By Zélie Pollon
Cochiti Pueblo painter Mateo Romero has a message for young Native artists: Grab the microphone and make your voice heard or someone may step in front of you. “I'm less concerned about how polished [the message] is,” he said. “I'm less concerned with how you're going to do it, but you need to make it happen. You need to make your voice manifest.” Both Mateo and his brother Diego have been manifesting their voices for decades, using oil painting and pottery, respectively, to tell stories — sometimes with exceptional irreverence — of Indigenous people and their history and culture. The brothers grew up in Berkeley, California, in an artistic family. Their father, Santiago Romero, was a renowned painter. Their grandmother Teresita Chavez Romero was a famous revivalist potter. Their mother was European, and the motif of two cultures/two worlds runs through their art.
When they were young, their Cochiti Pueblo relatives began calling them the Chongo Brothers, a cheeky reference to mischievous boys and also to the Río Grande-style hair buns that some Pueblo men wear. The boys claimed the beloved title for themselves and over the years began creating idiosyncratic artwork that played with juxtapositions and the “two world” motif: traditional dancers contrasted with cars and airplanes; Diego's traditional Mimbres man riding an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Their message resonated, and demand for their artwork grew. Today their pieces can be found worldwide, in collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Heard Museum, the British Museum, the Hamburg Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum and in Shiprock, New Mexico. In 2019 they were named Native Treasures by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe.
The talented multimedia photographer Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Diego's wife, calls the Chongo Brothers beloved iconic characters in the arc of Native art history:
“They represent themselves, but they also represent something bigger than themselves — a shared experience, an NDN identity . . . a humanness.”
She remembers the first time she saw Diego's work, long before the two married. “I remember it very clearly as the very first time I had seen historical narrative artwork being told from our perspective. It's always the cowboys and conquistadors conquering our people. He protests that narrative (and rightly so) through his art. He shows us as proud and beautiful.”
Plus, there's always a dose of humor. “[Diego] always says, ‘Humor is medicine. If you can't laugh, you can't heal,'” Cara said.
Success for any artist is about being at the right place at the right time, and Diego is quick to acknowledge that he “didn't invent the wheel.” His inspirations and narrative forms hail from the Greeks and the Mimbres, his shapes from the Anasazi and his narrative themes from a deep childhood love of comic books.
His journey was circuitous, beginning with comic book art and then blossoming at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he studied traditional pottery with Otellie Loloma (1921-1993). “That changed my life forever,” Diego said.
He delved into the art of clay: how to gather and process raw clay, how to polish with stones and fire outside. He did graduate work at UCLA with ceramicist Adrian Saxe, who emphasized art over craft. Diego said he didn't have his own definition of art at the time, but he knew it would include a narrative element. On a field trip to see traditional pottery, he stumbled into the exhibit's contemporary section and saw a pot by avant-garde Santa Clara potter Jody Folwell. “At that moment I knew I wasn't going to be a traditional potter. I was going to be a contemporary potter.”
Comic book characters came back into his creative process and onto the walls of his traditionally crafted ceramics. Using Mimbres characters in comic book format — two brothers who were metaphors for hero twins — he began to narrate the experience of urban Indians. “I dubbed them the Chongo Brothers at the time,” he said.
Next he began exploring the Indigenous history of the
Southwest, including the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and the Acoma Massacre of 1599, which resulted in Spanish colonial governor Juan de Oñate cutting off the right foot of hundreds of Native men. (Even now, some Indians don't know that history, Mateo said.) The themes evolved to include the environment and gaming, land and water, and alcoholism. “It became bigger than the Chongo Brothers and more of a narrative — and I love this term — on the absurdity of human nature, which is what I do now,” Diego said. “There's no shortage of information, material or dialogue to draw from.”
The ultimate goal is to bring some amount of conversation and exchange to the table.
Mateo's artwork also evolved over time. His early paintings integrated text — “Pray for Rain” and “Color Me Red” — a technique he borrowed from earlier multimedia artists. “I couldn't give them away,” he said of his early pieces. “I [nearly] starved to death. I had to teach, get jobs in cultural centers writing grants.”
Mateo went on to paint contemporary scenes of Native life, in series titled Addictions, Indian Gaming, Bonnie and Clyde and Voices at Wounded Knee. He incorporated photography, and he painted war dances, Crow women on horses and a powerful series called Pow-Wow, which now resides at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, the artist's alma mater.
Currently, he's exploring landscape painting, including plein-air, using paint a quarter- to a half-inch thick, applied almost entirely with a palette knife. He says the work is unselfconscious and heavily muscular.
Mateo's Northern New Mexico landscapes integrate what he calls an Indigenous critique, with titles based on original Tewa names for the land. For example, Abiquiú was originally called Avehtsugeh, meaning chokecherry valley. He wants to convey an Indigenous worldview that places people in the landscape differently than his European counterparts, an existential idea about time, space and being.
“In Tewa methodology, you are not separate from it. You experience the landscape,” Mateo said. “The Pueblo people believe there is a breath of life that moves through things. People,
rocks, lakes, rivers, streams, animals. One breath of life that is not distinct. The Tewa saw it all interconnected.”
Mateo influences the art world on two levels, said King Galleries owner Charles S. King, who represents the artist. First, as a mentor, Mateo offers help and direction to young Native artists new to the scene. The other level involves the way he paints and how he understands the art world. “He's not the classic Dorothy Dunn school of single figures, flat painting. His style reminds people of the world of contemporary paintings,” King said.
Neither Chongo Brother likes the technological or social media world. Mateo abhors what he calls the speed and capricious nature of social media, which can steamroll people. Diego doesn't even have a phone. (He gives thanks to his wife, Cara, who facilitated this phone interview.) The brothers label themselves old school, with no need or desire to embrace Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or other social media, though occasionally they offer a respectful glance to talented colleagues who present there.
Which brings us again to the importance of young Native artists using their voices to create a place at the table. Mateo has seen firsthand inauthentic voices springing up in the community — the Rachel Dolezals of the Indian world, he said, referring to the former college instructor and activist who gained notoriety for presenting herself as a Black woman despite being born to white parents. These individuals want to benefit from the rush of resources going toward the telling of Native stories.
“A lot of people are lining up and presenting themselves as Indigenous now. And they'll get your teaching assignment, they'll get that paycheck, your show in the museum, your publication in a book or your space in a virtual exhibition, and you will lose that opportunity,” said Mateo. “People are understanding now that there is a tremendous amount of resources embedded in this Indigenous experience.”
If you're an artist but not making your art, you won't get a place at the table. The point isn't how — it's simply to make art, Diego said. “That's my one golden nugget that I fully know and believe to be true: In order to be an artist, you have to make art.”
Santa Fe New Mexican