The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is no stranger to media attention — mostly from photographers and filmmakers who are attracted to the juxtaposition of an urban black teenager galloping a horse through the streets of North Philadelphia.
Artist Mohamed Bourouissa came from Paris in 2014 after seeing the riders in a photography book. He didn’t want to make artwork about them; he wanted to make artwork with them. The riders were thrown for a loop.
“What you want to do is strange. We don’t understand what you want to do,” Bourouissa recalls them saying. “It was common for them to see other people come and take a picture and leave. But this guy wants to come to do a project, and live in this place, it’s so strange. Why does he want to do that?”
Bourouissa lived in North Philadelphia for eight months, documenting the horse club. His English is choppy, making him a misfit in North Philadelphia. He is also Algerian, which makes him a misfit in his native France. He said that outsider status helped him bond with the riders of Fletcher Street, whose love of horses have made them misfits in their own African-American neighborhood.
“I felt some similarity between being an African American here in the United States as to be an Algerian in suburban France,” said Bourouissa. “For sure it’s totally different — I don’t want to say it’s the same — but there is a similarity.”
The self-imposed residency culminated in a horse pageantry event with elaborate garlands made by local artists.
“To be an French-Algerian in the French suburbs, and to be an African-American here, we have a common thing. But another part of my identity is to be an artist,” he said. “My community is here, too. My artist community.”
After working collaboratively in the field, literally, with Philadelphia equestrian riders and artists for eight months, Bourouissa returned to Paris to make studio work.
The Barnes Foundation invited Bourouissa to come back to Philadelphia — downtown this time — to display the work as a gallery installation.
“Mohamed Bourouissa: Urban Riders” is on display at the Barnes Foundation until October. It includes dozens of sketches hung on wooden structure resembling a horse stable, a 15-minute documentary film, and wall assemblages made of car parts and sheet metal printed with images of the urban riders.
The faces of the riders seem to be reflected in the shine of the pieces of car body, as they do from passing cars on the streets of North Philadelphia.
Bourouissa is influenced by the writings of Franz Fanon, the French writer from Martinique who thought deeply about post-colonial social struggles. He was a supporter of the Algerian war for independence from France.
Much of Bourouissa’s returns to images and relationships with people from a post-colonial underclass. “This link between Algeria, France, and the United States, I tried to make,” he said.