By Almah LaVon Rice
Erased from history. Neglected. Overlooked. Hidden. Makes Critical Race Theory haters tremble.
These are the words and phrases that alight on photographer Ron Tarver’s mind when he considers the popular iconography of the Black cowboy. “I tried to publish a book in the ’90s [about Black cowboys] and could not get anyone interested,” recalls Tarver, whose photojournalism in The Philadelphia Inquirer garnered a joint Pulitzer Prize in 2012. “In fact, an editor at a publishing house told me there were no such things as Black cowboys.” But that laughable ahistoricism is belied by the widespread adoption of the word “cowboy” itself: Anglo cowhands were more likely to be called just that, while Black cowhands were pejoratively dubbed “cowboys” no matter their age.
Thankfully, Black cowboy imagery is galloping out of the pop culture shadows—from the stylings of rappers Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion to the foot-stomping reception to Chapel Hart, a cowgirl singing trio. There is Concrete Cowboy, a feature film based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri. The 2020 release was inspired by Philadelphia’s Black horsemanship traditions, which Tarver has also chronicled in his photography. The Harder They Fall was filmed in New Mexico and released last year, becoming one of the few Westerns with an all-Black principal cast.
But perhaps nothing has branded Black cowboy imagery in the recent collective consciousness like the Black Lives Matter protests of June 2020. Galvanized by the filmed murder of George Floyd and the extrajudicial killings of other Black Americans, the Compton Cowboys created and led a peace ride through the streets of Compton, a city in southern Los Angeles County. These mounted freedom fighters made a powerful social and visual statement with matching black T-shirts, cowboy hats, masks, bandanas, and raised fists. At Oakland’s BLM protests, Brianna Noble of Urban Cowgirl Ranch sat atop Dapper Dan, her Appaloosa gelding, and became an international icon of resistance.
It’s against this dynamic backdrop that the Harwood Museum of Art stages Outriders: Legacy of the Black Cowboy. The exhibition in Taos features archival photographs, historical texts, and present-day renderings of the Black buckaroo. Contemporary Black artists (Tarver, Praise Fuller, Nate Young, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Kennedi Carter, Ivan B. McClellan, and Alexander Harrison) aptly demonstrate in this show that the Black cowboy tradition still breathes and bronco-busts through barriers. The Harwood, the second-oldest museum in the state, offers Outriders through May 7, 2023.
Even a cursory look into the annals of the cattle driving industry reveals that African American outriders were no outliers. Historians estimate that, in the nineteenth century, one in four cowboys was Black. In fact, according to the nonprofit BlackPast, Black bondsmen constituted the majority of the cowboys in 1850s Texas.
And according to Larry Callies, founder of the Black Cowboy Museum in Rosenberg, Texas, the widely touted one-in-four estimate is just too conservative. Black cowboys were deliberately hidden during census roundups so that white ranch (and slave) owners could evade taxes, he claims. “My dad was a cowboy, my uncles were cowboys,” remembers Callies in a documentary from The Guardian. “Everybody I knew in my family were cowboys. And I asked my dad one time when I was about six, ‘Dad, where are the white cowboys?’”
Callies’s father made it clear that the prevalence of African American cowboys was not happenstance. “It’s like picking cotton,” he replied, invoking another industry associated with enslaved labor—because the duties associated with cattle driving were backbreaking and far from glamorous, despite the mass-media conception of the cowboy as an avatar of unbridled freedom, a flâneur on horseback.
Enslaved Black Muslim men were the first true “cow men,” or vaqueros, asserts Lawrence Clayton in his book, Vaqueros, Cowboys, and Buckaroos. During their 800-year rule of Spain, Moors transmitted their riding styles, horsemanship skills, and horse breeding knowledge to the Spanish. When Hernán Cortés and other Spanish conquistadors invaded present-day Mexico, they brought with them Black Muslim enslaved people who were also equestrians. (Even the modern Western saddle derives from the Moorish saddle.) BlackPast also notes that Senegalese stock grazers, who were enslaved in South Carolina and South American colonies, are part of the Black ancestral cowboy legacy that eventually spread throughout the American West. Of course, Black cowboys perfected their craft under the tutelage of Indigenous cattle wranglers and Mexican vaqueros of various ethnicities.
