This summer, two Artspace exhibitions will dare to redefine the idea of a cowboy. “Louisiana Trail Riders” and “Saddles and Spurs: Out of the Shadows” will explore the deep-rooted history and lesser-known culture of Black equestrians of Louisiana as it exists today.
“African-American cowboys are underrepresented in popular accounts of the West,” Shreveport Regional Arts Council President Henry Price said in a statement. “Throughout history, the iconic lifestyle of the cowboy has been glamorized in countless books, movies and television shows, and although African-American cowboys don’t play a part in the popular narrative, historians estimate that one in four cowboys in the West was Black.”
“Louisiana Trail Riders” and “Saddles and Spurs: Out of the Shadows” exhibitions will open from noon to 6 p.m. on June 12 at Artspace, located at 708 Texas St. in downtown Shreveport.
The exhibitions will run through Aug. 7. Admission is free for the exhibitions. Regular gallery hours are Noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday.
In Mainspace, the “Louisiana Trail Riders” exhibit will feature black-and-white photographs of the modern-day Creole horse-riding community of south Louisiana as witnessed by Jeremiah Ariaz.
For several years, the photographer set out on the trails with the riders observing and capturing candid moments. He emerged with images that tell stories, reveal bonds, and challenges the mythology of the American West.
“It leaves a deep impression,” Ariaz said. “The culture is very much alive, and it is beautiful. It’s much bigger than many people realize, even myself.”
Showcasing a culture
In Coolspace, “Saddles and Spurs: Out of the Shadows” honors the nearly 75 Black trail riding clubs from the Bayou State and Northwest Louisiana Trail Riders Association, including LA Renegades, 318 Ghost Riders, Oakland Riders, Morning Star Steppers, Louisiana High Steppers, Road Warriors, and Pony Express.
The collection includes starched shirts, saddles, belt buckles, boots, and other memorabilia. The pieces provide a look at the trail riding culture as told by regional riders.
“I’m hoping they will be able to see trail riding clubs aren’t one dimensional,” said Bayou State Trail Riding Association’s secretary Johnetta Jackson. “We are multifaceted organizations and we’re diverse. Some of us are professionals, some of us are traditional laborers, some of us have been farmers all of our lives — grew up, raised, and still live on farms.”
Four Western-style covered wagons and two trail riding horses — Ms. Polly and Mr. Mikey — will be hitched up outside of the gallery on Texas Street at the opening.
The riding clubs are founded on a culture of community, fellowship, and advocacy, and the “betterment of everybody.” Jackson said. Riding club members often participates in community service and fundraising efforts for causes.
“Bayou State started as an extended outing of leisure horseback riders traveling to Southern University Ag Center in Baton Rouge to raise awareness and scholarship dollars for students in the Southern University Ag program,” Jackson said in a statement. “The community-focused part of the organizations has grown to embrace youth and senior citizens, awarding scholarships, donating school supplies, funding weekly reader programs, and helping sponsor community activities and provide for residents in rehab facilities.”
On the road
This summer, Artspace will host various programs for all ages in connection to the Trail Riders exhibitions. The events invite the public to delve deeper into the Black trail riding culture, such as The Art of Making Friends: Boot Scootin’ Social (July 15) and the Parade of Trail Riders and Block Party (July 24).
As Ariaz learned, getting to know the riders, and becoming immersed in the culture firsthand is an unforgettable experience.
Ariaz, an art professor at LSU in Baton Rouge, encountered a Black trail riding club by chance on a rural road in south Louisiana. Captivated, he sought to learn more. During his research, he found the heritage went back to the 1700s, though he struggled to find documentation detailing the history. He became determined to further his knowledge, educate others, and celebrate the longstanding traditions of the community which he described as “rich” and “beautiful.”
“When I stumbled upon the riding clubs in Louisiana I thought, ‘Wow, what a counter to the way most people think about the cowboy,’ which has always felt to be like an iconic graphic American figure,” Ariaz said. “The more I learned, the more fascinated I was because I learned that these Creole cowboys I’d come across stem from a heritage and equestrian tradition that predated the cattle drives in the American West. They gave us this idea of the cowboy.”
Ariaz was invited to join the club members on future trail rides and take photo documentation. From 2014 to 2018, Ariaz captures what he witnessed in photos. Each week, the average ride had about 50 to 70 people in attendance, he said.
He aimed to remove himself enough to become an observer and share their truth.
“I want to give as much opportunity for their voices to be clear in this,” he said.
The candid moments illustrated the dynamic of father-son relationships, connections to family, and how traditions were passed on from one generation to the next, he said.
In one instance, Ariaz saw a young boy struggling with the reins of his horse. An elder saw and unmounted his horse and hop on the horse with the novice cowboy. He took the time to demonstrate the proper way to hold the reins and guide the horse.
“It was such a beautiful moment,” Ariaz said. “There are various photographs that reveal this connection, particularly between fathers and sons, that I find incredibly endearing and powerful. And for me, (that was) one of the things that were important to reveal about this community to a larger world.”
During the four-and-a-half-year project, he captured the growth of many young riders who matured to become more comfortable and confident on the horse.
In 2018, Ariaz published the black and white photography series in a book titled “Louisiana Trail Riders” and the printed images were curated for exhibition.
The photo series challenges viewers to redefine their idea of the cowboy culture and history, Ariaz said. It also presents a different perspective of Black Americans that’s relevant to civil rights conversations that are being had nationwide.
“It was such a beautiful thing and nothing that I had seen depicted within that spirit in popular media,” Ariaz said. “I recognized this has an important place in a national conversation, as well as a regional one in which this culture lives.”
The Louisiana Trail Riders exhibitions present a chance for viewers to learn more about the community in which they live, celebrate that community, and regain a sense of community after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ariaz said.
“This exhibition reveals joy,” he said. “The trail rides are such a good time and I hope the photographs are a reflection of that joy and pride. I am grateful it’s been shared with me and I hope it can be shared with others.”
Artspace’s Trail Riders events and program schedule:
Exhibition openings. Saturday, June 12 from Noon to 6 p.m. at Artspace. Free.
“The Art of Making Friends: Boot Scootin’ Social.” Thursday, July 15 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Artspace. The evening of dancing, games, food, and mingling. Bring a friend or meet a new friend. Featuring the SB Steppers and DJ ThiLand. $10 admission (includes drink and appetizer).
Parade of Trail Riders and Block Party. Saturday, July 24 from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Artspace. Free. A parade of 150 trail riders with their horses and wagons traverse through downtown Shreveport, beginning and ending at Artspace. The evening continues with a Block Party with Zydeco music and food.
Exhibition closings. Trail Riders share the legends and reality of the Black cowboy. The final day of the exhibition will proceed from noon to 6 p.m. at Artspace. Free.
If you go
What: “Louisiana Trail Riders” and “Saddles and Spurs: Out of the Shadows” exhibitions
Where: Artspace, 708 Texas St., downtown Shreveport
When: June 12 through Aug. 7
Opening reception: Noon to 6 p.m. June 12
Gallery Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday