Muscarelle hosts lectures featuring Indigenous artists and their work


Tuesday, Nov. 16 though Wednesday, Nov. 17, married visual artists Cara and Diego Romero visited the College of William and Mary for a series of talks, sponsored by the Muscarelle Museum of Art, in which they discussed their work. The artists are based in Santa Fe, New Mexico — Cara Romero is a Chemehuevi photographer and Diego Romero is a Cochiti Pueblo ceramicist. Both their work seeks to challenge common misconceptions of contemporary Native communities.

Cara Romero began the visit on Monday morning by meeting with Senior Lecturer of Anthropology Danielle Moretti-Langholtz’s Introduction to Native Studies class. Moretti-Langholtz oversees the College’s Native Studies program and is also curator of Native American art at the Muscarelle and the director of the American Indian Resource Center on campus. The class toured the Muscarelle’s current exhibition, “Shared Ideologies,” which showcases several superstars of contemporary Native American art, including Cara Romero alongside T.C. Cannon, Emmi Whitehorse and others.

In her discussion with the class, Cara Romero shared personal anecdotes and statistics to highlight the dehumanizing effects of racism and cultural appropriation on the day-to-day lives of those within Indigenous communities. She provided a simple system, “the Three S’s,” (source, similarity, and significance) for being able to recognize racist practices, even when they may appear to be more “subtle.”

The class was then asked to participate in an activity that asked them to examine certain symbols and practices through these lenses to determine whether or not they were examples of cultural appropriation, with the end goal of recognizing such instances in the future. This was one of the many ways Cara Romero encouraged the class to review their own internal biases to consciously become better allies to Indigenous communities.

Monday night, President of the American Indian Students Association Matthew Solomon read the College’s land acknowledgement, which recognizes the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Upper Mattaponi and Rappahannock tribes as the original inhabitants of the College’s land. Cara Romero then began her public talk in the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium with a greeting both in English and in Chemehuevi.

“I am a language learner, so allow me to introduce myself in Chemehuevi,” Cara Romero said. “Mikwas. Hello.”

There are over 150 languages spoken by Native American groups today, though due to centuries of forced adaptation of English in the American education system, many are endangered. The Brafferton Indian School, on the College’s campus, is one such example of an institution intended to “anglicize” Native people. Fewer than 20 people are known to speak Chemehuevi as a first language, leading UNESCO to define it as a “critically endangered language.”

Recent efforts at language revitalization, led by tribes and Native activists, have sought to teach new generations of Chemehuevi people the language, which is so critical to the culture that had been deliberately erased by settlers, and then the U.S. government.

Cara Romero grew up splitting her time between the suburbs of Houston, Texas and the Chemehuevi Valley Indian Reservation in the Mojave Desert of California. She further underscored the misunderstandings many Americans have about Native communities.

“One of the things that I learned very early on, being off the reservation, is that people from outside of our beautiful community really had no good grasp on what it was to be a modern Native American person,” Cara Romero said. “Incredible beauty, resilience and diversity our communities reflect.”

Cara Romero majored in cultural anthropology at the University of Houston, where she took a black and white photography class that led her to discover her passion.

“And as fate would have it, I walked into my first black and white photography class in 1998,” Cara Romero said. “I had never picked up a camera, but had always been an artist. And there was a professor named Bill Thomas that changed my life. He emphasized content over technical ability. It took me a long time to catch up on the technical ability, but I had a lot to say, and he saw that I had a lot to say.”

She went on to study at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where she worked with film before transitioning to digital photography. 

“And what I realized very early on is that a picture is worth a thousand words,” Cara Romero said. “And this was going to be my medium, my form of communication that I would tell the incredible stories of the resilience, beauty and modernity of Native peoples across the United States.”

Cara Romero went back to school for a technical degree in applied science and photography, which she received from Oklahoma State University. The intersection of art and technology, analog and digital, urban and rural and biracial, Cara Romero said, is the basis for her work today, along with her experience growing up around a milieu of women leaders.

“My community is known for its gender equity and women’s leadership,” Cara Romero said. “Growing up, my grandmother was chairwoman of our tribe, which is very common and we have a female-dominated government. All that to say, we’re taught from a very young age the innate strength of women. It shows up in my work. We’ve always been taught to speak up, take up space.”

“My community is known for its gender equity and women’s leadership,” Cara Romero said. “Growing up, my grandmother was chairwoman of our tribe, which is very common and we have a female-dominated government. All that to say, we’re taught from a very young age the innate strength of women. It shows up in my work. We’ve always been taught to speak up, take up space.”

