PHILADELPHIA — An artist of Algerian descent who grew up in low-income housing outside Paris immersed himself for more than eight months in an urban riding club in Philadelphia, where black horsemen are trying to keep their traditions alive in a neighborhood struggling with poverty, drugs and violence.
The end result of Mohamed Bourouissa’s time with the 100-year-old Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is on display at the Barnes Foundation through Oct. 2. It’s a multimedia exhibit he says is his way to give back to the riders in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood who shared their world with him, and to bring his art back to the place of inspiration.
“I’m interested in building bridges, in interactions,” Bourouissa said.
He decided that rather than just take photos of the riders, he wanted to create art they could participate in. He devised an idea of staging “Horse Day,” an equestrian competition that involved outfitting the riders and horses in fantastical costumes.
The exhibit is divided into three parts: the preparation for Horse Day through photos and sketches, and flyers, the finished costumes and materials used to make them; the two-screen film of the preparation and the event itself; and finally a series of sculptural pieces called “The Hood.”
Among the costumes mounted on a wall papered in advertisements for the July 13, 2014, event was a garland like those draped on horses after races like the Kentucky Derby. This one, created by Philadelphia artist Shelby Donnelly, was made entirely out of jump ropes, some frayed, some taken apart, revealing all the colorful fabric inside them, with a lineup of red handles to make noise as the horse ran.
“The icon of what a jump rope is felt very urban to me, in term of play and children at play,” she said.
The exhibit moves into the movie room, where the 13-minute, two-screen film plays on a loop, showing preparations, costume making and the spectacle itself.
On Horse Day, the red-and-white and blue-and-white striped tents on the open green field are reminiscent of a medieval joust, juxtaposed with the red brick row houses, low-rise apartment blocks, chain link and vacant lots surrounding the field.
The costumes give a surreal sense to the gritty urban scene as the riders perform individually before the judges: there’s a horse adorned with a blanket of CDs, like some futuristic armor; there’s another covered in long, shiny, red and silver streamers, and at one point the rider has the streamers on his head like a glitzy headdress. Drum lines and live bands provide the soundtrack as the community looks on.
The exhibit then moves into “The Hood” — a series of sculptural pieces made from French car hoods and body panels with photographs of the riding club printed on them, mixed with harnesses and other riding gear. Some of the images seem ghostly and antiqued, others are saturated with color; many seem otherworldly.
One piece called “Boy With The Hood” is particularly poignant. At its center is a boy on a horse with his face away from the camera, wearing a black hoodie. It evokes the image of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year old boy who was shot and killed walking home from a convenience store by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Bourouissa says the piece wasn’t intended to reflect that case, which sparked protests and a national debate about race relations.
Bourouissa says the project is as much the riders’ as it is his, and calls it “an exchange.”
In the film, as the Horse Day awards are handed out, one rider holds his first place trophy, a sculpture made by Bourouissa, aloft over his head. Another rider can be heard saying: “It made me feel like something, man. I thought we were just gonna have fun.”