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Mohamed Bourouissa ”Urban Riders” Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris

by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi

This is not the first appearance in a museum for Urban Riders, Mohamed Bourouissa’s exhibition that opened at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris on January 26. Albeit in slightly reduced form, the project has already been hosted by the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia over the past two years. Yet the show assumes a specific valence here in Paris, above all for being the first solo presentation ever dedicated by a French institution to this Algerian-born artist, whose work has become, in the last decade, a stunning voice for the Parisian peripheries. Born in Bilda in 1978 and raised in an rent-controlled housing in Courbevoie, Bourouissa has often shown himself to be part of a realist tradition that spans from August Sander to Gustave Courbet. The artist reaffirms it at the Musée d’Art Moderne by targeting and deconstructing none other than John Wayne and Western movies.

First things first, though: realism, I was saying. Bourouissa and Courbet share the same principle in which every portrait or representation is, per se, a political act of social inclusion. One can see it from the very beginning of the show, where I’m welcomed by a large-format picture that recalls Diego Velázquez’s Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares (1634): the composition and the subject’s peculiar posture are unequivocally the same. In Bourouissa’s photograph, however, the Spanish nobleman is replaced by a black guy in a T-shirt and jeans who looks like the banlieusards appearing in many other works by the artist. Who am I staring at, then?

The young adult in the picture is part of a group of African American horsemen who gravitate toward the urban stables of Fletcher Street in Strawberry Mansion, a low-income (but risking gentrification) neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia. The image doesn’t correspond to the high-bourgeois stereotype of dressage nor to the Marlboro Man, yet this riding community has been active in the area since the beginning of the last century. “You are dead wrong if you think the cliché of the white cowboy is in any way true,” the artist confirms. “To be a cowboy was awful, so originally the job was done either by Mexicans or liberated slaves. Only after 1840 a wave of Irish immigrants changed the game, and the literary celebration of the Old Wild West started. Part of the history remained hidden, though, and Fletcher Street is part of that history.” Bourouissa—who discovered Fletcher Street through the namesake photo series shot by Martha Camarillo—stayed in Philadelphia for eight months in 2014, working with these contemporary cowboys to give their proud legacy the epic it deserved. Rather than attempting an archaeology of the West, the artist focused on founding a collective ritual capable of integrating the diverse contexts and identities at play. As one can read on the flyers almost entirely covering the walls of the exhibition, Bourouissa named July 13, 2014, Horse Day, a celebratory block party with a full program of freestyle competitions, races, and parades. Car tuning contests were also imagined for this new festivity. A group of local artists were asked to decorate the Fletcher Street stallions as if the animals were fast vehicles or living sculptures. Either Jacques Derrida or Étienne Balibar would be needed now.

The presentation develops toward the documentation of this exciting moment of pure urban utopia. After the equestrian portrait, I encounter seven saddles adorned with shiny but cheap materials: CDs, jumping ropes, fake flowers. The seats are the result of Bourouissa’s collaboration with the local art scene in Philadelphia and hang quite high on the wall, looking like regal heirlooms. Then five large wooden screens stop my path. They display sixty-six drawings that can be understood—the artist says—as personal notes on the project. Scrolling through the pages, I notice some composition studies on film frames from John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), a now-classic Western movie whose leading character is a solitary racist cowboy. Concluding the show are four massive wall sculptures—monumental assemblages of riding equipment and pieces of car bodywork on which Bourouissa printed his photos of Fletcher Street, employing innovative techniques he developed in his studio. People and landscape, flatness and depth, horses and vehicles merge in a metallic panorama that reflects the social stratification of the Strawberry Mansion community.

Special reference must be made to Horse Day, the two-screen video installation at the core of the gallery space. It is as if every fight scene was cut from a Western movie on purpose: what remains are long gazes toward the horizon, slow rides—though not on a prairie but in a concrete jungle—a perfect soundtrack by Calvin Okunoye. Yet the artwork is not fiction; it documents the whole production process of this project. The pride of the horsemen during the festival is in there, but also some communication difficulties between the cowboys and the artists. There is the epic, but not the simplistic do-goodism. If Horse Day is a meta-cinematographic movie, Urban Riders is, in some ways, a meta-exhibition. The show surely becomes such in a distinctive space of the gallery that Bourouissa has kept separate from the other rooms. It is a workshop corner where at some point other artists— Fayçal Baghriche, Gaëlle Choisne, and the rapper Casey – will step in to dialogue with specific temporary communities. Waiting for the room to activate, Bourouissa has already intervened: disseminated on walls and tables I read an articulated apparatus of documents referring to the acquisitions of Algerian art made by the Musée d’Art Moderne before and after the African state’s declaration of independence in 1962. Rediscovering the work of Abdallah Benanteur (1931–2017), one also finds that it is actually possible to approach topics related to multiculturalism and cultural appropriation in more sophisticated ways than the simple asking of whether or not Cindy Sherman is racist, whether or not a painting must be removed from a show.

at Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris
through April 22

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