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Cian Oba-Smith's project 'Concrete Horsemen' challenges the image of the American cowboy

  • Written by  Jacob Dykes
  • Published in Geophoto
Cian Oba-Smith's project 'Concrete Horsemen' challenges the image of the American cowboy
12 Feb
The streets of Philadelphia are home to a small and forgotten kernel of African American horse culture – a lineage overshadowed by the typical image of the American cowboy

Through the pastel-hued streets of North Philadelphia, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves is often heard. Each day, a community of horsemen gather around a stable to tend to their animals, bonding over a shared passion. 

Photographer Cian Oba-Smith gravitated towards this small and forgotten kernel of African American horse culture. His project, Concrete Horsemen, offers an alternative view of the archetypal American rider. Though rarely depicted in art or photography, African Americans have been keeping and breeding horses for the past few centuries. Philadelphia is no exception. For over a hundred years there has been a lineage of Black urban horsemen in the city.

Concrete Horsemen Geographical Mag 2 LowresCian Oba-Smith: Milan and Dusty cross a railway bridge. When I wasn’t hanging out at the stable I spent time following the horsemen around the city. I took this picture while chasing Milan around North Philadelphia on foot. Image: Cian Oba-Smith

A year before travelling to Philadelphia, a routine scroll through Reddit stopped Oba-Smith in his tracks. ‘I was struck by an unusual image – seeing somebody ride a horse in the city is pretty unusual, but the fact it was a Black man was even more unusual,’ he says. The discovery ignited a year-long research mission. He was shocked to find that 13 out of 15 jockeys at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 (a now-annual horse race held in Louisville, Kentucky) were African Americans. Their intimate knowledge of horse-keeping, gained through work done on slave-driven plantations, would see many of them win these early races, most notably Isaac Murphy, the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times. ‘Most people racing horses during the early derby days were Black, because they were the slaves of people entering horses into races and derbies,’ says Oba-Smith. Even after the American Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in 1863, ranchers were compelled to hire skilled African Americans as paid cowhands. Historians estimate that they made up one in four cowboys.

The success of African Americans in horse racing would soon be suffocated however. The Jim Crow laws and racial segregation which followed emancipation, suppressed Black participation. From 1921 to 2000, there were no African Americans in the Kentucky Derby. Since then, it’s Clint Eastwood and the Marlboro Man who have come to exemplify the American cowboy. ‘The term “cowboy” itself, however, is born from slavery. This was a term typically given to horse-tending slaves by white masters,’ says Oba-Smith. ‘It’s just been reshaped through cinema so that it doesn’t have that connotation anymore.’

Concrete Horsemen Geographical Mag 4 LowresCian Oba-Smith: Reem with his horse. Reem was one of the guys I spent the most time with while I was at the stable. He was younger and because of that he was more interested in me being from London. I made this portrait of him at the local shopping mall as the sun was setting. Image: Cian Oba-Smith

Challenging this story is at the heart of Oba-Smith’s work. ‘I tried to subvert the traditional narrative by having low-angled portraits of the horsemen, presenting them as strong individuals,’ he says. Throughout the series, portraits of young African Americans proudly riding horses give way to finer details, depicting life as a Black man in north Philadelphia – an area where 97 per cent of the population is African American and where 50 per cent live below the poverty line. ‘There’s a high rate of homicide in Philadelphia. During the two weeks I spent photographing the project, I regularly saw people going to memorials for lost loved ones. One of the young men in the photos had three friends killed within three months of me leaving.’

Concrete Horsemen Geographical Mag 3 LowresCian Oba-Smith: Stevie and Ruffian. Most of my time was spent sitting around the stable. This was during one of those moments. I entered and Stevie was in there leaning against the wall chatting to one of the other guys, so I made this portrait of him while the light filtered through the doorway. Image: Cian Oba-Smith

Oba-Smith embedded himself within the group of horsemen to achieve the project’s intimacy. Shared experiences growing up as a minority helped him to identify with the community members. ‘I’m a mixed-race Londoner and I didn’t grow up with lots of money. Most of the time that I spent with the community was spent hanging around, playing basketball, and cracking jokes,’ he says. ‘There were things that we could connect with on a personal level. If you’re Black in any country with a history of racial injustice, you can kind of identify with other Black people.’ 

Concrete Horsemen Geographical Mag Highres 7Cian Oba-Smith: Kasaan takes Ruffian out of the paddock. The horses being taken in and out of the paddock became a part of my routine as well as theirs. The sun was setting and Kasaan needed to go home so he was putting Ruffian back in the stable which is when I took this picture. Image: Cian Oba-Smith

The project was shot at the end of 2016, during the pivotal turning point in US political history that saw the election of Donald Trump. Since then, the conversation around race across the world has deepened. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin on 25 May 2020 drew global condemnation, igniting widespread demonstrations. In Philadelphia, hundreds of protestors took to the streets on 26 October 2020, in response to another police killing – that of Walter Wallace Jr. 

‘Concrete Horsemen has now taken on a life of its own with recent events,’ says Oba-Smith. ‘These subjects were perhaps not spoken about as openly as they are in the current political climate. Talking about them won’t magic them away, but it’s the first step in moving towards a solution. Concrete Horsemen was in part a reflection of what I would like to see happen, which is for equality to be achieved. In 50 years’ time, maybe people can look back at the work and say “this is what it was like back then, this was the problem – look how we fixed it”.’

Cian Oba-Smith: Gordon Parks is one of my photographic influences, he was a Black documentary photographer in the 60s at a time when it was incredibly hard to be a Black photographer in the US. But I don’t look at that much photography; my main influences come from reading and through personal experiences.

Cian Oba-Smith: I think photography is a way of expressing your individual identity. Making beautiful pictures is important to me, but I want my work to try to change perspectives. Photography gives you a window into the past, but also allows you to share the present.

Cian Oba-Smith: Make work that’s close to who you are as an individual. A lot of interesting work can come through far-flung travel, but a lot less is made close to home. If you don’t have the money or the time when you’re starting out, the best thing you can do is look at what’s close to home and tell that story.

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