Mohamed Bourouissa's works liberate black masculinity from stigmatisation and challenge the myth of the American West. By Jessica Cole
Mohamed Bourouissa's new show Urban Riders marks the French Algerian artist’s first solo exhibition within a major French art institution, the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art. A celebration of contemporary America's black horsemen, Bourouissa's works liberate black masculinity from the bounds of stigmatisation and challenge the myth of the American West.
The exhibition is formed around Bourouissa's 2015 film Horse Day, which captures the community-run Fletcher street stables in a North Philadelphia neighbourhood. Situated in the deprived and predominantly black area Strawberry Mansion, two screens simultaneously play parallel narratives of the Fletcher Street stables: the daily experiences of the Urban Riders, and the Horse Day event. The eerie and beautiful images of black men riding through an inner-city area feel immediately peculiar – though Bourouissa is inviting the viewer to reflect on why this sight feels odd, to re-evaluate their own preconceptions.
'The John Wayne-type figure, representing honour and self-reliance, navigating the frontier becomes a lone beanie-wearing rider clip-clopping along the sidewalk'
The film also goes beyond the activities of today's riders by referencing historical tropes of the archetypal American cowboy. The John Wayne-type figure, representing honour and self-reliance, navigating the frontier becomes a lone beanie-wearing rider clip-clopping along the sidewalk. A rugged natural landscape is replaced by the streets of a reputedly rough suburb where derelict warehouses now loom over the backdrop, rusted by industrial decline. In one scene two riders trot down the ghost town of a disused industrial estate; however, instead of tumbleweed rolling behind the riders, a sleek SUV crawls onto the road.
Bourouissia seems to be drawing on the similarities between representations of inner city gang culture and the American tradition of western outlaws to interrogate how one type of figure is viewed with nostalgia, while the other is feared. The development of the Wild West symbolises the birthplace of White America, the period it formed a culture unique from its European counterparts. This culture is remembered for gun toting lone rangers, spurred and mounted on horseback, tackling the mountainous frontiers during the expansion. Western films, such as John Ford's 1954 classic The Searchers, imagine a golden age dominated by white masculinity, which conquered the savagery of the wild and its Native American inhabitants. The irony of Ford’s vision, however, is that the heroic escapades of Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne) are actually based on the experiences of a black cowboy named Britt Johnson, whose wife and children were captured by Comanaches in 1865. The dominant imagery of cowboys that informs contemporary ideals of masculinity, rejects the diverse reality where one in four cowboys were, in fact, black Americans. Horse Day, by refiguring these western cinematic tropes, effectively exposes this cultural distortion.
'In these details, Bourouissa allows his riders to assert their individuality, dissembling a homogeneous view of the black male experience.'
The second screen shows the Horse Day gala held at the stables. This celebration of a moment where black masculinity can perform a role from which it has been historically forgotten recentres a black American experience. The location is a strip of park field lined with plastic gazebos. A live band with drummers beat out rhythms, while spectators armed with smartphones capture the riders competing in different events. One of the shots sees a rider sat knight-like atop his white horse, which is draped in a blanket of CD discs. Another of these urban riders gallops on a horse covered with streamers of metallic foil. In these details, Bourouissa allows his riders to assert their individuality, dissembling a homogeneous view of the black male experience.
'They are deeply elegant objects that, in being brought into the gallery space, make the experiences of Bourouissa's subjects tangibly present.'
The film is also complemented in the exhibition by an accompanying tableau of sketchbook drawings, sculptures and photography, as well as the rider's saddles mounted like trophies on the gallery walls. There are an eclectic array of pieces: some are sculpted from metal or wood and stand erect from their hook, others are defined by long draped fabrics of soft blues and whites, or twisted knots of red ropes. They are deeply elegant objects that, in being brought into the gallery space, make the experiences of Bourouissa's subjects tangibly present.
The assertion and honouring of this fascinating culture finally becomes a powerful representation of self-expression. Bourouissa's Urban Riders successfully remounts black creativity within a space and history from which it has been all too often excluded. ◉
Urban Riders is showing at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art until 22 April 2018. More information can be accessed here.