ack in August 2022, Las Vegas artist Brent Holmes posted an Instagram photo of his workspace, and from the source material spread on his drawing table and taped to the wall you could immediately tell something new was up. Photos of cowboys, a reference book of African sculpture, a couple of preliminary sketches.

A full realization of that inkling is now before us in Jones Ranch, Egypt, Part 1, Holmes’ exhibit, curated by Sydney Galindo, at Available Space Art Projects (through April 30; if you miss it, some of the images can be seen on Holmes’ Instagram feed). Given that his last decade of work has inclined toward sculpture, installation, video, and performance, this show’s first surprise might be purely formal: They’re drawings. Stark black-and-white pieces—basic, stripped-down, deceptively simple.

Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

Yet they’re anything but simple. These images depict familiar cowboy figures doing cowboy things—riding, shooting—except their heads (and sometimes their horses) have been replaced with meticulously rendered drawings of African tribal masks. As suggested by the title, there’s a complex and invigorating cultural fusion happening here, as Holmes defamiliarizes the cowboy, that most American of icons, in order to open up new ways to appreciate the under-known role of African Americans in the mythology of the West.

Predating the newly rising interest in Black cowboys thanks to Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter album, this isn’t new ground for Holmes. In 2021 he researched, wrote, and narrated a segment of the Black Mountain Radio podcast devoted to Black cowboys, and specifically the descendants of the famous cowboy Nat Love, better known as Deadwood Dick, who had no idea who their ancestor was.

Earlier, in 2014, he staged a performance during which he served brisket beneath a video projection of his family enjoying barbecue on their Texas ranch. And the audio track? A replay of Cliven Bundy’s infamous comments about Black people existing in urban squalor. Holmes wanted to contrast the anti-government, anti-tax crank’s comments with images of “my family living in rurality, enjoying each other’s company, on land we pay taxes on, riding horses.” (Side note: Holmes’ brisket is delicious.) That ranch, by the way, is owned by the Jones family and is near Egypt, Texas. This exhibit is close to home.

Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

Jones Ranch, Egypt, Part 1 operates on a different plane than those previous works. The podcast segment was educational, the performance/video piece a politically urgent riposte to then-current events. In contrast, these drawings do their thing at the level of mythology—economical works taking big, conceptual swings. Holmes sees the cowboy as a quasi-religious icon, sanctifying core American ideals such as independence, freedom, self-reliance, dependability. And, for the most part, this triumphal narrative has been heavily gerrymandered to downplay the large role Black cowboys played in the American West. So the African masks suffuse this work with an alternate, equally rich tradition, one that more overtly appeals to “otherworldly forces or visual representations of ancestry itself.” In this way, Holmes overwrites the old, familiar American cliché in part to claim those American virtues for its citizens of African descent:

“Black people deserve—however horrible, because the history of the West is horrible, and however wonderful—to be able to lay claim to this level of iconography, this core aspect of American identity,” Holmes said.

Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

These drawings began with his research into the Barton brothers, escaped slaves who were among the earliest settlers in Nevada, near Caliente. They barely exist in the historical record; no photos, no primary sources. Holmes wanted to make art about them, but, he said, “I didn’t think a portrait, a made-up face that came out of my head, was reasonable or appropriate.” This is where his interest in the genius artisans of Africa came in. “I wanted to see what two forms of iconography would look like in dialogue,” he said.

What it looks like are pared-down, focused, forceful images, sourced equally from American pulp comics and African tribal tradition. These are tight compositions, with little or no background—cleverly, Holmes eschews the pastoral touches so prevalent in art about the American West; this isn’t a statement about the beautiful American vista.

As befits an exhibit titled after his family’s land, these drawings are Holmes’ most intimate work in years: it’s just black ink, white paper, and his hand, with little margin for error. Notably, there’s almost no cross-hatching, just austere arrangements of dark and light forms that are certainly figurative but, in some cases, waver just shy of abstraction, too. “Is this an image or just a bunch of marks,” he wonders aloud, and this tension — between delivering meaning in an image, and simply losing himself in the process of brushing ink onto paper — was crucial to Holmes as he returned to basics for the first time in almost 15 years.

Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

(He’s also upfront about another, more pragmatic reason he focused on drawings: the janky fiscal reality for creatives in this post-pandemic, high-inflation period. Paper and ink were the resources he could most readily afford.)

All along during the drawing of these pieces, Holmes wondered about the ethics of an American, even a Black one—even one who, as he did, carefully researched each mask’s original intent and context—utilizing African imagery this way. He’s come to think of it as cultural reintegration:

“They’re aspects of my own cultural lineage that I don’t have access to in any other way,” he said. “I want to reclaim part of my understanding of where my family comes from, who I am, what my identity as an African American is—specifically the African part.” As he notes dryly, his disconnection from those distant cultures has a 400-year backstory.

At the same time, his retrieval of African symbolism reenacts and highlights a second major, if less overt, theme of Jones Ranch, Egypt, Part 1: the systematic colonial extraction of artifacts from Africa for European and American collections. The late 19th-century heyday of that theft roughly coincides with the America’s cowboy era, from which Black people have been redacted—two historical traumas brought together in elemental drawings that hope to forge new connections.

“They’re both stolen pieces of history and identity,” Holmes said, “that I felt spoke volumes when brought together.”

Brent Holmes solo exhibition Jones Ranch, Egypt, Part 1 is on view through April 30 at Available Space Art Projects in New Orleans Square, 900 Liberace Way C-214, Las Vegas, through April 30. Brent will give a talk on Saturday, April 7 from 5-6 pm. The gallery is open by appointment. Check the website for details. 

Follow Brent @bread_n_circuses on Instagram.

Cover photo: Mikayla Whitmore

A note of disclosure: Brent Holmes is a frequent contributor to Double Scoop. You can read his critiques and discussions on Las Vegas art and artists here

Posted by Scott Dickensheets

Scott Dickensheets writes a daily newsletter for City Cast Las Vegas. In previous lives he was features editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, deputy editor of Nevada Public Radio's Desert Companion magazine, and editor in chief of Las Vegas CityLife and the Las Vegas Weekly; he also held numerous posts at the Las Vegas Sun. He has edited, co-edited, or contributed to eight volumes of the Las Vegas Writes book series, and was an assistant editor of Nevada: 150 Years in the Silver State, the official book of the Nevada sesquicentennial.