In 2019 Emmanuel David, a gender and sexuality researcher at CU Boulder, and Yumi Roth, a sculpture professor at CU Boulder, were searching the archives for a Filipino presence in Colorado. Nestled into an 1899 routebook of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, the world-famous traveling show, David found the names of three Filipino Rough Riders: Ysidora Alcantara, Felix Alcantara, and Geronimo Ynosincio.
From this discovery, David and Roth developed a traveling art project called “We Are Coming,” a nod to Buffalo Bill’s promotional poster from the time that declared “I am coming,” which displays the three names on vintage theater marquis in towns where the show historically stopped.
“When we think about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, we think about the personage of Buffalo Bill. The guy in the Stetson, with the white hair and the lovely deerskin jacket,” Roth said.
“What we’re interested in doing is (looking at) what happens when you invert that relationship, so that Buffalo Bill is not the central character anymore,” Roth said.
“Part of it is like: What can you excavate from a partial archive that is designed around someone?” David added. “We can find the fragments of their lives and create something out of that.”
That is largely the goal of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s upcoming exhibition, “Cowboy,” where “We Are Coming” will be displayed alongside the work of 25 other artists. Together, the works examine the cultural figure of the cowboy — including the negative space around him. Some artworks deconstruct the myth of the character, while others pay homage to the cowboy’s enduring livelihood and culture. The exhibition opens Sept. 29.
The stories we tell
Even with cattle ranchlands across the West shrinking overall, Colorado still has about 2.6 million heads of cattle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the labor that comes with tending those cattle is the everyday reality for many in Colorado.
“How do we acknowledge both the fantasy and the seduction of the cowboy figure as depicted in popular culture in Hollywood?” Nora Abrams, the show’s co-curator asked. “And yet, also acknowledge that for many people this is a real, lived experience that is a daily part of life, it’s real work, it’s real labor, it’s real livelihood.”
In other words, the curators wanted to lean into the myth, while keeping their feet planted in the reality. But what even is that reality?
“I think our idea of a cowboy is largely influenced by books and tall tales from that time. And I know they weren’t really interested in accuracy on any level,” artist R. Alan Brooks, who writes a comic for The Colorado Sun, said. Last year Brooks created a comic book about Black cowboy Nat Love for Denver Art Museum’s Western galleries.
Brooks pored over Nat Love’s biography to pull out the key moments to excerpt in the comic.
“There’s a story in Nat Love’s book where he lassos a train, and his horse gets dragged into a ditch, then he walks into a bar and shoots it up and forces the bartender to serve his horse a drink. Is that true?” Brooks asked. “I don’t know. But what’s more interesting to me is finding the humanity beyond the figure.”
Nat Love was 11 when slavery ended, Brooks said. But throughout his life, both before and after slavery, he writes in his autobiography about the freedom he feels when he’s riding his horse. “The horse represented freedom for him throughout his whole life. To me, that was the human connection,” Brooks said.
For the MCA show, Brooks created a new comic book, this one about the historic town of Dearfield, the largest Black homesteading settlement in Colorado.
While Brooks addresses the historical record, other works add the contemporary one. Juan Fuentes, a Chicano artist based in San Francisco, will show a series of photographs of the immigrant community in Bennett, roughly 30 miles east of Denver, which focuses on the workers whose lives are intertwined with their animals and the changing landscape. The show will also include New Orleans-based photographer Akasha Rabut’s series “Southern Riderz,” a collection of photos about urban rider clubs. Kahlil Joseph, a filmmaker who has directed music videos for Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, among others, will show a three-screen projection of his short film “Wildcat (Aunt Janet),” what co-curator Miranda Lash described as an “evocative love letter to the rodeo history of Grayson, Oklahoma.”
“There are some artworks in the show that fall along the lines of the deconstructive impulse, like ‘you think the cowboy is this, it’s not that,’” Miranda Lash, the other co-curator, said. “But we also have a lot of works in the show that feel like love letters and homages. The show really toggles between the two impulses, you know, pulling apart, but also lifting up.”
The pulling apart
In the 19th century, one-third of all cowboys were Mexican or Black, an aspect that has not been fully recognized over the last 150 years, Abrams said. It was important to the curators to honor that history. “Of course, in doing that it does unsettle the icon,” Abrams said. “An icon inevitably is something that’s pretty flat, that is larger than life, that is more idea-based rather than concrete, and that really is what the cowboy has become in many ways.”
LEFT: Otis Kwame Quaicoe, “Caught in the Act,” 2023. © Otis Kwame Qaicoe. (Photo by Mario Gallucci / Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech). RIGHT: Otis Kwame Quaicoe, “Rodeo Boys,” 2022 (Photo by Hugard & Vanoverschelde, edited / Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech)
ABOVE: Otis Kwame Quaicoe, “Rodeo Boys,” 2022 (Photo by Hugard & Vanoverschelde. (edited) / Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech) BELOW: Otis Kwame Quaicoe, “Caught in the Act,” 2023. © Otis Kwame Qaicoe. (Photo by Mario Gallucci / Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech)
Like Roth and David’s piece, many of the artists took the opportunity to crack that definition of what a cowboy is. Nathan Young, a Native American artist who comes from a long line of cowboys, borrowed artifacts from his family to create his MCA installation, which pays homage to famous Pawnee bull riders and rodeo stars. Karl Haendel sketched deeply detailed drawings of female barrel racers that he encountered at a Denver rodeo. And Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, an artist who grew up in Ghana thinking that “cowboy” meant “American,” created a series of paintings full of Black cowboys and ordinary Black people in cowboy attire.
Are cowboys having ‘a moment’?
“The West, it’s always been this ‘thing’ in our culture, in our American psyche,” Nikki Todd, founder of Visions West Contemporary Gallery said. Todd was enamored by the images in traditional Western Art — the plains, the buffalo, of course, the cowboy — but understood the limitations of those images. She started Visions West in Montana in 2000 to show Western art that wasn’t stereotypically “Western.”
“The cowboy has just saturated the imagination of Americans for decades — through film, books, even marketing.” Todd said. “I think everybody knows what a cowboy is.”
His image comes forth repeatedly in times of crisis and flux. “Cold War America: The heyday of Western film. Turn of the millennium: “Wild Wild West,” Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears and their all-denim outfits, and Paris Hilton’s ‘The Simple Life,’” Lash said, a bit jokingly. Now we’ve got “Yellowstone.”
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“As we emerge from a global pandemic, we’re questioning our relationship to the environment, to climate change, to global politics, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re into the idea of the figure that lives close to the land, that embodies freedom, a sense of liberation of movement — to me it tracks,” Lash said.
Both Abrams and Todd speculated — maybe the pandemic did give people a chance to leave their urban centers, to seek solitude and learn to live off the land.
“It’s just something that has captured the imaginations of everyone,” Todd said. “There’s something about freedom, and just being tough, and the rugged individual, that we’re all drawn to. No matter what culture we’re from. You know, don’t we all want to ride off into the sunset on our horses?”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 26, 2023, to correct the spelling of Nikki Todd’s first name. Todd is the founder of Visions West Contemporary Gallery in Denver.