A look at the work of French-Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa, including his 2013 film, Horse Day.
Mohamed Bourouissa first learned about the rich history and visual potential of the Fletcher Street Stables, an African American riding club in northern Philadelphia, through the work of fellow photographer Martha Camarillo. Camarillo’s images, published in a 2006 book, Fletcher Street, stay etched in the mind long after a first encounter.
The photos depict striking and initially incongruent scenes of horses and riders in a decidedly urban landscape. “She had done beautiful portraits of the riders and I was impressed,” Bourouissa said on a recent morning during a visit to his studio in Gennevilliers, a commune in the northwest suburbs of Paris.
The imagery was enough to inspire a years-long project for Bourouissa, one of the results of which is his 2013 film, Horse Day. During the making of the film, the French-Algerian photographer spent nine months in Philadelphia, getting an intimate sense of daily life at the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club and renting a room in the nearby house of one of the stable’s riders. His goal for the nine months was—in addition to working on his English—to make what he calls an “experimental Western,” which he describes as borrowing “the codes of classic Westerns with the idea of doing an artistic and collaborative project.”
The film begins with a captivatingly tense scene that is a twist on the John Wayne cowboy trope. Bourouissa says that he wanted to make a point about the diversity that has always existed in American horse culture apart from the “white cowboy.” In particular, he notes the historical horsemanship of Native Americans and Mexicans.
The Fletcher Street Stables were founded over 100 years ago. At the time, according to the riding club’s website, Philadelphia was home to over 50 stables. Today, the number has decreased dramatically, but Fletcher Street has managed to stay in existence. Fletcher Street, according to its website, aims to connect kids with positive role models and boost life skills through riding and caring for horses.
For his part, Bourouissa was impressed by the various roles the horses played in riders’ lives, from recreational to practical. “There are a lot of a different types of riders,” he says, including horse owners, youth mentors, pleasure riders, and kids who are part of an educational club. In one scene from Horse Day, Bourouissa films a rider and his horse on a trip through the streets, running errands and saying hello to neighbors. In another scene, horses and riders weave their way through clogged lines of traffic, earning smiles or looks of bafflement from drivers.
No matter what the topic or the medium, Bourouissa’s work is almost always pushing back against the stereotypes present in society, be they based on color, background, language, or status. Part of this stems from his own fatigue with how the French suburbs and minority communities are typically depicted in “images of suffering and salvation.” Horse Day, he says, is an attempt to get away from the sociological-anthropological “distanced” approach of telling someone else’s story by becoming part of the story itself.
The approach he ended up using for Horse Day was a mix of documentary and fiction, an interplay of observation and action. This combination, and the blurring of boundaries that comes with mixing fact and fiction, is at the heart of much of Bourouissa’s previous work, as well, which he describes as partially inspired by Cubism. “There’s a form of circulation, a movement between concepts. Nothing is stable or has a set position,” he says. “Cubism explains that. There’s always the possibility of several surfaces at the same time.”
At first, Bourouissa says, it was challenging to convince some of the riders at the Fletcher Street stables to go along with his idea of collaborating on an artistic event, essentially a costume contest for the horses, that would become part of the central story of his film. “By the end, though, everyone understood what I had been trying to do—to bring an artistic approach into the reality of the situation and the place. At the end there was a certain respect for the work,” he says. “It really produced joy for a lot of people and that was reassuring. It was an incredible day.”
The day-long festivities also brought people from different communities together, resulting in a circulation of ideas and perspectives that Bourouissa describes as essential to his work. “The event brought people from outside of the neighborhood and it produced another way of seeing this neighborhood, both from inside and outside.” Bourouissa translated this event into imposing photos, a film and a sequence of sculptures.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bourouissa works across mediums, including drawing, photography, sculpture, and film. His work often explores urban street life and identity and the reality and the stereotypes of life in the banlieues, or French suburbs. His 2005-2009 series, Périphérique, is often initially assumed by viewers to be documentary in nature, depicting tense moments of street life captured on camera. In reality, Bourouissa staged the photographs, coming up with a mise-en-scène for each shot that worked to capture the feeling of the daily reality of life for many suburban youth.
Similarly, Bourouissa’s 2009 work, Temps Mort, is based on photos and text exchanges with prisoners. While much of the film was based on actual exchanges, some scenes were constructed for the film. Legend, Bourouissa’s 2010 film about illegal cigarette sellers at the Barbès metro station in Paris, likewise uses both actual and constructed scenes. “I have always liked mixing these two ways of writing,” Bourouissa says, adding that he likes to show how “the individuals of a place transform the actual place.”
This past fall, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam hosted a show featuring two works from Bourouissa’s Horse Day: a two-channel video and a photograph. “Bourouissa is interested in systems, how society is structured, and how social processes are activated,” reads the curators’ text accompanying the exhibit. “Unlike traditional socially-critical photographers, he always works inside, and in collaboration with communities.”
Bourouissa will have his first large-scale solo show in the United States at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, opening in June 2017. The show will feature works that were part of the making of Horse Day, including drawings, photographs, videos, riders’ costumes, and a series of sculptures, “Hoods.” The sculptures are among Bourouissa’s more recent work, made from car parts printed with images and photographs from Horse Day in combination with harnesses, bits, and other riding apparatuses. The opening of the exhibit will include a live performance with a horse rider. Like Horse Day itself, the exhibit will encapsulate the elements Bourouissa loves best: “documentary and fiction and event, all at the same time.”