“John Wayne don’t do shit like this!” – Mohamed Bourouissa at The Turnpike

Mohamed Bourouissa Horse Day_1_ 2014–2015

The Liverpool Biennial touring programme arrived at Leigh’s Turnpike gallery recently, with Mohamed Bourouissa’s Horse Day. Denise Courcoux assesses how a change of venue and star-billing can make all the difference to how a work is considered…

Hidden in plain sight, Horse Day was a gem in the last Liverpool Biennial. Spirited, engaging and sometimes funny, I spent a few minutes enjoying Mohamed Bourouissa’s film before the compulsion kicked in to ‘tick off’ the rest of the works at FACT, and then head off to get another venue ‘done’. This is the downside of art festivals for a completist. The sheer volume of stuff means some works get crowded out or underappreciated; not only physically but also in publicity, where the excitement of a new (and underwhelming) installation by Agnès Varda at FACT, as well as a new commission by Bourouissa, meant this pre-existing work from 2014-15 was a footnote.

It’s wonderful, then, to have the chance to revisit Horse Day at The Turnpike as part of the Biennial’s touring programme. At the end of a fly-postered corridor advertising a ‘Horse Tuning Expo’, the video installation documenting this curious event is projected onto two large screens. The reflection of the moving images on the dark painted floor, and an orange glow from an unseen source behind them, create a sense of immersion in an expansive space.

“Bleak signifiers are gloriously interrupted by the sight of horses being ridden through the streets”

The film follows the inhabitants of the Fletcher Street district in Philadelphia. It is an impoverished area, bearing the signs of decades of neglect and unemployment: ramshackle housing, low abandoned buildings, stretches of parched wasteland. These bleak signifiers are gloriously interrupted by the sight of horses being ridden through the streets. Defying expectations, these American riders are not wearing cowboy hats, or even riding helmets; they are young black men in their everyday streetwear.

Visitor with Mohamed Bourouissa Horse Tuning Expo 2014

Fletcher Street is home to long-established stables that have survived against the odds, and Algerian artist Bourouissa worked with these urban riders to create the celebratory Horse Day documented here. The dual-screen film presents different aspects of the community, often pairing scenes of purposeful preparation or conversation with fluid shots of riders in full, free flow.

The cultivation of individual appearance is a recurring theme in this short film. Elaborate and ingenious homemade costumes were created for the animals with great care by participants; old compact discs combine into a mirror ball-style cape, and a white horse’s prominent ribcage is outlined with the rest of its skeleton in black paint. The trophies awarded at the expo are similarly homespun from scrap metal, though taking part rather than winning is the spirit of the day; one rider wonders incredulously to his companion, “If everyone wins what kind of competition could it be?”

“This community has created its own mythology around riding”

Men on horseback are synonymous with American iconography of the Wild West, but this community has created its own mythology around riding, entirely independent of the weight of history. One interviewee, visibly proud of his riding prowess, states emphatically, “I never dress like a cowboy, never […] I feel like a horse man.” He chooses his clothing to match the animal he’s riding; brown, silver, white. The gulf between these horse men and the cowboys of old is illustrated as one of the youths asks whether the swaggering Western movie actor John Wayne was white or black. As he struggles to control a pony, his friend shoots wryly back at him, “John Wayne don’t do shit like this!”

Bourouissa captures the camaraderie and resilience found in life on the margins. The value of community traditions in nurturing a sense of identity and place is clear, as is the resourcefulness and creativity needed to keep them relevant. The choice of The Turnpike for this new presentation of Horse Day is apt. When it reopened two years ago, its Director set out a vision of programming art that would chime with the residents of Leigh – a post-industrial town with its share of struggles and a resolutely independent, community-minded outlook. Horse Day undoubtedly benefits from the space and profile afforded it at The Turnpike but, more interestingly, it also gains an added layer of resonance here.

Denise Courcoux

Mohamed Bourouissa: Horse Day is at The Turnpike, Leigh, until 25 March as part of the Liverpool Biennial touring programme

Images courtesy Rob Battersby

Posted on 12/03/2019 by thedoublenegative