Throughout his career, Mohamed Bourouissa has anchored his projects in collaboration with friends and strangers. His Barnes Foundation exhibition, titled “Urban Riders” and constituting his first solo show in the United States, comprised eighty-five works related to the time he spent with Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. In interviews, the Paris-based artist has cited Martha Camarillo’s 2006 photographs of this community of African American men as the catalyst for his own visit and his desire to explore the mythology of the American cowboy. Over the course of eight months in 2013, Bourouissa lived near, drew, photographed, and filmed the riders and organized a public riding pageant, for which the riders collaborated with Philadelphia artists to create costumes for the horses. In the years since, he has continued to make work based on the experience.
The first gallery contained much of the preparatory material for the pageant, including copies of the event flyer; Bourouissa’s drawings of riding equipment, the neighborhood, and the riders; and a number of horse costumes hung on pegs or shown on wooden mannequins. Through particular installation choices—such as plastering one of the walls with the flyer and displaying an array of the drawings on freestanding panels of untreated wood, from which wafted the smell of sawdust—the first room had the feel of an active work space, an impression that highlighted the open-ended, collaborative nature of the project.
In the second gallery, the focus pivoted away from cooperative enterprise to the figure of the black urban cowboy. At the center, Bourouissa installed a viewing area for his two-channel film Horse Day (2015). The left channel shows footage of the club members riding around the city, and the right homes in on the public event and the field in which it took place. As most of the scenes on the left are shot at medium or close range, the riders and horses appear large-scale, pressed against the frame. In one breathtaking traveling shot, the camera, pointed out a car’s passenger seat window, follows a lone horseman along a city street for a moment before the horse, breaking into a full gallop, runs into a stretch of lawn, out of the camera’s tight frame. In contrast, the playback of the riding event features several sweeping views of the urban arena; one of the most memorable sequences in the film is an aerial shot for which the camera panned down as riders galloped across, and the grassy expanse gradually overtakes our view.
The third and final gallery was devoted to a series, made by Bourouissa after he left Philadelphia, of large, wall-mounted assemblages of riding gear and scrapped car parts, the latter printed with photographs of the riders. It is a clever layering: cars and horses, with their speed and power, are central to a certain type of masculine mythology. Reminding us that these mythologies are double-edged, works like The Ride (2017), with its crush of ragged metal sheets roughly cut from different vehicles, fragment the images of the men and their surroundings as much as they hold them together. There are also moments of tenderness in the depictions. A rendering of a young man juts out from Keason (2017), the delicate curve of his back appearing vulnerable amid the clash of materials and images. As one of the last works encountered in the show, Keason left viewers with a sense of the ways in which toughness and gentleness can be inextricably entwined.
Algerian-born Mohamed Bourouissa is known for his arresting, unsentimental color photographs portraying the everyday lives of youths from working-class and African immigrant backgrounds in Paris’s rough-and-tumble suburbs. While seemingly off the cuff, these racially pointed pictures are elaborately choreographed by the artist with the participation of the young people they feature. Indebted to such precedents as the works of Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, the photos also deliberately mimic gestures and groupings found in paintings by Caravaggio, Delacroix and Géricault. Teaming up with two prison inmates for his recent exhibition “Temps Mort” (Dead Time), Bourouissa reiterated the centrality of collaboration to his project, though with radically different means.
Comprising two parts, “Temps Mort” explored the hard-knocks reality of the French penal system. The first part consisted of eight untitled C-prints (all 2008-09, from approximately 18 by 22 to 43 by 53 inches) that document prison life. Bourouissa persuaded a male friend, incarcerated for a minor offense, to photograph his surroundings using a cell phone. The artist stipulated the types of scenes he desired via telephone conversations or e-mailed drawings. Since French prison authorities consider cell phones contraband, the inmate executed Bourouissa’s wishes surreptitiously. The artist rephotographed the low-resolution images he received and made prints in which the objects and individuals are presented at life size. Despite banal subject matter (a weathered pot on a table, a slumbering man, prisoners loafing around), the hazy, pixelated images exude grace and beauty.
Bourouissa displayed each photograph at a height that reflects the subject’s location in space. An image of barbed wire along the top of a fence hung flush with the gallery’s ceiling. Another, depicting a buff, shirtless prisoner head-on as he does push-ups, was positioned low on the wall near the floor, while a third showing two detainees from behind in a doorway was placed at eye level. This literal spatial presentation transformed the gallery into a virtual prison, casting the viewer as an inmate in an attempt, perhaps, to confound the seemingly categorical distinction between the guilty and the innocent.
The second part of “Temps Mort” featured the title work, an 18-minute video from 2009 that was the result of a yearlong dialogue between Bourouissa and a second convict. In numerous telephone exchanges as well as over 300 text and video messages, Bourouissa again directed his collaborator to secretly film snippets of his environment with his cell phone. The prisoner made similar demands of the artist, who sent him short clips of the outside world likewise captured by cell phone. Temps Mort intersperses grainy, cacophonous urban scenes with equally low-tech footage of the detainee making coffee, smoking, cooking pasta, watching traffic from his cell, killing time. Throughout, Bourouissa inserted recordings of their phone conversations and shots of text messages, all of which attests to the trust and intimacy that developed between the two men. With a sincerity devoid of pathos or romanticism, Bourouissa’s video, like his photographs, offers a humane portrait of a dehumanizing milieu marked by violence and degradation.
Photo: Mohamed Bourouissa: Untitled, 2008, from the series “Temps Mort,” C-print, 37½ by 46 inches; at Kamel Mennour.