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Bucking stereotypes

‘Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo’ challenges Western status-quo

Brian Cornell, Hayward, California, 1989; archival pigment printed on Epson exhibition fiber paper, 15 X 15

Blake Little

A cowboy holding on for dear life to the back of a bucking bronco is a classic image of the American West. You’ll find dozens of examples of such iconic scenes on the walls of the Gilcrease Museum, but a new exhibit aims to widen the frame and show that there’s room in those vast Western landscapes for everyone.

“Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo” brings visitors into the gay rodeo community with sharp, intimate portraits and breathtaking rodeo action.

“It’s so closely tied to some of the historic material we have here at Gilcrease, but it shows this broad view of the West … not just this narrow Hollywood definition of masculinity, of gender, of Western culture that gets shoehorned into this very specific idea,” said Laura Fry, senior curator and curator of art at Gilcrease Museum.

The 41 black and white images capture a community of gay men and women who thrive in their Western ranching traditions—a community that defies broad stereotypes, with men who look great in a mustache. Shot between 1988 and 1992, the images show a world unknown to many yet familiar in its action and setting.

Fry said that relationship is what makes this exhibit stand out.

“I’m hoping that this idea of the American West as this static place stuck in history has changed,” Fry said. “The concept of the American West can be much bigger than what pop culture tells us it is.”

Gay rodeos aren’t new. Little photographed and participated in rodeos across the West under the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), which has roots going back to the late 1970s and often included straight participants and onlookers. Since then, local gay rodeo associations have sprung up across the country including events in Oklahoma, whose own gay rodeo association helped form the IGRA in 1985.

Little, a gay photographer with extensive editorial portrait work that continues to this day, discovered the rodeo and wanted to join in, though he wasn’t sure how. As a city boy, it was intimidating, but Little said it was a community that he wanted to join, and bull riding was just a part of that.

That close perspective as a participant adds an intimacy to the photos.

“We were hooked immediately by the whole scene: watching it, imagining that these guys were really doing this, and they were gay,” Little is quoted in one of the exhibit panels.

The exhibit captures a pivotal and terrifying time in the gay community as well: Little’s photos were shot during the height of the AIDS epidemic. When the sense of family among gay men was needed most, Little captured those faces and those people who were part of that family.

In some photos, that struggle is clear.

“Many of the individuals shown here died, and they were very young,” Fry said. “As you take the time to read some of these quotes, you get that gut punch and realize what some of this community was going through as these action and community events were being taken.”

The exhibit was curated by Johanna Blume, assistant curator of Western art at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. It has traveled the country since 2014, making its way to Gilcrease thanks to Fry and other museum leaders who see their role as educators. And in order to fully educate people about Western culture and American culture, it takes a full view.

Little’s exhibition is currently down the hallway in Gilcrease from a collection of striking and powerful works by T.C. Cannon,
a member of the Kiowa tribe and Oklahoma-born artist and musician.

With these exhibits, Gilcrease takes the initiative to include marginalized communities in their stories about the West. Without those stories, according to Fry, we only know part of the history.

“A lot of artists in our collection from the late 19th and early 20th century were part of defining this pop culture of the West in this really specific way. It’s important to present that part of this mythic story in a specific point in time. I think it’s important to show that and show where it comes from, but also it’s not the whole story,” Fry said. “It’s good to reevaluate some of those ideas and broaden the tent.”