Vonzell Davis grew up seeing cowboys in her neighborhood.
“My earliest memory of them is from when I was like 3 or 4,” said Davis, now 50. “I was amazed.”
The cowboys, known as the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, have been a part of the North Philadelphia community for more than 100 years.
“From then on, I always looked forward to seeing them out on their horses, riding up and down the streets, saying ‘hi’ to people,” she added.
Davis works as a security guard at the Barnes Foundation, where accounts of the cowboys she witnessed are now on display. The museum opened “Mohamed Bourouissa: Urban Riders,” an exhibit that celebrates the North Philadelphia cowboys and will run through Oct. 2.
The nonprofit organization offers Black boys in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood an opportunity to learn about horse-rearing while receiving mentorship and guidance from older members.
“We let the boys start with ponies,” said Erik Tarik, who owns four horses at the stables. “We teach them how to ride and how to take good care of them.”
Thousands of miles away in Paris, French-Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa’s only exposure to cowboys when he was younger was through American film characters like John Wayne, the white hero in the 1972 western film “The Cowboys.” When he first flipped through a photo book about the riders from Fletcher Street, he was amazed.
Bourouissa flew to Philadelphia in 2014 to document the riders at the Barnes Foundation.
He stayed in Philadelphia for eight months, creating artistic projects that reflected his experiences with the Fletcher Street riders.
Through photographs, paintings, films and drawings, Bourouissa creates images of tension, identity and cultural juxtaposition, like Black horsemen trotting down inner-city streets.
In the summer of 2014, Bourouissa organized “Horse Day,” a neighborhood block party with an equestrian twist. He promoted the event throughout North Philadelphia, and scores of spectators came out for music, barbecue, horse games — and highly-anticipated performances from the riders.
He paired riders with local designers to collaborate on costumes for the men and their horses. The resulting boldly colored costumes, some with draping fringes, feathers, paint or eye-catching metallic accents, are on display at Bourouissa’s exhibit.
The multimedia exhibit also features the artist’s sketches, photographs, watercolor paintings and sculptures, all related to his time spent documenting the riders and their horses.
Bourouissa created three sculptures for the exhibit, made of auto parts with photographs of people from Fletcher Street printed on them. Titled “The Ride,” the pieces aimed to “suggest the link between social and geographic marginalization,” Bourouissa wrote in his artist statement.
Davis can pinpoint where each photograph was captured.
“I like that he used car pieces, because if you’ve ever been to the neighborhood, there’s always that one car just sitting there forever and it’s not serving any purpose,” Davis said. “But he turned it into art.”
“This experience, working in this specific exhibit, is so nostalgic for me. When they first put it up, I cried,” Davis added. “I can look at the photos and recognize each street. I’ve walked down each intersection, through all the seasons, in snow and rain.”
The Fletcher Street riders can be heard laughing and telling each other stories in Bourouissa’s film, also named “Horse Day,” which plays on loop in the background of the exhibit. Two adjacent rows of minivan car seats greet visitors when they enter the side room.
Jesse Beam, 32, visited the gallery to watch the film with a friend. In person, he has only ever seen the riders for seconds.
“I caught a glimpse of them as I was driving by their stables,” said Beam, a freelance television producer. “The film was really well done. It sheds a new light on a local staple.”
A painted papier-mache, life-sized figure of a horse crafted by Philly artist Jesse Engaard stands in front of the entrance to the Barnes Foundation: a symbol of more than 100 years of culture and history in the heart of North Philadelphia.
Its smooth and stable reflection in the small decorative pool behind it contrasts the blemishes that checker the club’s recent past.
The city has removed horses from Fletcher Street Stables in the past due to allegations of horse abuse and neglect.
In March 2008, the City Redevelopment Authority bulldozed the land where the Fletcher Street riders had their stables. Members of the club were left to find new stables and figure out what to do with about 40 horses.
The club has since had to move to different stables in search of a new permanent location, and this unpredictability has slowed the activity of riders.
Looking over at the field across from the stables, Tarik shook his head. Two horses, one white with large black spots near its tail, and another, a deep chestnut, grazed next to each other. A golden brown pony rolled around nearby.
“People don’t see this,” he said. “They don’t see the beauty of the horses running around on a sunny day. They read one story and they form an opinion of who were are, and what we do here.”