These multiethnic, multicultural, and even multinational contributions to The Cowboy™ have traditionally been missing from the popular imagination. Silver-screen depictions of the cowboy have been overwhelmingly limited to John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and other white men meant to embody rugged Americana. In some cases, specific Black cowboys have been whitewashed out of the picture. Although a white actor played the titular character in 1949 TV series The Lone Ranger—the masked Texas Ranger who was the very paragon of cowboy ethics—the actual Lone Ranger was Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. John Wayne’s character in the movie The Searchers (1956), although white, is modeled after the real-life Britt Johnson, a noted Black cowboy. According to Callies, white Hollywood cowboys were imitating the storied Black marksman and cowboy Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick. In addition, cowpunchers of African descent infused cowboy traditions with various innovations. It was Afro-Cherokee cowboy Bill Pickett who invented the rodeo technique only for the most intrepid: bulldogging, or steer wrestling. (Black cowboy legend John Ware is said to have popularized the practice in Canada.) Black Seminole cowgirl Johanna July invented a protocol for taming wild horses, leading the U.S. Army to retain her as a wild horse tamer. But the open range and the rodeo were not the only places a Black cowboy could make history. George McJunkin was one of the best ropers in the country and is credited with the 1908 discovery of the Folsom Site—one of the most significant archaeological sites in North America—in eastern Colfax County, New Mexico.
Ballad for the Mane that Blooms. Mutualism Between Woman and Horse. A Study of Companionship in a Pasture. Today I Braided a Mare’s Mane to Match Mine. A Ravening Wolf is also a Nursing Mother. My Box Braids are Sweetgrass. Ant Raft on Bloody Lake, Anthill on my Gravesite.
These are titles of discrete works inside Praise Fuller’s Is Heaven A Mountain?, a 2021 cyanotype exhibition at Blue Rose Gallery in Houston. But they also float into the reader’s mind as poems do, revealing as they conceal. This is no accident, as Fuller admits: “My first dive into creativity was through poetry and creative writing.” Her father was also a poet and as such, she adds, “It’s one of the only ways I feel truly connected to him.” And speaking of connections: It’s as if an in/visible filament links Fuller’s visual work to her textual meditations. Consider her disrupted cyanotype print of ants: What relationship do they have to Fuller’s gravesite? Is the artist a griot remembering, or an Afrofuturist prophet, or both? It’s up to viewers and readers to make their own associative leaps between mystery and mystery. She says, “I … like leaving lots of detail open to interpretation, hence the fragments as titles.”
Playfully obscured as it may sometimes be, there is a symbiotic relationship between word and image in Fuller’s work. “I discovered through writing, not only could I make sense of the world around me, but I could also create worlds of my own or translate sentiments and experiences into something visual,” she explains. “I found myself writing poems to create visuals that would then be birthed into cyanotypes. If I didn’t know how to portray something or an idea seemed a bit too literal, I’d write a poem. Whenever I learned something new, I wrote a poem about it. From there, I came up with my own allegories that manifested into cyanotypes.”
Interestingly enough, Fuller’s three works in the Outriders show all bear the name Untitled (2022). It’s as if titles from the aforementioned cyanotypes—for example, Mutualism Between Woman and Horse and A Study of Companionship in a Pasture—have been assimilated into the images themselves. Words fall away as the viewer takes in the visual poetry. These cyanotype prints on fabric say it all: a Black woman, her horse, clouds, sky, scrubland, rocks, and the knowing between them. Her printed textiles remind the viewer of well-loved, oft-washed denim: soft and blue as a memory or a dream. Spirit and love of homeland sing through this Texas-born artist’s oeuvre. The intimacy between Fuller and landscape shows up in her invocation of box braids and sweetgrass; the natural world and the sacred arts of Black hair are braided together, bound up together. “I love Texas so much,” she says. “I say this because I love its physical beauty and what it has offered me spiritually. I want to be able to share experiences learning about bird migration, how I got into horseback riding … my solo walks through various Texas terrain, wondering if the cows I’d see every day before school enjoy my innocent kisses I’d blow out the window, everything. Sometimes I feel like what I wish to convey may be bigger than me. I feel like these explorations have helped me navigate a lot that I felt was lacking in familial or religious spaces, although those teachings and experiences shaped who I am as well.”
