The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR) is the only touring African American rodeo in the United States. Named for the legendary cowboy and performer who overcame discrimination in his lifetime to become the first Black rodeo athlete inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame, the BPIR has been a safe space for Black people from around the country to connect and compete since 1984. The New Black West: Photographs from America’s Only Touring Black Rodeo (Chronicle Books, 2022) by Gabriela Hasbun is a celebration of the BPIR’s rich community, daring sport, and unique identity.
El Salvador-born, San Francisco-based Hasbun is a thoughtful and perceptive observer. She photographed the BPIR’s annual gathering at Rowell Ranch Rodeo Park outside of Oakland, California, for more than a decade. Her sensitive portraits of attendees with their horses, regalia, and equipment capture the event’s special atmosphere of care and pride. The book is a thoughtful tribute to generations of BPIR participants, and to the ways that the rodeo has helped validate and redefine the largely untold story of Black cowboys and cowgirls in the American West.
Importantly, each of Hasbun’s photos is accompanied by information about and comments from the people depicted. These texts convey the deep sense of meaning, connection, and freedom that rodeo-goers feel. The relationship between riders and horses is a central theme. “I know pretty much every time I get on my horse’s back, I’m breaking the stereotype out on the trails,” recording artist and music producer Prince Damons says as he washes his horse. Brianna Noble, who rode her horse in a June 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland, notes, “The only time when I have not been ignored is when I’m sitting on a horse.” “Horses are incredible confidence boosters,” says Iyauna Austin.
Despite the book’s setting, we don’t see any barrel racing or bull riding. Instead, Hasbun portrays competitors and spectators between events, as they ready themselves or relax with friends and family. Along with intimate, close shots of attendee’s faces, there’s a strong focus on rodeo clothing and accessories, which often innovate the usual cowboy garb. From pressed plaid shirts and fringed chaps to long acrylic nails and airbrushed hats, Hasbun’s photos show us that dress is a powerful tool for self-expression and self-definition at the BPIR.
In all, Hasbun’s book reveals the rodeo to be a crucial place for reclaiming a sense of history and space. “We ride on behalf of those who did not have the opportunity to do so,” cowgirl Ronnie Franks says. The New Black West captures the cross-generational competition and camaraderie that has made this event so vital and dynamic through the years.
The New Black West by Gabriela Hasbun (2022) is published by Chronicle Books and is available online and in bookstores.