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A Joyful and Intimate Portrait of Black Cowboy and Cowgirl Culture
A Joyful and Intimate Portrait of Black Cowboy and Cowgirl Culture
by The Luupe
Gabriela Hasbun's new book "The New Black West" is a joyful celebration of an overlooked staple of American history.
The first image that comes to mind when many think of "cowboy culture" is a rugged, macho, lasso-swinging Marlboro Man of the (often white) American West. Yet there has always been a side that breaks the hearty stereotypes, most notably Black cowboy and cowgirl communities that have thrived for years outside of the historical spotlight.
Luupe photographer Gabriela Hasbun's new book The New Black West: Photographs From America's Only Touring Black Rodeo, published by Chronicle Books honors the thriving historic accomplishments of Black cowboys and vibrant culture that still exists today. Focusing on Oakland's Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo, Hasbun captures the cultural nuances, going beyond just "documenting" and to look deeply at the community, their joys and forever vibrance.
We caught up with Gabriela to learn more about the project and its relationship to her editorial and commercial gaze.
Cowgirl Brianna Owens traveled from Houston, Texas, to compete in the ladies’ barrel racing at the BPIR in 2017. Barrel racing is one of the two events open to cowgirls only. The other is ladies’ steer undecorating. © Gabriela Hasbun
The Luupe: What drew you to photograph Black cowboys/girls?
Gabriela Hasbun: Finding this community of Black cowboys gathered on the outskirts of Oakland took me by surprise. It was truly the impenetrable connection the cowboys had with their horses, the bond and the beauty and tenderness between them, that compelled me to photograph these cowboys and cowgirls. Let’s not forget the traditional attire, pressed Wranglers, embroidered Western shirts and snakeskin boots, along with cell phones and Gucci sunglasses.
Joseph “Dugga” Matthews (far right) stands on his horse in 2008 with a group of riders from Stockton, California, who are part of the Brotherhood Riders group. Dugga is a horse trainer, farrier, and veterinarian. He came to the States from Antigua in 1998, and has been attending the BPIR ever since. © Gabriela Hasbun
The Luupe: Love that! We're moved by your focus on "beauty and tenderness" in contrast to the macho ideas we have historically associated with cowboys.
Hasbun: Yah, in a way I expected cowboys to be tough and raunchy and these folks were the opposite. Stylish and caring towards their animals, most talk about how much they’d grown up riding since they were 2. Taught by their grandparents. They really broke down the stereotypes I had of what cowboys look like and how they behaved.
The Luupe: How did the project begin?
The first time I attended the rodeo was back in 2007. My neighbor at the time, Zana Woods, took me to the rodeo to find authentic fried catfish (she was from Arkansas). It was my first time attending a rodeo so I had no idea what to expect. The next year (2008) I took my medium format camera and began to photograph the contestants behind the scenes.
Cowboy Jordan Miller rides in the Black Cowboy Association’s forty-fifth annual parade, which is held in Oakland the first weekend in October. The Black Cowboy Association is a nonprofit organization that, for the past forty years, has striven educate the community of Oakland on the historical contributions of Black cowboys. The parade and festivities held by members of the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle, Oakland Girl Scouts, and many other local groups starts and ends at De Fremery Park after making its way through West Oakland. © Gabriela Hasbun
Joseph Dougga Matthews and Tabansi Burch ( grandchild) at the BPIR in Oakland in 2008.
The Luupe: Who was the first person you photographed?
Hasbun: One of the first cowboys I met was Joseph “Dugga” Matthew (above) with his grandson Tabansi Burch who was only 3 or 4 years old at the time. I still see Dugga and Tabansi at the ride outs in Oakland. Tabansi is now 15 and training to ride bulls.
The Luupe: Did you envision the work blossoming into a full fledged series and book as it did?
Hasbun: I never expected to create so many wonderful images from that first visit. Back in 2008, this was a personal project I was doing only once a year to show to editors in meetings or on my website. I didn’t anticipate it turning into more. Then in 2013 I had my son, Matteo. Things started shifting gears in my head, and it was more important to me then to work on projects that meant something to me instead of just taking on more assignment or commercial work.
The question that lingered in my head, was, “What will I leave behind for him to see?” “Will my time away from my son be used in a meaningful way?” These questions drove perspective and purpose into my work more than ever.
Cowgirl Iyauna Austin gets ready to ride her horse, Diamond, in the Fremont hills. Her grandparents taught her how to ride at the age of two, and she’s been riding ever since. When asked about the connection between horse and rider, she explains: “Basically, if you are high-spirited, your horse will be high-spirited. If you are calm and collected, your horse will most likely be calm and collected. A horse is like a really big dog that you can’t take home necessarily.” no name ranch Fremont, California, 2018. © Gabriela Hasbun
The Luupe: Did you have any preconceived notions about what the project or communities you were photographing would look like that shifted as the project developed?
Hasbun: No. I really went into it with zero expectations and zero knowledge about the BPIR background or Black Western History. The more I kept coming back to photograph the more I kept learning about Black history.
The cowboys welcomed me into their community with so much warmth and reception. They're very family centric. Many generations ride horses together and work in ranches together so this is one giant rodeo family I walked into without knowing it until later.
Sam Styles, shown here in 2018, started Horses with Styles so he could work with young Black riders in Oakland: “So I’m out there walking these kids, talking with these kids. And it just took me back to when I was younger and to the first time I saw a horse. It was mind-blowing for me, at the age of twenty-one, to realize that if I hadn’t gone to the Oakland Black Cowboy Parade when I was younger, I would never have seen these horses. I would have never started learning how to ride, and then I would never be where I’m at now...." © Gabriela Hasbun
Hasbun: For most of the 12 years I attended the rodeo on and off, myself and probably one or two other photographers were ever there. I never understood this. Why would this incredible reunion and celebration of Black heritage go unheralded – why didn’t more people know about this? And why was the media ignoring this positive Black event when they came together?
