One in every four cowboys in the American West was Black, yet this history has been largely erased from popular narratives.
The Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, showcased an exhibition entitled “Outriders: The Legacy of the Black Cowboy”. The exhibit featured a range of art and photography that captures the often-overlooked history of Black cowboys and cowgirls in the American West.
One in every four cowboys in the American West was Black, yet this history has been largely erased from popular narratives. “Outriders” seeks to highlight this legacy and celebrate the contributions of Black cowboys and cowgirls to the image and history of the American West.
Harwood hosted a live panel on April 22 featuring several of the artists from the exhibition, including Ron Tarver, Nate Young, Ivan McClellan, and Praise Fuller. The panel was moderated by Nikesha Breeze from the museum’s exhibitions committee, and focused on the artists’ perspectives on Black cowboy culture and its place in contemporary society.
Ivan McClellan is the artist who took the photograph “Kortnee Solomon,” and shared the story of the cowgirl featured in it. “Kortnee knew exactly what she wanted,” McClellan told the audience. “She said, ‘I want to be in front of this tree, looking over my shoulder with my hat down’ and,” McClellan smiled as he said, “she nailed it. She’s better at setting up a shot than I am!”
Ron Tarver, another of the featured artists, shared the story behind his striking photograph “Dave’s Last Ride.” During a visit with a young cowboy named Dave in 1995, Tarver captured an image of him riding his horse along a fence line, with a rainbow arcing down to the ground in the distance.
When Tarver visited Dave to shoot photos of him, Dave was walking with a bad limp. His knee had been bothering him for a while, and he went to see a doctor while Tarver was visiting. Unfortunately, Dave received a diagnosis of cancer in his knee, and passed away shortly after at the age of 21.
Tarver titled the photograph “Dave’s Last Ride” in honor of the young cowboy’s spirit and legacy.
Hearing the stories behind the photographs made them come to life in a way only seeing them can, and that was a theme the artists kept highlighting. “To this day, Black cowboys have a hard time getting into professional rodeos, and competing for big prize money,” McClellan said. He’s launching a rodeo for Black cowboys in Portland, Oregon, and hopes it will help draw attention to rodeo athletes who can’t always get a foot into the sport.
Following the exhibit, the artists attended a reception with the attendees and had a chance to discuss their work more.
“Outriders: The Legacy of the Black Cowboy” is a powerful exhibition that sheds light on an often-forgotten aspect of American history. By showcasing the work of talented artists and highlighting the contributions of Black cowboys and cowgirls, the exhibit offers a new perspective on the American West and its cultural legacy.