Like IARC Native artist fellow Jordan Craig, Romero graduated from Dartmouth College, where a studio art class persuaded him to change his major from architecture to art. “That studio art class was the moment that I realized I was more interested in drawing and painting and working with the human space of the body than the architectural space of a building,” he told Kristin Maffei. After Dartmouth, Romero studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, then went on to earn an MFA in printmaking at the University of New Mexico.
Romero’s artworks thus reach back toward earlier artists in the Western tradition, but they also refer to the past and present of his Native community. “Because I do the photography myself, the majority of my subjects are living people,” he told Maffei, but the work also “references historic photography, because the images are black and white, and they are often of traditional dancers.” The paintings are part of “a longer tradition of photography and portraiture” that includes the historic photography of people like Edward Curtis. “Each painting is linked to a moment of ecstatic beauty. At their best, they capture and recreate a moment of the ceremony, and my hope is that people who weren’t present at that dance can almost hear a drum or feel what it is to be a dancer in the line.”
Pot Hunters #2
As it makes connections to the past, Romero’s work also engages with the history of colonialism as it was—and is—experienced by Native people. In Pot Hunters #2 Romero photographed himself and his brother as early twentieth-century British archaeologists and transferred this image, along with images of pottery and “field notes,” which he created, to a canvas that he subsequently painted. The work satirizes early anthropologists and collectors who, intentionally or otherwise, disrespected Native peoples, destroyed sacred sites, and stole ceremonial objects. The photography, says Romero, was a “tool,” “a kind of gateway” that allowed him to create the imagery rapidly without having to spend months building it with paint. He suggests that the process of staging and taking a photo, transferring the image to a canvas, and “hanging paint” on it was also a process of elaborating on an idea—one of many—that might initially have been quite literal but was then “enlarged” by the work itself.
The process was good for me on a lot of levels because it allowed me to rapidly go through ideas. . . . With this stuff it’s much faster and it’s more accessible, and I thought it had a really interesting energy. . . . I go back and look at it now, and I think, “There’s something there.”
Romero calls Target “a blueprint for everything that followed.” Like Pot Hunters #2, Target combines photographic images with paint and other design elements to tell a story to the viewer who takes time to engage with the work. And like Pot Hunters #2, Target tells a story that is both specific to the artist and reflective of longer histories. To some extent, Romero says, the artist becomes a target as a result of their work “because they embed ideas in the work,” ideas that are “very personal” and “idiosyncratic.” “I haven’t even thought about some of this stuff in a long time but it’s embedded in the content of the painting you’re talking about.”
The center of Target shows Romero as a buffalo dancer. Surrounding him are images of the Atlanta Braves mascot, ancient Chaco Canyon pottery design elements, and an eagle dancer. Below him on the left is a picture from Wounded Knee. “I think that’s a timeless image,” says Romero. “The Wounded Knee stuff has always spoken to me and I’ve used it over and over again.” The image comes from the 1973 standoff between members of the American Indian Movement, US law enforcement, and the Pine Ridge Reservation community in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. For Romero, the picture represents a “timeless confrontation between existing indigenous tribal people and this mainstream capitalist technological world around us that wants to consume everything . . . and destroy the planet.”
In general, indigenous people are not down for that. . . . They’re connected to land, time, space, being, spirituality, ceremony, prayer, religion, history, pottery, all those things in the painting. They’re timeless things, from the Chaco pottery fret to the Wounded Knee, it’s one continuum. That’s the connection of common value that holds these indigenous communities together. And they’re under pressure, they’re being assailed. . . . I mean we’re constantly being beset by the system, and it’s not our system.
Target, Mateo Romero (Cochiti Pueblo), 2002, oil on panel, 36 x 40 in. In the collection of the School for Advanced Research. Photo by Deborah Dodge Winton. SAR.2003-7-1.
The confrontation has been going on for the last five hundred years, and while the theme may be timeless, Native people’s resistance and activism keep them present, even as they draw strength from the past. Wounded Knee represents “the spirit of an arrest that moves through time and space, and it’s a symbol for me as a visual artist. . . . These Native people with guns, they’re gonna take a stand and they’re gonna go all the way. They’re gonna put their lives on the line. . . . So the sense of this spiritual warrior . . . emerges for me in that imagery.” From the center of the target, the artist and dancer appears to be holding up a bow, perhaps even pointing it out toward the viewer.
I don’t mean for people to be literal with it, I’m never disappointed when someone has a different reading. I’m actually interested in other people’s readings. . . . I like the idea that a piece can be open and not be literal, have a closed reading to it. . . . I was at Tesuque Village Market the other day to touch up a mural I did and some people, some women stopped and started talking to us, and their readings were really different from mine, but I was joyful that . . . this piece had spoken to them.
The movement of Pueblo people through time and space—their history—seems, to Romero, like a stream “composed of many diverse and varied currents, connected together at all points simultaneously, yet with a degree of distinction in the currents.” “Some people, villages, artwork, dances might seem at first glance to be more central, essential, or forceful within the flow of the stream,” he writes. “In the end, it is enough for me to say that, when I had the chance in my life, I chose to be a part of the flow.”
All unattributed quotes come from the author’s interview with the artist, June 19, 2019.
Each year the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research provides three fellowships to Native American artists. This post is the third in a new blog series, produced by SAR Press acquisitions editor Sarah Soliz, that will provide an in-depth look at a particular artist and his or her work produced while in residence.
Learn more about our Native American artists fellowships here.
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