So I continued trusting my gut and documenting the event as much as I could. In 2018, I pitched the story to a few publications I had worked with. ESPN The Undefeated ran a nice piece on the Oakland BPIR and so did San Francisco magazine. This is when I sensed a shift in folks wanting to know more about Black history and heritage. Perhaps people were interested in asking questions and digging deeper.
Like Mifflin Lowe mentions in his book The True West, “I hope that Americans from every part of the country come to understand and appreciate the fact that people who settled the West weren’t all just “Marlboro men.” They were, in truth, everybody- people from every race, gender and ethnicity who built, explored, and fought to make the West what it is today. In one way or another, every one of them was a pioneer, and they are all part of our heritage.”
Vintage Marlboro Man advertisements embolden he classic cowboy stereotypes
Rodeo attendee Deidre Webb, known as Lady D, visits the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR) in Oakland from Washington State in 2019. A few years before, she visited a close friend in Oakland who invited her to the rodeo, and since then she’s become a loyal fan. A survey taken at the 2018 event revealed that 56 percent of attendees were new to the rodeo, and about 45 percent were introduced to the rodeo through friends or by word of mouth. “At the BPIR we found family,” Lady D says. “My first day there, Pam let me ride her horse, and she had one of the other cowgirls walk me around that whole big back area on the horse. So yes, we found family, for real.” © Gabriela Hasbun
The Luupe: To that point, while this work is often described as "documenting," it feels like it goes deeper than simply capturing a community. There is a definitive point of view, sense of style, collaboration and direction in your gaze.
My goal with these images was to truly make you feel like you were at the rodeo with me, witnessing what I was gazing at. I brought with me my love of portraiture and my sensibility for documenting certain details I don’t have the opportunity to do in my daily work as an editorial portrait photographer.
Rodeo attire is all about the details. This image from 2017 shows off the spurs on the boots, the perfectly curved hats, and the pressed cotton shirts with embroidered stars. “At the rodeo, you want to be dressed to impress,” says Trevor Clark. © Gabriela Hasbun
The Luupe: Speaking of your assignment work, it's interesting to look at this series in the context of your editorial and commercial projects. Do you see an overlap?
Hasbun: In most of my editorial and commercial projects, photographs are more staged and contained. There’s more of a set up, lighting, wardrobe, etc. At the rodeo, it’s just myself and my medium format film camera. No lighting, no stands or tripods so it’s easier to cover more territory and get more natural and candid images of people in their environment without trying to light with a strobe or a backdrop.
In June 2020, Brianna Noble rode her horse, Dapper Dan, in a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Oakland. “People seemed more concerned about the destruction that would take place in our city, you know, the broken windows and stuff like that,” Brianna says. “They’re more angered by that than they are at the loss of life. So in an effort to change the narrative, I’m like, ‘OK, well maybe I can change the headlines.’ So that’s why I decided to take my horse down there. . . . My entire life I’ve been ignored. The only time in my life I have not been ignored is when I’m sitting on a horse. It seems like nobody can ignore a Black woman on a horse.” De Fremery Park Oakland, California, 2021. © Gabriela Hasbun
Prince Damons, Cowboy Sam, and Cowboy Jonathan Higgenbotham parade their horses at the Grand Entry of the BPIR in 2019. This is the most anticipated event at the rodeo, where guests are able to observe and celebrate the entire cowboy community, regardless of their participation in the competitive events. Riders glam up themselves and their horses to look their best. © Gabriela Hasbun
The Luupe: This focuses on one particular community of cowboys. Do you see yourself expanding the project into other organizations?
Hasbun: Yes, I focused mainly on documenting the Oakland Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo when it came to town once a year. Later on, I photographed some of the cowboys and cowgirls who live in the area. I always try and find stories in my backyard, that I can access regularly without the expense of hoping on a plane. I have also photographed the Silver Buckle Rodeo up in Northern California for multiple years – I would love to document other Black cowboy organizations if the fit is right.
Cowboy Jamir Graham nervously awaits his turn to compete at the thirty-second annual Bill Pickett rodeo in 2017. This was Jamir’s first racing competition at the BPIR. He was sponsored by his youth program, Spurred Up. “I participated in bareback riding and relay racing. I was also the flag bearer with the Spurred Up flag for the Grand Entry,” he remembers. “I was born into riding. Growing up, my mom and grandfather competed. So for me, BPIR has always been a big family reunion.” © Gabriela Hasbun
The Luupe: Thanks so much for your time and sharing the story behind this inspiring project. In closing, What do you hope those who see this work will glean from it?
Hasbun: I hope this work will help folks understand how vastly African Americans contributed to American history in more ways than popular culture has led them to believe. That my images inspire viewers to dig deeper into history and gain a better understanding of the Black experience in the United States. And I’d hope they question everything they know or think they know.
There are legendary cowboys barely mentioned in books or movies like Stage Coach Mary, Nat Love, James Beckwourth, and of course Bill Pickett. And most importantly, I hope the media is able to shine light on positive stories on communities of color. It’s important to raise each other up, especially those who have been ignored for so long. These stories can help bring our country closer together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Luupe is a one-stop production company that is raising the bar for professional brand imagery on a global scale. With a highly curated and diverse network of professional women and non-binary photo and video creators across 65+ countries around the world, we are reinventing how brands produce original, local, and authentic visual stories that connect with a global audience. Our mission is to champion and amplify diverse perspectives from around the world — in front of and behind the lens.