Why You’ve Never Heard about Black Cowboys

Molly Gottschalk

Artsy

2017, FEB 9

At age 15, Amanda Hunt, now associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, came across an unlikely figure in a Philadelphia park: a black cowboy.

Not the rugged white frontiersmen one thinks of as a “cowboy,” the man stuck in her mind. Years later, an encounter with a second black cowboy, riding the subway in Harlem, reignited her curiosity. Today, African-American cowboys are the subject of an exhibition at the Studio Museum curated by Hunt, “Black Cowboy,” which surfaces their little-known legacy.

“That was the first vision or possibility of that community that I came in contact with,” recalls Hunt, who assembled a collection of photographs and videos by six artists, including Deana Lawson, Mohamed Bourouissa, Brad Trent, Kahlil Joseph, Chandra McCormick, and Ron Tarver, to bring these communities to light.

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Among the show’s strongest images are a set of four photographs taken in Hunt’s hometown, by Philadelphia Inquirer photographer Tarver, who has documented black cowboys for some 20 years. A 1993 photograph sees a black boy shooting hoops on an urban basketball court with his horse tied up to the side; another finds a man seated on his horse before a mural depicting Malcolm X. “It’s kind of crazy that something that happens to you at 15 comes back around,” Hunt says, recalling that first encounter. “It’s nice to come full circle on these things; you know, it’s personal.”