Mohamed Bourouissa, The City, 2016, gelatin silver print, spray paint, and lacquer on car metal plate and car body parts, 691/4x983⁄8x113/4".

Mohamed Bourouissa, The City, 2016, gelatin silver print, spray paint, and lacquer on car metal plate and car body parts, 691/4x983⁄8x113/4".

Mohamed Bourouissa

Mohamed Bourouissa, The City, 2016, gelatin silver print, spray paint, and lacquer on car metal plate and car body parts, 691/4x983⁄8x113/4".

Mohamed Bourouissa began his breakout series “Périphérique,” 2005–2009, after the riots that famously engulfed banlieues across France. Collaborating with friends and fellow inhabitants of the Paris suburbs he hails from, the artist created carefully staged tableaux vivants—borrowing compositional and lighting cues from paintings by the likes of Caravaggio, Delacroix, and Géricault—that captured eerie moments of undisclosed tension. By representing the viewpoint, lived experience, and urban milieu of the banlieues’ residents, Bourouissa’s depictions of and from the periphery did not alienate these people by objectifying them. In subsequent collaborations with marginalized communities and disenfranchised individuals, Bourouissa has continued to build and retain intimacy with his subjects, although his recent works, somewhat counterintuitively, rely on the latest photographic and imaging technology—from cell phone cameras to 3-D scanning and printing—to establish this rapport.

During an extended visit to Philadelphia in 2014, Bourouissa became interested in the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, an inner-city stable in the quaintly named northern neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion, where a group of black horsemen have created a safe haven and learning environment for local kids. While the white cowboy features prominently as a romantic figure in the mythology of the American West, that stereotype obscures the fact that a great many working cowboys were actually black, Latino, and Native American; Bourouissa’s Fletcher Street project draws attention to a living residue of that repressed history. He spent eight months living among and getting to know the club’s members, finally collaborating with them on an equestrian competition that showcased the skills of the riders and their horses. For the event—dubbed a “horse tuning expo”—each animal wore an extravagant costume made by a local artist. In the current exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, many of these outfits are mounted, trophy-like, on a large wall plastered with copies of a flyer made to promote the event. Some are made with cleverly repurposed materials drawn from the neighborhood: a garland of jump ropes, a chain-mail blanket of recycled CDs, a cascade of metallic red and silver streamers. The event’s festive DIY style and curious title recall facets of other famous black inner-city celebrations, from the camp theatricality of Mardi Gras Indians to the macho showmanship of tricked-out car culture.

Nearby, a horseshoe-shaped wooden enclosure, whose modest construction evokes that of stables, is filled with sketches and collages Bourouissa made during his stay in Philadelphia and after. One simply shows words copied from a neighborhood sign in a watery sepia: WE BUY/HOUSES/FAST/CASH, acknowledging the looming specter of gentrification. Others feature shots from classic westerns, their compositions carefully deconstructed, with faces casually obscured by colored pencil to allow for alternative racial projections. A ghostly white 3-D print of a rider’s head and shoulders sits atop a plinth made of compacted horse dung. These varied studies provide insight into Bourouissa’s process, as he experiments broadly to find an adequate formal language through which to valorize this unique community, always acutely aware of the risk of further alienating an already marginalized group by making a spectacle of their difference.

Projected in a darkened room behind the screen wall, the two-channel video Horse Day, 2015, juxtaposes footage of the expo with more intimate shots of the horsemen’s everyday lives in the lead-up to the event. Much of this has a documentary feel, but Bourouissa mixes up registers by including staged sequences such as a fast-paced montage in which a horseman and a green muscle car race through empty city streets. Viewed from two rows of repurposed car seats and employing an acoustic setup consisting of car speakers, the video’s installation emphasizes the analogy between these two urban pastimes. Bourouissa’s most elegant synthesis of these subcultures might, however, be the monumental, mostly wall-mounted sculptures in the final gallery of the exhibition. Here, the artist’s photographs of the horsemen are printed onto metal car parts that are assembled into large reliefs whose irregular, overlapping surfaces disrupt the flat picture plane and break out of the rectilinear structure of a traditional photograph. The black-and-white images in particular recall daguerreotypes or tintypes, their subjects floating like apparitions on their burnished metal substrates. Across all these media, the representation Bourouissa constructs remains provisional and propositional, never quite cohering into an authoritative image of either myth or reality. 

Murtaza Vali