Shortly after I moved to Philadelphia many years ago, I was astonished while strolling in Fairmount Park to see a group of African American men in full cowboy garb galloping toward me on horseback. It was like something out of a movie I'd never seen.
I couldn't wait to tell friends about it, but they were unimpressed. Everyone knows about the black cowboys, I was told. It's one of those Philly things, I learned, a quiet, longstanding tradition that has now lasted for more than a century.
"Mohamed Bourouissa: Urban Riders," through Oct. 2 at the Barnes Foundation, is about an outsider discovering Philadelphia's horsemen.
Bourouissa, a widely exhibited, Paris-based, Algerian-born artist, first saw his subjects in photographs. Subsequently, he came on a reconnaissance trip and, in 2014, moved for eight months to Philadelphia where he won the trust of many members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.
He orchestrated an event, Horse Day, described as a "horse-tuning exhibition," and made a film of it. He has since used some of the photographs he took at the time and incorporated them into wall-mounted sculptures made from scrapped car bodies.
"I provide an impetus to begin something, then I film and document what happens," Bourouissa says in the flier distributed at the exhibition. "I think the most interesting part of a project is not the video or resulting material, but the energy that the event creates. … I'm interested in building bridges, interactions, and exchanges."
Such excitement might have been inescapable for those who attended Horse Day in 2014, but it is difficult to pack up all that energy and move it to a gleaming palace on the Parkway. The Barnes show consists of the film, watercolor sketches, and notes by Bourouissa; garlands and blankets made for the horses by others; four of the metal sculptures; and a handful of other items related to the riders. For most visitors, it will feel like documentation of something they missed.
Bourouissa presents himself as a product of a marginalized group in the suburban slums of Paris where many North Africans live, and he and his art are strongly affected by post-modern and post-colonialist theory. In an interview in the very comprehensive catalog that accompanies the exhibition, Bourouissa says that he came to Philadelphia expecting to find "alterity"— otherness. He sees the United States as a violent place, with extreme inequality and social segregation, and he found that in Philadelphia. The work appears to be both a celebration and a condemnation of the culture that it depicts.
Bourouissa, who was born in 1978, started out as a painter, but until recently, he has concentrated on photography and filmmaking. Though his pictures appear to be candid shots, in the tradition of street photography, in fact they are very carefully posed. Indeed, Bourouissa often makes elaborate sketches of his photographs before he takes them.
The exhibition includes dozens of drawings, watercolors, and photos he made in conjunction with Horse Day. They are displayed in a hodgepodge, as if nobody really expects you look at them. Many of them seem to show what he wanted to happen. The Fletcher Street riders may have been the stars of the show, but Bourouissa was the choreographer.
The Barnes show will make no sense unless you watch the 13-minute double-screen film Bourouissa made about Horse Day and the Fletcher Street riders. This is where you hear some of the riders talk about John Wayne and cowboys, even though nobody in the film is in cowboy costume. You also see men riding their horses through desolate urban landscapes.
Much of what is on display in the galleries can be glimpsed in the film, most notably the horse adornments that were made by local artists. My favorite of these was by Emmanuel Taati, who used Crisco shortening and charcoal to draw a partial skeleton on the outside of a horse. In the show, he has recreated the drawing on a piece of plywood.
The film also suggests a relationship between the riders and American car culture, a subject in which the artist is particularly interested. Indeed, the entire idea of "horse-tuning" seems to be something he picked up from car customizers.
His desire to show a connection between horse culture, car culture, and the life in the crumbling city produced the strongest pieces in the show: the scrap-and-photography hybrid sculptures that Bourouissa calls The Hood. The largest of these, The Ride, is 24 feet wide and six feet high.
As Bourouissa acknowledges, there are many precedents for these pieces, but they feel like something new. The photographs are printed directly on the pieces of car body, whose bent and jagged form reflects the difficult and unpredictable lives of the people shown.
As you look at the scrap, you see many different individual faces, and the familiar, gritty rowhouse streets that constitute most of the city. You see different images on different layers and planes of the sculptures. They are moments that cohere into experience. Though it is not a vision that tourism promoters would push, The Ride is a monumental and multifarious evocation of the experience of being Philadelphian. It almost makes me proud.
The other scrap pieces are equally strong. The smallest of them, Timer, has only one photograph, showing a young man. But it has such power, it almost suggests a new way of doing a commemorative monument.
I am skeptical of exhibitions that present art as if it were a form of social work. Moreover, I find the politics of this encounter to be complicated. Bourouissa, avatar of the French North African underclass and European art-world darling, coming to America to study and interact with urban outsiders, has a whiff of colonialism about it, something that is only accentuated by the luxurious setting of the Barnes Foundation.
But in addition to the cultural-studies jargon he deploys, Bourouissa talks about a subject many artists avoid — beauty. He sees it not as something an artist can discover. Rather, he argues, it is something the artist needs to create. What saves this exhibition is that sometimes, he does.
Mohamed Bourouissa: Urban Riders
Through Oct. 2 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesday. Evening hours 6–9 p.m. the first Friday of the month.
Tickets: $25 (adults), $23 (seniors), $10 (youth 6-18 and students). Free on weekdays for students with ID and at all times for children under 6.
Information: 215-278-7000 or barnesfoundation.org.