But Black artists are not merely biography-bound; they get to be fugitive, too. A Black artist might spring from Houston, as Fuller has, but at the same time she gets to be from Elsewhere. “I don’t want things to be too autobiographical,” she continues. “As I said, I like things to be open to interpretation, so I like to think my experiences just serve as an inspiration for a lot of my work.”
In the end, Fuller’s fascination with the cyanotype reflects the playfulness, expansiveness, and mystery evident in the content of her work. She muses, “I love how mutable the medium is. It’s a simple process, really; just two chemicals and a photo negative makes something a ‘cyanotype,’ but the fact I can go from paper to fabric to wearables to an entire bedspread to playing with upcycling old mirrors or ceramics still having these pieces under the guise of ‘cyanotype’ is so interesting to me. It allows me to stay playful with the medium and experiment with different questions, forms, ideas, and ways of approaching creativity as long as it’s coated in this blue formula. … As I evolve, I feel like I chose a medium that gets to evolve with me.”
Fuller’s printmaking comrade in Outriders includes Ron Tarver, although pigment ink is employed in his case. Well-known for his role in amplifying Black cowboy iconography over the years, he has been an associate professor of studio art at Swarthmore College since 2008. His photojournalism has appeared in National Geographic, Life, Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated, among many other venues. His fine art photography has garnered support and recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, in addition to countless other honors; last year he was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for photography.
Yet another honor may be the way his subjects open up to him and his gaze as a visual storyteller. In Father and Son, a Black cowboy and his toddler son look into the eye of the camera. They could be posing between rodeo events, a quick courtesy extended to Tarver. But their eyes tell the long history of Black cowboys in this country, suspended in and supple within time. The portrait testifies: The tale of the Black cowboy is intergenerational and very much alive. Tarver could just as easily be sharing his personal family history in so much of his body of work; he says, “My grandfather Tommy Wilson was a working cowboy in Oklahoma in the ’30s and ’40s. He died before I was born. My mother told stories of him driving cattle from Ft. Gibson, the small northeast Oklahoma town where I grew up, to Catoosa, Oklahoma, about 50 miles north where the cattle would be auctioned and sold. He also was locally famous for being an outstanding rodeo cowboy specializing in steer roping.” Tarver assumes the role of witness and archivist readily, adding, “The significance lies in the fact that these stories are not widely known outside of family histories. As a photojournalist I felt it was my duty to tell stories of modern day African American men and women who live a Western lifestyle.”
Tarver’s early formal education in the arts gained him a BA in journalism and graphic arts at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (1979). After attending the Missouri Photographic Workshop in 1984, he went on to earn an MFA from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2017 after years of racking up accolades in the field. After all, he joined The Philadelphia Inquirer as staff photographer in 1983, wrapping up his tenure there as recently as 2014.
It was at The Philadelphia Inquirer—which happens to be the third-longest continuously operating newspaper in the U.S.—that his documentation of Black cowboys was ignited. Recalls Tarver: “At the time I worked on this Black cowboy project in the ’90s, I didn’t imagine the images as an exhibition. However, when the stories ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer I was amazed [by] the response. Those stories garnered more letters than just about any story I had worked on. I see the images as more than art on a wall—to me they are a way to communicate this proud heritage.”
So many exhibitions later—over thirty solo and fifty group shows, national and international—Tarver has been integral in paving the way for other chroniclers of the Black cowboy experience. In one of his artworks featured in Outriders, a Black cowboy races on a white horse, headed to some wild unknown yonder. Aptly, the print is entitled Dave’s Last Ride. A rainbow arcs over horse and rider with cinematic panache, the meteorological phenomenon serving once again as a symbol of hope, promise, and what endures. The print could be a still from the Black cowboy movie of our dreams—and from the future.
