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"It's Undeniable These Are Cowboys. They're Real," Black Photographer Dives Into Black Rodeo

Kamila Kudelska
Ivan McClellan stands in front of Three Kings at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

A new exhibit at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West focuses on Black cowboys and rodeos: Eight Seconds: Black Cowboys In America. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska spoke with photographer Ivan McClellan about his work, and the first Black rodeo he went to in Oklahoma.Ivan McClellan: I got out of my car and saw 2,000 Black cowboys there and I was just enamored of the culture immediately. The way the people dressed. The way that people wore braids, people had long acrylic nails, there was hip hop music playing. Like, it just completely shattered my conceptions of like what a rodeo was, and really expanded my idea of like what Black people can be. So I just got really fascinated with documenting that culture and kept going to rodeos over and over and over again for the next few years.

Kamila Kudelska: Wow, and had you ever been to a rodeo before that?

IM: Yeah, I grew up in Kansas. So we would go to the American Royal. I remember it very well as a kid going there, but we never went to Black rodeos.

KK: Right, so this was like a completely different aspect inside and culture of it.

IM: I grew up around Black men that farmed, Black men that raised cattle, but I never called them a cowboy. Because he was Black. And I was like, 'Black people aren't cowboys.' I just kind of had that idea in my head. And it wasn't until I went to this rodeo and I saw people roping and wrestling steers and riding bulls and wearing Stetsons and all of that stuff, but they were all Black that I was like, 'It's undeniable these are cowboys. They're real.' You know, I just had to kind of accept that in my mind.

KK: It sounds like for you, at one point, cowboy meant something different.

IM: The only Black cowboys that [I] ever saw was like Cowboy Curtis on Pee-wee's Playhouse or Blazing Saddles. I seen cowboys that were more like a joke. You know, I saw like Sinbad and the Cherokee kid. And I just thought that the only real cowboys are white, you know, like, they look like John Wayne, they wore chaps, they wore spurs, they live in a place like Wyoming, on big plains and big ranches. And just like coming to realize that Black cowboys were a lot more accessible as an adult, you know, realize it like you could be a Black cowboy and live in the middle of Philadelphia, you know, they live in big cities. They rodeo you know, they ride trucks, they do a lot of the things that you expect the cowboy to do, but a lot of the stereotypes are kind of broken. And you see guys riding horses in Jordans, and you see guys riding horses in basketball shorts with no shirt on and gold chains and earrings. And, you know, they look like a figure that you would expect to see in a rap video or you expect to see out of hip hop culture, but they're absolutely cowboys. They raise horses, they live on farms. And so it really kind of shattered a lot of my own conceptions and really forced me to kind of mature my thought process there.

KK: Is there a specific picture or a specific moment that kind of, when you've been at one of these rodeos, that kind of exemplifies to you like, why this matters?

IM: One of my favorite ones I call it Three Kings. And I got the guys' names after I took the photo. They actually found me on Instagram, and they were like, 'That's me!' and I was like, 'What's your name?' And he's like, 'Napoleon.' And I was like, 'Of course, your name is Napoleon like, look at you.' It's three Black horsemen, three young men riding their horses, and they just look so cool. One of them has a towel around his neck, and he's just looking straight at the camera. The other one's looking to the side, he's just being really cool. But if you zoom into the photo, if you look at it really closely, the guy in the middle has an earring in his ear. He's got a diamond stud earring. And it's like, I didn't notice it for years. And when I finally noticed it, I was like that, because otherwise they're in complete Western wear. They're in starched shirts, they're in jeans, they're riding their horses, they're wearing Stetsons, but that earring is the only thing that has any sense of modernity. It's the thing that gives it away that this is something contemporary, and this is something different than what you would expect out of a normal cowboy. That photo, I don't know, I just keep coming back to it. It was like one of the very first ones that I did back in 2015. And I've taken tens of thousands of photos since then. And that one still resonates to me and really represents the show.

KK: Yeah, and you mentioned earlier when you were talking about Three Kings, that it's kind of showing the modernity of the cowboys. And it made me think like, you know, we're sitting in Cody, Wyoming and the whole image of this town really is the Old West and I wonder what it means to you to have your photos displayed in a place where it's all about that white cowboy that like old image that we all see that iconic image of the cowboy?

IM: Yeah, I love that image. You know, like I said, I grew up with it. I don't at all want to change that image. I don't want to do anything to replace it. I just want to add to it. You know, it's like yes, Buffalo Bill. And you know, if you want to keep it in the past there's really cool guys. There's Bass Reeves, there's Bill Pickett. But my work focuses on what's going on right now, right? And I want people to know that like rodeos aren't just a celebration of the past, they are about what's going on right now. The first time that I heard Lil Nas X's Old Town Road was at a rodeo. And that's because Black rodeos, they play hip hop, they play the most current music and you actually go there and learn about Lil Nas X and learn about Breeland. And you learn about these guys that are doing like, this merger of hip hop and country in one culture. And it's about like, current fashion. And it's about like, slang and stuff that people say, and it's about the youth and, you know, all of that energy and all of that modernity, I think, refreshes rodeo and makes it something really current and really relevant to our time right now.

KK: And what do you hope visitors to the museum will get out of your exhibit?

IM: I hope the people that don't know anything about this culture, get curious about it, and dive deeper into it and ask questions about their own perceptions and say, 'Wow, what did I not know about rodeo? What did I not know about cowboys? I need to do some research. I need to learn.' I think it's important to not only be curious about Black rodeos but be curious about Native American rodeos, to be curious about the whole Mexican cowboy tradition. All of these things like really formed the American West and all of these folks made a major contribution to the west. So as we tell stories, and as we research that identity of the American cowboy, let's try to expand it and be more inclusive.

KK: Well, thank you so much.

IM: Thank you really appreciate your time.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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