The imagery of the American west -- you can see it in your head as well as anything in pop culture.
The sprawling ranches. The grazing cattle. The weathered farms and fences.
And atop his horse, the lone cowboy -- which is almost always a grizzled white man.
And yet, 25 percent of all ranchers settling in the post-Civil War west were Black.
This erasure of cultural and personal identity forms the basis of artist Brent Holmes’ current art exhibit, "Behold a Pale Horse."
“Black people, Latinx people, indigenous people have made incredible strides to build this nation, and inevitably, we keep getting pointed toward captains of industry and politicians who, at least for the last 100, 200 years, were white and male,” Holmes said.
Holmes researched the westward expansion and Black people's roles in that expansion. He noted that Jim Crow laws didn't exist until several years after the end of the Civil War. That gave Black men unprecedented freedom in the West.
“Even if they got into cities that had the kind of bigotry and racism that was common during that era — out riding the range, those things don’t really exist. It’s you, your horse and your lariat," Holmes said.
It wasn't until the railroad arrived and small towns turned into larger cities did discussions of segregation begin, he said. In Las Vegas, the rise in bigotry didn't really arrive until the influx of African Americans in the post-World War II era.
Holmes exhibit combines performance art, digital art, found pieces from around the Southwest, and creations of metal and neon. The artist picked up the found pieces as he traversed the Southwest from Reno to the Salton Sea and from Boulder City to Beatty.
“Those all became assemblages that I wanted to use to try to describe a sense of place greatly, and then assert my own sense of self within that place, within what I like to refer to as the Arid West,” he said.
The neon pieces are part of an effort to connect the Old West to a newer one.
“I wanted to tie these objects to the history of the state, the history of the region and the history of Las Vegas," Holmes said. "To describe the place I live in, inevitably, you have to have a conversation about how things progress.”
Nevada evolved from mining claims and small homesteads to one of the greatest entertainment hubs in the world in just a matter of years, he said.
“I wanted to talk about the past and its relationship to the present and moving towards the future,” Holmes said.
The exhibit also brings in ideas of technology. Holmes uses a motion-capture suit in his live performances, but he also looks at the leap in technology that was the railroad.
“A lot of the exhibition is talking about technology and its effects on people and identity. As much as ethnicity and race have an important place in the identity of people in the United States of America, so does technology,” he said.
Objects in the exhibit work as symbols of the leaps of technology. Holmes notes that people in this era like to think of themselves as being alone in dealing with technology whiplash, but in reality, the Black cowboys of the Old West started as slaves, moved West after the Civil War and ended their careers as porters and cooks on the railroads, which is a "massive leap."
There is also a personal narrative in Holmes' work. He included video of his family having a BBQ. While the artist primarily grew up in urban areas, at least once a year, his mother would take him to her family's ranch in Texas.
There, Holmes was exposed to Black cowboys, Black rodeos and Black ranchers.
“It kept me from feeling boxed in, in many ways, by what American tells me is allowed to be appreciated and understood and engaged as a Black-bodied person,” he said.
He wanted to bring that exploration to this work, in part, because of his experiences covering the Black Lives Matter protests as a photojournalist for Nevada Public Radio and The Believer magazine.
Holmes said while covering the protests, he met people who became his friends and gave him a better understanding of what needed to be communicated about the Black experience
“When I looked at my family’s history ranching and the liberation of going to a rodeo and seeing Black men rope cattle and wear cowboy boots and celebrate that kind of culture — a culture that is typically not something we’re associated with and that freedom that gave me — I wanted to be able to expose other people to those ideas and create dialogue around that kind of identity, that kind of performative behavior and help build a broader idea of what Blackness looks like in America,” he said.
Ultimately, Holmes wanted to show that being Black in America is not a monolith.
He started working on the project in 2020 when everything was in turmoil. In his own life, he had lost friends to COVID-19 and had stopped working with a creative partner.
The isolation of the pandemic led to introspection and heightened emotionality, he said. Like all artists, the tumult was funneled through his creative process.
“I could say that it was painful, but I could also say that some of it was cathartic,” he said. And that catharsis was necessary for his mental, emotional and physical health. “I don’t want to think of it as a celebration of my pain. I want to think of it as an excavation of my joy."
As such, Holmes wants the audience to see his work and "excavate their own joy."
“I’m hoping [exhibition viewers] think about themselves in space," he said. "I’m hoping they think about their perception of the historical context of their lives. I hope that the exhibition allows people to think about how technology has bearing on their lives. How race and identity has bearing on their lives and how they internalize those things and process those things as individuals and how they are influenced on a grander and larger scale.”
And maybe, they'll see it another way that Holmes does — as a love letter to the Southwest he loves dearly.
Brent Holmes, artist and activist
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