August 2017 | Urban Cowboys from Philadelphia Ride into International Spotlight
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Urban Cowboys from Philadelphia Ride into International Spotlight

Suzanne Bush - August 2017

Mohamed BourouissaFrench-Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa.

The world is at once vast and small. On a street in Philadelphia generations of people have struggled against seemingly insurmountable odds to preserve a tradition of horsemanship. An artist in Paris stumbled upon photographs of these urban cowboys and was fascinated by the juxtaposition of horses and cars in a large American city.

His visit to Fletcher Street Riding Stables turned into an eight-month odyssey, during which he photographed the people, along with the horses and the cars they had to dodge while they pursued their passion for all things equine. The chief curator of one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, on a visit to Paris, discovered a selection of work featuring Philadelphia’s urban cowboys. Et Voila!

Serendipity brought the Fletcher Street Riding Stables, French-Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa, and Sylvie Patry, the Chief Curator of the Barnes Foundation, together. Urban Riders, the exhibition that showcases the people, horses and traditions of the Fletcher Street Riding Stables, opened in June at the Barnes (http://www.barnesfoundation.org/) and will run through October 2.

Curiosity Drew the Artist to Philadelphia

Bourouissa explores concepts such as power and poverty in his work. He had seen some photos by Martha Camarillo in a gallery. She had visited Fletcher Street, and her photos of the people, the neighborhood and the horses inspired Bourouissa to learn more. As he walked around Philadelphia, and spent time with the people at Fletcher Street, he began thinking about how what he was seeing could be made into art that would have meaning to the people he was photographing and the people for whom Fletcher Street would be a startling revelation. He knew that to do justice to the people and the project, he had to immerse himself in the place. “I was planning on staying, because the physical aspect is important to me,” he explains. “It’s not just how you walk on the street and how you discover people. My work all the time is how you see and feel. I needed to be there.”

What the artist found in Philadelphia was a community of cowboys, a community that was preserving a history that pre-dates cars. “We use the car for just 100 years,” he says. “We use the horses for how many years?” English is Bourouissa’s third language. Cindy Kang, the assistant curator at the Barnes Foundation, who is fluent in French, helped navigate some of the more complicated questions and answers.

Fletcher Street, it turns out, is both the same and radically different from riding stables elsewhere in Pennsylvania and thousands of American suburbs. The facility may look different. There are no pastures and turnout is sparse. Riders navigate car traffic on busy city streets in order to get to the trails in Fairmount Park. It’s less than a mile, but equestrians accustomed to suburban riding would probably blanch at the prospect of contending with cars, horns, kids on bikes, motorcycles, etc.

At Fletcher Street, though, deep emotional ties between the horses and the people who care for them are obvious, just as they are at more conventional stables. Kids who want to ride must follow the rules: no fighting; homework and school work must be completed. “The kids come to clean the horse and to ride,” Bourouissa said. “I started to learn a lot about the community and about the type of patience they have.” The adults, many of whom came to Fletcher Street as kids, enforce discipline while teaching the new generation of riders to respect and care for the horses. “The world of the horse is very complex,” he said. It was eye-opening for him to see how much work and skill are required.

In an interview with Okwui Enwezor, director of Haus der Kunst (the House of Art) in Munich, Bourouissa explained that the traditional version of the American cowboy was upended by the reality of the Fletcher Street Riding Stables. In that version, “you have this horizon and the possibility of seeing far into the distance.” The horizon Philadelphia’s cowboys see is fractured by skyscrapers and instead of vast, open spaces there are streets choked with cars. Further, the imaginary cowboy most non-Americans visualize is white. These cowboys are black. While American movies created a world in which the cowboys who helped settle the country were white, the reality is that cowboys were a diverse population.

Cars and Cowboys Merge

Back in Paris, Bourouissa began working on the art that would celebrate the people he had met in Philadelphia. He created sculptures from parts of cars—doors, hoods, windows. He transferred the pictures he had taken in Philadelphia onto the car parts. The faces of Philadelphia cowboys and their horses stare back from the hood of a car, or a car door. He said that he chose to use parts of French cars for the sculptures because he wanted to illuminate the bridge between American and French culture.

“Rap and hip-hop is an American style of music, but in France they developed their own form, which is very important there,” he explained. He said that similarly the French took the design and influence of American cars and “turned them into their own thing.”

In the interview with Enwezor, Bourouissa described how the car fit into his depiction of the Fletcher Street cowboys. “The cowboy in a way is a representation of domination and power,” he said. “The car is too, but it also represents an industry that is in crisis.”

“When I was in Paris in 2015, I visited the gallery that takes care of Mohamed’s art,” Sylvie Patry said. “There were some pieces that were made in Philadelphia, and I was immediately struck by the fact that it could be a very relevant project for Philadelphia and for the Barnes.”

In addition to sculpture and drawings, Bourouissa worked with the people at the stable on a special event featuring the Fletcher Street cowboys. Horse Day was a celebration of the history, the people and the horses of Fletcher Street. He invited local Philadelphia artists to help create costumes for the horses, based on each rider’s ideas. The July 2014 event, held in the field across from the stables, featured the costumed horses and a variety of competitions, ranging from obstacle courses to pony tag. The costumes created for this event are included in the Barnes exhibition, along with a video of the competition, which captures the excitement and the crowds of people who came out to watch.

“Mohamed is an artist who is recognized internationally and there is a resonance,” Patry said. “We operate with the right level of quality, and what was really interesting to us is that it (Bourouissa’s work) was rooted in Philadelphia.” She said that when Dr. Barnes began assembling his art collection, he envisioned opportunities to reach out to a diverse audience for both the enjoyment of the art and for art education. “This idea of focusing on a project that gives such a prominence to this community is a way to tell everybody that the Barnes goes back to this founding principle that is even more relevant today.”

Lasting Impressions

Bourouissa said that the time he spent in Philadelphia changed him, especially in the way he thinks about the historical space occupied by cowboys in America. His focus as an artist is often on marginalized communities and the tensions that exist both within them and beyond their boundaries. “I decided to live in the Fletcher Street community,” he told Enwezor. “The ten-minute walk each day from the house to the stable was an interesting way to discover exactly how the city works, the relationship between the different neighborhoods.” He could see what he called fragmentation and segregation, and through his daily walks he was able to feel it and understand how it affected the people at Fletcher Street.

“I think it’s really something that moved me a lot,” Patry said about the Urban Riders exhibit. “I’ve been able to witness the way he works, and I was absolutely sure that it was not about finding a subject and exploiting it.”

She believes that Dr. Barnes himself would enthusiastically applaud this exhibit. “Barnes when he created the foundation and even before that, he was very committed to the African American community. This idea of focusing on a project that gives such a prominence to this community is a way to tell everybody that the Barnes goes back to this founding principle that is even more relevant today.”