Mateo & Diego Romero | Looking Forward: Trends in Native Arts

Mateo Romero, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa [1999], acrylic, 30 x 20., painting, southwest art.
Mateo Romero, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa [1999], acrylic, 30 x 20.

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Brothers Mateo and Diego Romero, artists from Cochiti Pueblo, have been interviewed together many times, and often the questions involve the origins of their art careers. They are asked about the influence of their father, painter Santiago Romero, and about their Cochiti heritage, with its Southern Keresan language and culture base.

This time, they wanted to talk about the issues they see in the foreground and on the horizon of Indian art—issues that go beyond the brothers’ individual careers to affect all American Indian artists, as well as collectors, by influencing the way art is conceived of, marketed, and sold. They also spoke about the individuals and movements they consider most exciting in Indian art today.

Mateo Romero is a painter whose art reflects both his urban upbringing in Berkeley, CA, and his Cochiti Pueblo heritage. His narrative figure paintings, which he calls social landscapes, address Native consciousness, Native community, and social and political issues. Currently he teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Diego Romero incorporates traditional design motifs into his pottery. In finely painted scenes that often incorporate social and political satire, his work addresses aspects of the human condition, including man’s relationship with the natural environment and the life of American Indians today. The award-winning art of both brothers has been featured in exhibitions and is in collections around the country.

Mateo Romero, , painting, southwest art.
Mateo Romero

Southwest Art: Both of you say that the word “master” in relation to Indian art is a problematic term. Why is that?

Diego: First of all, I don’t consider myself a master of anything. I’m a student of life; I’m a student of pottery. I’ll always be learning. If you’re honestly seeking perfection in your own art, in your own craft, then that’s a constant goal that’s always to be strived for. So perfection or mastery are the unattainable goal.

SWA (to Mateo): You were talking about other aspects, such as who decides who is a master?

Mateo: I take issue with the term “master” because I look at it mostly as a marketing strategy. I think it’s a way to push certain artists or certain art forms. It’s problematic to me because it implies a hierarchy, right? If there’s mastery in a form and someone’s a master, then by definition others aren’t at that level, and I think that sense of hierarchy is alienating to Native communities. And it pretty much begs the question of who determines mastery. Is it the gallery construct that’s deciding who are masters? Is it the museum coalitions? Do the Native communities decide who their own masters are?

SWA: Do they?

Diego Romero, pottery, southwest art.
Diego Romero

Mateo: I think in some ways they do. I don’t think they’re quite as sharp as galleries and museums in promoting people as masters. I don’t think they use that terminology because it’s marketing-related. I think Native communities tend to look at people who would be called masters as living treasures. And a living cultural treasure has a component of sharing.

Diego: I think it’s important to notice that we don’t see a lot of that—the sharing. People are scared because that’s how they make their bread and butter, and they don’t want to disseminate the information to up-and-coming potters because it creates competition. I studied under a man who I truly considered a master, Ralph Bacera. One of the things that impressed me most about Ralph was that I could go to him with any question, and he never beat around the bush. He always had a real straight answer for me. At one point I asked him, “Don’t you get worried that there’s going to be hundreds and hundreds of potters out there all using your orange glaze or your blue-on-white technique?” And he looked at me and said, “Diego, I can teach a hundred people how to do it, but only Ralph is going to do it like Ralph.”

Diego Romero, Tale of a Broken Heart [1999], clay., pottery, southwest art.
Diego Romero, Tale of a Broken Heart [1999], clay Turner

SWA: What about the idea of commodification—taking a talent and a heritage and making a salable thing out of it? What’s your sense of how that affects Indian art in general and the freedom of creativity?

Mateo: It’s not so much that Native artists have been put into a cookie-cutter mold; it’s that we kind of put ourselves as a people into that mold. We’ve looked at the market and we’ve said the only thing that’s important is sales. There’s this idea that we put ourselves into those molds because we follow the “migrant art crop,” as Bob Hazous says. We tailor our art styles and the kinds of work we do to what sells. It disempowers us as a people, I think.

Diego: It’s censorship, of a sort.

SWA: Self-censorship?

Mateo: Yes.

Diego: If you’re not going to sell it then you’re not going to make it, so it’s censorship. But I still want to say that I do a lot of stuff that I would do anyway, regardless [of sales]. I’m fortunate enough now that [dealer] Robert [Nichols] will buy just about anything I make, so it gives me this artistic freedom to basically do what I want.

SWA (to Mateo): What about you?

Mateo: I do the work I want to do. It’s a challenge. But the challenge is not so much to look around at other artists who are selling paintings and figure out what the formulas are to sell. We already know the formulas. The challenge is to really do work that is important and significant.

Diego: To yourself?

Mateo: To yourself—and to your community. I try to look at the extended Native community around here as being my primary audience, and I want to do work that deals with their issues and my issues. Then if people are gracious enough to want to collect the work then that’s the bonus. But it’s not the challenge. We co-opt ourselves when, as Native artists, we don’t ask ourselves the hard questions, we don’t deal with the content in our communities, and we don’t deal with the issues in our communities.

Diego: But there’s a reason for that. You’ve got to look where Indian art came from. Before it was being sold as art it was primarily used for the spiritual needs of the people. So it’s just recently, within the last 80 years or so, that it’s become something in a storefront in Santa Fe. And then in the past 30 years, [Native] people have been going to art school, being exposed to deconstructionist theory, art nouveau, postmodernism—all of these new concepts. So it’ll be very interesting to see what happens with it.

SWA: What do you see that’s really exciting to you in Native art these days?

Diego: I like Bob Hazous’ work. I think he’s in the front line. He tackles the hard issues and he’s definitely an ice-breaker for a younger generation of Indian artists.

Mateo: He’s firmly positioned through his father’s [Allan Houser] work. Think of how much money he would make if he were doing bronzes and marble. But he’s struck out on his own, done his own thing. I think he’s as significant to the here and now in Indian art as his father was 30 years ago.

Diego: I look to my brother, my contemporaries. I look to my girlfriend, Roxanne Swentzell. I think what she does is very exciting. And also, I’m really impressed with David Draper’s work. What’s happening is you have some artists who do not want to sell their Native spirituality, so they have to look inward. And I think some of the styles that are coming out of that are much more powerful, much more interesting.

Mateo: I think it’s happening at the edges, right? There’s this tremendous vibration at the edges. I think the middle of this regional art scene is too formulaic. It doesn’t ask the hard questions, so there’s no movement there. But the edges seem to vibrate more, and there’s that energy or pulse. One of the things that fascinates me about artists like Virgil Ortiz, for instance, is that he’s working in a traditional medium but in a very contemporary vein. The same with my brother, Diego. That’s exciting to me—looking at historical art forms that have been recontextualized into the here and now so they mean something to us here and now.

Diego: They’re not just material culture.

Mateo: And this is an evolution that’s going on through all the different Native communities right now. There’s a renaissance in dance; we’re trying to get a renaissance with language preservation programs. And this idea of using the historic as a point of departure to reinterpret the contemporary—that excites the hell out of me. And the edges are tending to move into the mainstream, and I guess the question will be, will they have that same vibrancy as they move into the mainstream? And I think they will because these artists we’re talking about have always had this critical look. They’ve never flinched from the hard questions.

Featured in August 2000