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Commentary: Cowboys have full representation in art


Whenever my birthday rolls around, I can expect to receive gifts with a cowboy-cowgirl or western flair. After all, I grew up in the days of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and Hop-Along Cassidy as well as many Westerns on T.V. and at the movies.

You could say that I have a thing about this subject. I even loved and still do the western and cowboy songs and stories about the Wild West, but I really couldn't remember any black cowboys.

Well, my daughter brought me a gift titled "Black Rodeo," a catalogue and interview by Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe. My eyes opened wide and I fell in love with the passion of a young artist from Accra, Ghana. In this book which catalogues Quaicoe's rodeo series, Alexander Thomas, PhD candidate in History and African American Studies at Yale talks of Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe's infatuation with the Wild West brought to him by classic Western cinema circulating around the globe. He was intrigued by the style and attitude of these powerful and unapologetic American cowboys.

Thomas talks about how Quaicoe's African spirit is so uplifting to African Americans and how Quacoe's exuberant brushstrokes and eye for color and texture make his works so special and appealing.

Of course the movie "Concrete Cowboys" was a huge hit a few years ago. A description of the movie quotes one of the characters who says, "You are who you ride with." A young man is sent to live with his estranged father for the summer. This rebellious teen finds kinship in a tight knit group of black cowboys in a black community in Philadelphia.

After doing some research, I found out that black cowboys have been around for over a hundred years. There are books and articles galore. One article that caught my attention on line was entitled "Five African Americans Who Shaped the West." One of the people was John Ware who was born into slavery in South Carolina. Ware moved to Texas after the Civil War and learned skills to become a cowboy. He worked on cattle drives from Texas all the way to Canada where he helped boost the ranching industry in Alberta. He became a star in the Calgary Stampede and was quite famous and highly respected.

I've been to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Art in Oklahoma City which houses over 28,000 Western and Native American works of art. The museum houses an extensive collection of American rodeo photographs and works by Charles Russell and Frederick Remington whose works we can see at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

I didn't neglect the cowgirls and went to the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. I also remember that The Sheldon Arts Foundation here in St. Louis featured one of the Mid-America Arts Alliance's Exhibits U.S.A. programs titled, "Cowgirls, Contemporary Portraits of the American West."

There is no end to organizations such as the Cowgirl Rodeo Association and here in Missouri we have the Missouri Rodeo Association with over 600 members.

There are also numerous examples of gay cowboys. I went to a Gay Rodeo in Palm Springs, California years ago and "Brokeback Mountain" which featured gay cowboys won all kinds of awards a few years back. More recently "The Power of the Dog" had a gay twist to it.

Another travelling arts exhibition from the Mid-America Arts Alliance which I saw in Tulsa at the Gilcrease Museum featured 41 black and white photographs taken by Blake Little between 1988 and 1992 in "Photographs from the Gay Rodeo" which documented the gay rodeo circuit and the lives of many of the participants in those years.

I can't stop thinking and humming songs such as, "I'm an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande," "Get Along Little Dogie" and "Home on the Range."

I really want to meet Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe and compare our memories and love of the cowboy culture from times gone by.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.

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