Photos capturing the world’s only touring Black rodeo

Photos capturing the world’s only touring Black rodeo
Held annually in cities across the United States, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo honours the historic accomplishments of Black cowboys. Photographer Gabriela Hasbun recounts documenting the community dedicated to continuing that legacy.

The only touring Black rodeo on earth, the Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo (BPIR) is named after Bill Pickett (1870–1932): a legendary figure who emerged on the American rodeo circuit that sprung up following the Civil War. Once liberated, Black Americans accounted for 25 per cent of the cowboys working the range across the South and the West.

Pickett appeared in Wild West shows and early Hollywood films alongside luminaries including Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, and Tom Mix, while also advancing the sport itself with the invention of steer wrestling. Yet it wasn’t until 1972 that Pickett became the first Black person inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame – some 40 years after his death.

Since 1984, the BPIR has been home to Black Americans with a deep love for their heritage. El Salvadoran photographer Gabriela Hasbun attended her first BPIR in 2007 and quickly fell in love with the majestic displays of sport, style, culture, and pride. “There was so much beauty everywhere, the people, the horses, their clothing and culture,” she says. “My senses were overwhelmed.”

The following year, Hasbun returned with a medium format camera in tow on a mission to make behind-the-scenes photographs of the contestants. The experience left such a profound impression that Hasbun embarked on a 14-year project that has culminated in the recent publication of The New Black West: Photographs from America’s Only Touring Black Rodeo (Chronicle).

“One of my favourite aspects of documenting folks at the BPIR is that cowboys and cowgirls incorporate a lot of their culture and personal styles to their attire and to their horse wears,” she says. “It’s clear that something completely new is being forged in the collision of classic and contemporary – and in doing so, exploring what it means to be a cowboy today, in and out of the arena.”

With The New Black West, Hasbun takes us inside the Oakland edition of BPIR, a two-day event. Highlights include the opening ceremony, followed by the Grand Entry, a splashy parade-style event where people who are not competing can show off their horses, training, and hard work. Then come the competitions, which include bareback riding, calf roping, bulldogging, barrel racing, and bull riding, to name just a few of the highly skilled – and sometimes dangerous – athletic events. 

Bull rider Tank Adams told Hasbun, “With bull riding, you’re gambling with your life, and you got one chance to go out there and slay a dragon. The world thinks we’re crazy. For bull riders, the world pretty much disappears when you get on the back of a bull. All your problems disappear. Anything that you’re going through… it’s gone for that period of time.”

Hasbun embraces extraordinary displays of athleticism, aesthetics, and community at the BPIR, a spirit that can be felt through her photographs. “I’ve learned so much from the cowboys and cowgirls, most of all, to commit 100 per cent or more to something you love doing and do it well,” she says. “And to build community where ever you are, as they will always raise you up.”

The New Black West: Photographs from America’s Only Touring Black Rodeo is out now on Chronicle.

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