The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Black Cowboy seeks to rectify the whitewashed identity of an American archetype. The cowboy — a historical figure, a way of life and livelihood, a symbol of Manifest Destiny, an advertising trope, an idealized version of manhood, and a tragic loner — is no simple symbol. But before considering these nuances, Black Cowboy is primarily concerned with showing nonwhite cowboys, bringing Americana in line with historical accuracy. For example, the wall text notes that in the 1800s, 25% of cowboys in Texas were African American, and that cowboy culture (horsemanship, western saddles, rodeo traditions) persists to this day in black urban communities from Los Angeles to New York, and in rural areas in between.
While anyone who’s spent time in the southwest wouldn’t think the cowboy a white phenomenon, those not from the region might see iconic representations, including the Marlboro Man, Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, and James Dean’s role in Giant, and assume all cowboys are blonde-haired and blue-eyed. (Blazing Saddles is a more complicated example. On the one hand, it’s an effective and hilarious send-up of prejudice; on the other, by suggesting a black cowboy to be rare, the film reinforces that the cowboy exists squarely within white culture.)
The aforementioned famous blonde cowboys exemplify an idealized white male sexuality. The strongest image of the 11 photos and videos in Black Cowboy (all are contemporary works by professional photographers and/or artists) is Deana Lawson’s color photograph “Cowboys” from 2014, which disentangles the sexual appeal of the cowboy from whiteness. The two men depicted in the photo are on horseback, faces obscured by a cowboy hat and a bandana. The figure in the hat is shirtless, sporting an excellent physique, chaps, and a western belt buckle. These men’s sex appeal, based on mystery and the dominance suggested by riding a horse shirtless, evoke the aura that makes cowboys typically sexy — a mystique that has absolutely nothing to do with whiteness.
There are a number of photographs in Black Cowboy that allude to the subject in a less complex way than Lawson’s. Four images by Ron Tarver show cowboys riding through urban or semi-urban environments. These works are evocative visual juxtapositions, particularly one in which a man in a cowboy hat rides past a mural of Malcolm X — two disparate symbols of independence meeting for a moment. Three portraits by Brad Trent depict cowboys posing with props: lassos, western saddles, and hay bales. But neither Tarver’s nor Trent’s images are wrestling with cowboy identity in depth.
As a type, the cowboy certainly has positive aspects, including self-reliance and independence — often seen as cornerstones of American identity. But the cowboy also represents negative aspects of American masculinity and history: a brutality towards animals, misogyny, and a feeling of entitlement over land that was already occupied (“cowboys v. indians”). The aim of Black Cowboy, to show the black presence in a quintessentially American role, is a worthwhile end. However, the exhibition is small, and doesn’t have adequate room to explore negative aspects of the cowboy identity. A photo by Chandra McCormick from 2013, “Angola Prison Rodeo, Men Breaking Wild Horses,” comes closest to this complexity, juxtaposing the “breaking” of horses with the imprisonment of men in one of the United States’ most notorious prisons. In this political moment when American ideals like self-reliance have been twisted by a candidate, now the President, who uses them in the service of neofascist goals, it seems insufficient to examine any American-as-apple-pie trope without sufficient skepticism.
Black Cowboy continues at the Studio Museum (144 W 125th St, Harlem, Manhattan) through March 5.