Cowboy culture is still thriving, but not all cowboys look like they stepped out of a John Wayne movie.
“Louisiana Trail Riders,” a new exhibit at K-State’s Beach Museum of Art, collects photos by Jeremiah Ariaz that show modern cowboys who are part of trail riding clubs in southwest Louisiana. The clubs continue a legacy of black equestrians in that region, influenced by Creole, French and American Indian people from the area.
“It’s happening on rural and isolated roads. It’s not for an audience,” Ariaz said. “It’s not a parade, but you still have a strong sense of the celebratory nature of the activity.”
Ariaz grew up in Great Bend and is now a professor of art at Louisiana State University. One day while driving down a rural road, he came across a group of 50 to 75 people riding horses along the same road. He pulled over to let them pass and witnessed the party on horseback as they did.
“You hear them coming down the road before you see them,” Ariaz said.
On a trail ride, members of clubs, which have names like 5 Star Fillies, Crescent City Cowboys and the Country Riderz, get together to ride and socialize, and people of all ages enjoy zydeco music played by a DJ in a truck that follows or sometimes by a live band. Ariaz described it as a festive environment feels like a celebration of the riding together.
Ariaz had never heard of the trail riding clubs before that encounter and started doing research into the groups and their history. He learned that despite the number of groups and people involved in them, many aren’t aware of what a big part of the region’s culture they are.
“I realized riding clubs sometimes weren’t known even by people from Louisiana, people who had lived there their whole life.”
Following this realization, Ariaz set out to document the clubs and followed several trail rides to get the photographs included in the Beach exhibition. He also published photos from the series in a book called “Louisiana Trail Riders.”
What had most caught Ariaz’s attention during that first encounter was the contrast between the rural image of horseback riding and the modern men, women and children doing the riding. He said seeing people dressed in modern clothing, wearing headphones and talking on cell phones at first seemed incompatible with the old-fashioned vision of riding he developed growing up in Kansas.
He was also interested in capturing the relationships between generations. He saw adults and children connecting over the experience and that it was an important aspect of the trail rides.
“It seemed important that a key element in the photos would be families and passing down the traditions from one generation to the next,” he said.
Ariaz said it was also crucial to highlight the people of color who make up the clubs. He wanted to bring attention to the equestrian tradition of African-American and Creole people in the area, which goes back to the 1700s. During the heyday of the cowboy, freed slaves and other people of color drove cattle to places like Kansas.
“A lot of those people came from the South and were people of color, even though they weren’t written into that history,” he said.
On his website, Ariaz wrote that the project came about in a time when the country witnessed the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling (in Ariaz’s now home, Baton Rouge) and other young black men. Ariaz felt he could provide a bit of positive representation because the photos portray joy and intimacy, especially between fathers and sons.
Elizabeth Seaton, curator at the Beach Museum, said the connection to the West was one of the reasons she was interested in inviting Ariaz to display at the museum. Kansas has a strong connection to the traditional, romantic image of the American West, and Seaton said she thought there was benefit in showing a broader spectrum of what a cowboy or cowgirl is.
“The history of African American riders is erased in that romantic version,” she said.
Seaton heard Ariaz give a presentation at K-State about a show of his work at the Volland Store in Alma. Seaton was struck by the prints he showed from the Louisiana Trail Riders series.
“I like the way he combines portraiture with groups of riders...and the landscapes that pull back and show the marsh and short grass prairie settings,” she said.
Seaton said while people might think of as the West as places like Dodge City, the idea of “the West” is much bigger than that.
“Originally the west was the Louisiana Purchase,” she said. “That was the West.”
Seaton said she thought people in Kansas would still connect with Ariaz’s work because of the shared cowboy and cowgirl history. Ariaz said people in both Kansas and Louisiana shared a respect for the prairie and for family. People in Louisiana “seem to have more fun,” he said, but both sense the importance of passing on tradition to the next generation.
The Beach will host a cowboy-themed Art in Motion event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 28 at the museum. Members of trail riding clubs are expected to attend. Ariaz will sign copies of his book at 2 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Volland Store in Alma.