Barnes Foundation presents ‘Mohammed Bourouissa: Urban Riders’

Corralling the urban cowboy myth

One of the missions of the Barnes is to champion diversity, inclusion, and social justice. This time, they nailed it. Mohammed Bourouissa’s first major solo exhibition in the United States, Urban Riders, takes the myth of the American cowboy and turns it on its head. In his exciting installation of drawings, photos, film, and sculptural pieces, Bourouissa presents an alternative to a Western landscape populated by white men and cattle. He gives us black riders on the streets of North Philly.

'Still from Horse Day, 2015,' video diptych by Mohammed Bourouissa. (Photo courtesy of Mohammed Bourouissa and Kamel Mennour.)

Paris to Philly

The 39-year-old Algerian-born French artist focused on the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, an organization of black equestrians in the Strawberry Mansion section that dates back over 100 years. Back then, horses were the primary means of transport and the neighborhood was more rural. Now black riders navigate their horses along highly trafficked streets as they make their way to Fairmount Park, causing motorists to gawk in disbelief.

Bourouissa, who is internationally acclaimed for works addressing issues of culture, race, and class, saw in North Philly’s urban riders the same tensions and social injustice he experienced as a Muslim immigrant in the outskirts of Paris. Rather than merely observing the riding club as an outsider, Bourouissa embedded himself in the community for eight months in 2014. He saw how the club offers urban youth an alternative to neighborhood violence: while learning how to ride and care for horses, black teens also build their confidence. 

Celebrating "Horse Day"

'Sans Titre,' by Mohammed Bourouissa. (Photo courtesy of Mohammed Bourouissa and Kamel Mennour.)
'Sans Titre,' by Mohammed Bourouissa. (Photo courtesy of Mohammed Bourouissa and Kamel Mennour.)

Collaborating with American artists and riding club members, Bourouissa created an equestrian event called “Horse Day” in which riders competed. Divided into three section, Urban Riders begins with the artist’s preliminary sketches, photos, and a sculpture of a young rider created by 3-D imaging. Encased in the same raw wood used at the Fletcher Street stables, this section was built by club members. Whimsical costumes created by local artists turned riders into surreal cowboys from a magical realm: imagine a horse “blanket” made entirely from CDs. Artists include Max Lussenhop, Billy Dufala, Anthony Campuzana, Kate Abercrombie, and Shelby Donnelly.

The second section and, to me, the most captivating, is a mini-theater displaying a 13-minute split-screen film of Horse Day and the Fletcher Street community. The film reveals that one of the best contestants is a rider whose only “costume” is the live music to which he performs daredevil feats on horseback. If you think standing up on the seat of your Schwinn takes nerve, try it on a galloping horse!

That said, the third and final section best displays Bourouissa’s ingenuity. Monumental assemblage works form a series called The Hood, which plays with the role of the car versus horses in urban life. It combines discarded parts of French-made cars, horseback riding gear, wood, and metal with black-and-white gelatin silver print images.

“I think the most interesting part of a project is not the video or resulting material,” says Bourouissa, “but the energy that the event creates — between the participants, but also with the people of the neighborhood. I’m interested in building bridges, interactions, and exchanges.”

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