After introducing her background, Cara Romero provided insight into a number of her works, which are collected by museums across the country. 

“Cara’s work today is layered and intellectual and cultural and informative,” Director of the Muscarelle David Brashear said. “She’s won many awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair over the years. Her work is in the collection of many art museums. And I’m really proud to say that her work is part of the Muscarelle Museum’s collection as well.”

One such work is titled “TV Indians.” It is a large sepia print, measuring 5 feet wide by roughly 3.5 feet tall. Five Pueblo individuals are situated with conviction in front of a stack of old televisions on a cliff overlooking the Galisteo Basin in New Mexico.

​​”This piece is called TV Indians, and it was originally conceived of in thinking about the ruins in the New Mexico landscape and the incredible ruins of adobe bricks and the mission system that are all falling down and these fantastic geometric shapes across the landscape,” Cara Romero said. “And thinking about our American consumerism and these ideas of our new ruins and the landscape.”

On the televisions, Cara Romero used photo illustration to place images of portrayals of Native individuals in movies, television shows and news media throughout the years, some of which show stereotypical and problematic representations of Native Americans, often played by white people. Other images include cultural references to events that have affected Native communities, like the test detonation of the atomic bomb in New Mexico in 1945 or the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. One of the six Marines who raised the flag was then-22-year-old Pima man Ira Hayes, which was captured in the now-famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal. Another image shows the occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971, during which a group called the Indians of All Tribes mounted a 19-month long protest that was a pinnacle moment in the Red Power movement.

“And it’s a little bit even more nuanced because we chose images that, while some of them are very problematic, they’re also somewhat beloved in our own community,” Cara Romero said. “This idea of Billy Jack, there’s problems when you go and rewatch those movies from the 70s, but I think that these were the only representations that we had.”

Another recent project Cara Romero highlighted was her participation in the Desert X Biennial.

“In 2019, I was the first Southern California Native person from the desert that had ever been invited as an artist to respond to our own landscape,” Cara Romero said. “So I took the opportunity to respond as an Indigenous person would, and in community with the many tribes that are from Coachella Valley.”

She created five images for a series titled “Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits of the Desert,” which were featured on billboards along the Gene Autry Trail near Palm Springs for two and a half months. Each image features two sets of young Chemehuevi brothers, who emphasize the richness of the ongoing Native presence on the land. The boys represent not only the past, but the present and the future, as well as the persistence of Native stories.

“And it’s this idea that we’re experiencing this life with all of our ancestors,” Cara Romero said. “They’re around us all the time still protecting these areas like sacred sites, watching things like development. I wonder if more people had these beliefs that they would be so quick to develop these pristine landscapes.”

Cara’s husband, Diego Romero, gave a public talk at College on Wednesday evening of the same week to present a showcase of his work in Andrews Hall. This event was once again opened by Solomon, reciting the College’s land acknowledgement. 

Diego Romero, like Cara Romero, studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he discovered and honed his skill in pottery. 

“I learned my trade from a Hopi lady at the Institute of American Indian Art, and it’s taken me on this marvelous journey, which brought me here tonight,” Diego Romero said. 

He then enrolled in the Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles, where he earned his BFA degree and ultimately completed his education in the arts in 1993 at the University of California, Los Angeles, from which he received his MFA. 

Diego’s ceramic and print works alike often depict powerful social commentary through a humorous lens, commenting on matters relating to Native identity, environmentalism and gender politics by weaving together traditional Cochiti and Pueblo symbols and relating them to those of pop culture and Western classical symbols. Diego Romero stated repeatedly that he draws great inspiration not only from his unique perspective, but from other American artists such as Keith Haring or Jack Kirby. 

Diego Romero was born and raised in Berkeley, California, by biracial parents, and he made note of the fact that it is primarily from this perspective that his art is made. Many of Diego’s works focus on landscapes, altered or otherwise. It is through these landscapes, he explains, that we are able to examine our past. 

“I find them, like, mile-markers of time,” Diego Romero said. “The landscape really reflects the here and now, where we are as humans, in our existence.” 

It is with this idea in mind that Diego, like Cara Romero, provides commentary on societal issues such as environmental racism and American consumerism and overconsumption, as they relate to effects on Indigenous communities. 

“Certainly, one of the themes that emerge are the idea of cultural landscape,” Cara Romero said. “The idea that we as Indigenous people and all Indigenous peoples, all peoples of the world are Indigenous to a space and to a place, and that for the Native people of North America and globally, our bones come from the cultural landscapes that we’re from. That we’re ontologically tied to these landscapes and that we’re inseparable from the landscapes.”


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