Looking Foward

By Fauntleroy, Gussie | Southwest Art, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Looking Foward


Fauntleroy, Gussie, Southwest Art


Mateo and Diego Romero discuss current trends in Native Arts

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.

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, fight? 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?

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."

SWA: What about the idea of commodification-taking a talent and a heritage and making a salable thing out of it?

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