There are eight million stories in the city and the heart of those tales lie wherever you stop and focus. When Paris-based artist, Mohamed Bourouissa was invited by the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia he turned away from Center City and immersed himself in the community of Strawberry Mansion and the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. The stables are one of those quirky “Philly” staples that make up the fabric of the city. I first encountered them when sitting at a red light near Fairmont Park and having three colossal steeds clop-clop slowly next to me in the next lane. All three of the urban cowboys were wearing San Antonio Spurs jerseys and jeans - two of them were wearing timberland boots, the third wore big leather riding boots complete with spurs. It was disorienting and exhilarating.
There have been makeshift stables on Fletcher Street for nearly a century. The majority of them appear to be a line of identical dilapidated row houses, but just beyond the façades the home is gutted and full of fresh green hay. This neighborhood has long struggled with gang violence and unemployment, but the men who care for the horses have long been known to take incredible pride in how they care for their former racehorses, packhorses and ponies. It’s men teaching younger men about important life lessons in responsibility and discipline. There is great pride in the size and health of the horses; the ability to piaffe, to trot, to pirouette, and money frequently changes hands when they close down the streets for one on one races. It’s a community for some to grow and a community for some to heal.
The 14-minute film “Horse Day,” is the culmination of the eight months Bourouissa spent at the stables, gaining the trust of the cowboys. Split between two channels, one side shows the everyday activities of the cowboys, the juxtaposition of the riders under the El train, passing through the projects, and in the distant shadow of the Comcast Center, the tallest building in the city. At the end, we see a rider named PeeWee letting his horse Rosie fly, striking like lightening out of one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods and into the calm of Fairmount Park. The second channel presents a “Horse Tunning Expo”, an equestrian competition in Fletcher Field, the community riding area. The Expo resembles a car or fashion show, expanding the idea of accessories as Bourouissa connected various local artists with the riders. Kate Abercrombie and Anthony Campuzano created a coat for their horse out of a surplus of sewn-together blue winners ribbons. The horse that wore the wave of silver and red mylar strips fashioned into a regal coat by Max Lussenhop and Billy Dufala, shimmered and shinned on the sunny afternoon. One artist created to glistening cape of compact discs, which reflected the spectators and judges watching from the sidelines.
During the Expo the neighborhood was a blur of deep drums and piercing police sirens. One block up and one block over was a chaotic evening rife with life, but here in the Field nothing outside mattered. In the end, all of the riders converged in the center of the ring. They spun and crisscrossed with amazing dexterity, kicking up dust into the humid air. They were proud men soaking in the light.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website