TAOS, N. Mex. — To many people, the cowboy is a symbol of freedom, independence, and self-reliance rooted in western expansion and White Americana. This image has been perpetuated for more than a century in Louis L’Amour novels, Spaghetti Westerns, Charles M. Russell paintings, Marlboro ads, and mid-century TV weeklies like The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke. In reality, of the estimated 35,000 cowboys who worked the western range between 1866 and 1895, up to a quarter were African American, including those who were formerly enslaved and trekked west to make a living after the Civil War. Many others were Native Americans or Mexican vaqueros.
Outriders: Legacy of the Black Cowboy, at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, strives to correct the mainstream Western narrative depicting cowboys as White heroes on horseback, and show the deliberately dismissed prevalence of Black frontiersmen and women, according to Nikesha Breeze, a Taos-based multimedia artist, researcher, and member of the Outriders Exhibitions Committee. The committee comprises regional experts in the fields of art, history, and cultural studies with knowledge of the history and culture of Black cowboys and cowgirls, including Founder and Owner of the Black Cowboy Museum Larry Callies, Director of the African American Museum and Cultural Center of New Mexico Rita Powdrell, and Board Chair of the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center Daphne Rice-Allen, among others. For a museum that has rarely shown works by African American artists, forming this committee was integral to responsible storytelling and representation.
Part historical survey and part contemporary celebration of self-determination and independent authorship, Outriders is divided into two sections that examine perceptions of Black cowboys in reality, popular media, and the public imagination. Harwood Museum staff spent about two years sourcing historical photographs from archives, libraries, and private collections across the country. These photos line a dimly lit hallway in a section of the museum built around 1923. Many of the cowboys are anonymous, though some names are familiar figures of Western history, including characters from the film The Harder They Fall (2021).
The exhibition’s contemporary section is housed in a bright and airy modern main gallery constructed in 2010. A short walk through a back hallway links the two spaces. This separation seems awkward, at first, but it’s a clever curatorial device — an intentional Wizard of Oz-style reveal. Visitors move from a sepia-toned past captured through a White documentary lens to a vibrant present created by Black artists.
In the main gallery is a deliberately garish acrylic on canvas caricature of a crouching gun slinger in front of a bright red sky. The aptly titled “Beyond the Horizon” (2021) by Alexander Harrison metaphorically announces, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” It’s a strong shift from the historical section. Likewise, Harrison’s tongue-in-cheek “Portrait of an artist in the penumbra of the moon, in hopes for a brighter future” (2021) demonstrates that the perspective of the subject and the artist has shifted, in this instance becoming one and the same.
Portraiture and photography remain major themes throughout the show. Praise Fuller’s 2022 untitled triptych of self-portrait cyanotypes on fabric hangs loosely from the ceiling at the far end of the gallery, their indigo imagery reminiscent of well-worn working-class denim. In the portraits, the artist crosses a desert landscape alone on horseback. These moments feel seductively intimate and serene, as though there is no photographer present.
Some contemporary pieces mirror the historical in subject and composition, begging comparison. For example, Kennedi Carter’s photograph “Silas” (2020) is reminiscent of Doris Ulmann’s “African American with two horses” (c. 1930). First and foremost, Silas is identified by name. He’s an individual, and a fashionable one at that, as opposed to a trope or a representative example. While the anonymous figure in Ulmann’s documentary photograph is plainly dressed, Silas wears aesthetically distressed jeans held up by a Gucci belt. He gazes seriously into the camera, challenging the viewer to look back, to engage rather than simply witness.
A similar pairing is Ivan B. McClellan’s “Kortnee Solomon, Hempstead, Texas” (n.d.) and Ichabod Nelson Hall’s “African American on Horseback” (c. 1900). Kortnee Solomon is well-known: a fourth-generation Texas cowgirl and barrel racing phenom on a Black-owned rodeo circuit. Both images feature riders atop horses, but while Hall’s photograph is taken from a distance, McClellan’s is zeroed in, barely containing Solomon’s mount. She’s not part of a larger scene — she is the scene and its future. In an apropos detail emphasizing Solomon’s individuality, the saddle blanket on her horse’s back bears a label reading “Iconoclast.” She and the other figures throughout the exhibition are fiercely present and busting the Wild West mythologies that have erroneously excluded people of color from the big picture for far too long.
Outriders: Legacy of the Black Cowboy continues at the Harwood Museum of Art (238 Ledoux Street, Taos, New Mexico) through May 7. The exhibition was curated by the museums’s Exhibitions Committee: Nikesha Breeze, Artist; Larry Callies, Founder, Black Cowboy Museum; Rita Powdrell, Director, African American Museum and Cultural Center of New Mexico; Daphne Rice-Allen, Board Chair, Black American West Museum & Heritage Center; Nicole Dial-Kay, Curator of Exhibitions + Collections, Harwood Museum of Art; Ari Myers, Owner + Curator, The Valley; Emily Santhanam, Curatorial Assistant, Harwood Museum of Art.