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The Black Cowboys Whitewashed from American History

Julia Friedman


2017, FEB 8

The photographs and videos in Black Cowboy at the Studio Museum show images of nonwhite cowboys, bringing Americana in line with historical accuracy.

The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Black Cowboy seeks to rectify the whitewashed identity of an American archetype. The cowboy — a historical figure, a way of life and livelihood, a symbol of Manifest Destiny, an advertising trope, an idealized version of manhood, and a tragic loner — is no simple symbol.


There are a number of photographs in Black Cowboy that allude to the subject in a less complex way than Lawson’s. Four images by Ron Tarver show cowboys riding through urban or semi-urban environments. These works are evocative visual juxtapositions, particularly one in which a man in a cowboy hat rides past a mural of Malcolm X — two disparate symbols of independence meeting for a moment. Three portraits by Brad Trent depict cowboys posing with props: lassos, western saddles, and hay bales. But neither Tarver’s nor Trent’s images are wrestling with cowboy identity in depth.

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