Painting film posters by hand is how Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe got his opening credits as an artist. Born in Accra, Ghana, he grew up wondering where were the cowboys “that looked like me,” he says. “I loved movies and I always watched cowboy Western movies [and] I discovered art through a bunch of artists that were commissioned to paint these movies. … The posters advertising outside of the theater were hand-painted by these artists. So I was amazed by that and … told them I wanted to learn how to paint, draw like them. So I started taking lessons from them and they taught me a lot.”
The subjects of some of these fledgling drawings? Cowboys, of course. Quaicoe went on to study painting at the Ghanatta College of Art and Design in Accra. He moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2017 and in 2020, Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California, mounted Black Like Me in Culver City, California—Quaicoe’s first solo gallery exhibition in his adopted country. This was also during the era of the uprisings, the supposed summer of racial reckoning. “I saw in the news for the first time African-American cowboys, which were the Compton Cowboys. So that is what actually sparked everything in me,” he remembers. “I’m like, ‘Oh, so what I have always imagined and wondered—if there was somebody [a cowboy] that looked like me—this example actually existed. So for me, it was like a dream come true. My fictional characters have finally come to life.” His portraits of Afro-descended people within cowboy aesthetics led to his first solo show in Europe, BLACK RODEO: Cowboys of the 21st Century, presented by Almine Rech Gallery in Brussels earlier this year.
It’s called Red Bandana on Green Suit, as if the oil painting’s title is pointedly, playfully understated in contrast to the vividness of its subject. A Black man wears a cowboy hat, a red bandana around his neck, and a green striped jacket—and his eyes blaze, even as they are cool and assessing. Lower your gaze and this cowboy will not follow suit; hold his gaze and behold what you dare not confront. Ineffable and resounding, this man is a mirror; wordlessly, he says, Look at yourself through my eyes. Do you like what you see?
While not featured in Outriders, the smoldering Red Bandana on Green Suit cannot be ignored when considering Quaicoe’s body of work. The arresting nature of the eyes in Quaicoe’s figures is intentional. He has been fascinated by and has studied portraiture of canonical artists like Renoir and van Gogh, integrating those gleanings into his paintings along with his experiences as an hypervisible Black man in America. He states that since arriving in the U.S., he has noticed “the gaze and stare people give me when I walk into certain places that just feels like I’m not welcome here. The kind of look they give me—the eyes that follow you around in every movement, in every direction you go.” He continues, “I try to put those two together—[the gaze] from the masters and the gaze I get when I walk around.”
Knitting the intimacy of European portraits he has admired with commentary on anti-Black surveillance is just one example of the ways Quaicoe synthesizes his influences and inspirations. The Black cowboy in Red Bandana on Green Suit may be standing on some desert plain in New Mexico, but the thick-textured sky in the painting is directly inspired by the mud and wood homes of northern Ghana. Quaicoe also notes that herding and horse riding has its own sartorial tradition in northern Ghana. “We dress in our traditional way,” he explains, which is different from cowboy hats and boots. “I’m just trying to find the connection between the two and also merge them together.” Invoking migration, slavery, and the African diaspora, he adds: “We are connected as one from the beginning.”
One of Quaicoe’s works included in Outriders is simply called Untitled. Rendered as oil, acrylic, charcoal, and oil stick on panel, another Black man in a cowboy hat regards the viewer. But in this painting, his nose and mouth are covered by a red bandana.
Is he a member of the Bloods? Is he a cowboy shielding himself from the clouds of dust raised by storming cattle? Is he the masked marauder of stereotype? Is he trying to keep his loved ones safe from Covid? You will find whatever Black man you are looking for. One thing is for certain: He is staring right back at you. The Black gaze is here, front and center. The look is a lasso and you cannot help but be reeled in.
Former New Mexico resident Almah LaVon Rice is a Pittsburgh-based writer at work on her first book. You can find more of her writing at AlmahLaVonRice.com.