It's been over 30 years since Berkeley, California-raised artists and brothers Diego and Mateo Romero (Cochiti) first returned to their home state of New Mexico, and 25 since they first showed their work at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. They'll return to the institution this week as the museum's 2019 Living Treasures designees, and for the new exhibition The Brothers Chongo: A Tragic Comedy in Two Parts. Chosen by last year's recipient of the same honor, Maria Samora, the brothers Romero may work in different mediums—pottery and ceramics for Diego, paint and multimedia for Mateo—but are interconnected through a certain levity that just plain brings out the charm in their studied and impressive works.
"I'm really interested in the dichotomy present in both their works," freshman curator Lillia McEnaney tells SFR. "They're interested in engaging with humor as well as political issues—I think, shown together, they really foster a conversation."
McEnaney is spot-on in her assessment, though both Romeros are quick to deflect too much praise.
"I hardly consider myself a treasure. I tend to see myself more in terms of a student," Diego says by phone. "Clay keeps you humble—there's always something to learn. I don't think there's any such thing as a master. Having said that, I'm very honored to be held in such a high regard by my peers and colleagues and other people in the community."
Diego's ceramics and pottery blend the concepts of traditional and contemporary Native and pop art for moving yet playful pieces with a comic book bent. His plan early on in his career was to head to an East Coast art college and learn to draw comics professionally, but by accepting a position at the Institute of American Indian Arts when he was 19, he met master potter Otellie Loloma (Hopi) and developed a deep love for the medium and its associated techniques.
He'd go on to study at UCLA, but his love for comics never waned—rather, it eked its way into his body of work again and again. Emblazoned on pots and dishes are illustrative figurative and narrative elements with bold line work and a humorous angle whereby Diego can poke fun at Native arts and institutions while maintaining and displaying a
simultaneous reverence for such topics.
For his part, Mateo's expressionist works ("… and a little bit of impressionism," he says) can be explained as simply as portraiture of people he's known—though if we go deeper, we learn he does consider himself political, particularly when it comes to works from the earlier part of his career.
"I think all interesting art contains ideas embedded within the art," he says. "Earlier in my life I did work which I called 'social landscapes'—issues that Natives were facing on the reservation, like fetal alcohol syndrome, unemployment rates, domestic violence. If you live on a reservation, it's not like living in America. There are a whole series of pressures that don't really exist for mainstream Americans."
Mateo attended Dartmouth and previously taught at IAIA but, he says, he's lived solely as a painter for the last 20 years. Today, he's more interested in giving a voice to the voiceless through his art.
"If any human being, a writer, a filmmaker, a dancer, looked at me and said they liked what I did, that they started drawing, painting, making films more, I would say, 'That's the role model, that's the essence of it,'" he says. "What I keep coming back to, the most important thing of this all, is that Native people have a voice."
The Living Treasures show becomes a bit of a check-in with the present, and a sort of retrospective of the brothers' career-spanning work. McEnaney culled from MIAC's collection as well as that of private collectors local and national. And even if the Romeros feel uncomfortable being described as living treasures, we're pretty sure the term's not quite strong enough. Catch them at the
exhibition's opening this Sunday along with a lecture about their last 25 years of artistry.
The Brothers Chongo: A Tragic Comedy in Two Parts Opening and Lecture
1-4 pm Sunday April 7. Free. Through Oct. 31.
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture,
710 Camino Lejo,