy represents in my mind that is very applicable to the black experience.”

Black Cowboy continues through March 5 at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Click here for more information.

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