French-Algerian artist feels affinity with a US urban neighbourhood
Philadelphia - “Urban Riders,” an art exhibit at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, allowed Europeans, Arabs and Americans take a second look at the city. Inspired by his sojourn among young African-American horsemen from North Philadelphia, Mohamed Bourouissa created drawings and collages, a two-channel video and a series of monumental sculptures.
In 2014, Bourouissa, born in Algeria and reared in the poor suburbs of Paris, spent nine months living near members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. Like many French, he was aware of so-called urban cowboys in cities such as New Orleans and Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia club was founded more than 100 years ago when horses still figured in the daily lives of residents. Under the direction of their elders, young men learned to care for animals and, in an often-violent part of town, received love in return. Now, Bourouissa said, most of the riders have their own horses and facilities.
“From outside, it’s very exotic. For sure, it’s very touchy when I say that but the first time someone sees a black man on a horse, it changes the idea of representation,” he said. “It reverses the position of the poor.”
Bourouissa said he saw similarities between young people from the French banlieue and North Philadelphia. The communities share “code,” he said. Both groups endure prejudice and police brutality and they listen to music from Africa and the African diaspora.
Through art, he wanted to build a bridge from Algerians and other Africans in France to African Americans in the United States. He went to Philadelphia with the intention of filming the club’s everyday activities. When he got there, he decided to organise an event called Horse Day, which became the title and subject of a 14-minute film.
Bourouissa recruited ten local artists of various backgrounds to design horse costumes in consultation with the riders. Visitors to the Barnes can see their handiwork.
First, however, Bourouissa had to befriend the young men and master French-American cultural differences. “I remember the first time I went to Fletcher Street. I wanted to create a unicorn. One of the riders didn’t understand what I was trying to do. He told me, ‘Unicorns are for kids, Mohamed,’” Bourouissa said.
“To me, imagination is very subversive, so I was very hurt but during the opening at the Barnes, he asked me if I put the unicorn in the film because, for him, unicorns were strong. I think this shows the power of my collaboration and his participation in the project. We can change our perceptions.”
Bourouissa produced an emotionally and sociologically vivid portrait of the riders and their environment. On two screens, the video is literally and figuratively moving on more than one plane. It opens, on half of the screen, with an aerial view of the Strawberry Mansion neighbourhood in the summer and, on the other half, a lone rider navigating a snow-covered, industrial streetscape.
The viewer hears conversations between riders and artists such as Puerto Rican-American Ricardo “Dino” Vazquez, who made a glittering caparison out of spent DVDs. Rapper Calvin Okunoye engaged another young person. The discussions border on philosophy and show the love between riders and animals, despite their harsh circumstances.
“They are very connected to their horses,” Bourouissa said. “Every horse has a name. When you give a horse a name, you give him personality.”
During the competition, a white horse parades with a black skeleton painted on its coat. Another is winged like Hermes. Yet another’s sides flow with Mylar streamers to match the rider’s headdress.
Milan, one of the competitors, who requested to be identified by his first name only, his animal sans costume, displays athletic horsemanship before a pleased, racially diverse crowd. The two are clearly the winners in a loser-less competition. The viewer recalled Milan’s words, while riding earlier with a companion: “If everybody wins, what kind of competition is that?”
In France, Bourouissa crafted assemblages of European car parts to “frame” superimposed photographs of the riders. The sculptures explore the connection between the horse and the automobile, as well as social marginalisation and ideas of “the Other.” “When you are from the outside, you have only your own frame,” the artist said. “If you look at the reflection of the photos in the cars, you see the distortion of reality.”
Albert Barnes (1872-1951), founder of the museum, would have appreciated Bourouissa’s thinking. A controversial figure in his day, Barnes said that African, American Indian and other traditions had influenced Western fine art. Sylvie Patry, curator of the exhibit, first spotted the “Urban Riders” project in a gallery in Paris. She channelled Barnes by showing Bourouissa’s work in Philadelphia.
Those familiar with France, the United States and Arab and African countries and cultures could perceive subtle and stirring connections through “Urban Riders.” They cross Bourouissa’s bridge easily.