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New Mexico brothers named Native Treasures winners

January 14, 2019 GMT

Two brothers from Northern New Mexico with shared backgrounds but different artistic perspectives have been named this year’s winners of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s Native Treasures Award.

Although Diego Romero and Mateo Romero say they’ve fed off each other’s creative energy their entire lives, the results of their artworks are independent, both in appearance and in concept.

“He’s a painter and I’m a potter. We’re coming from different angles,” said Diego Romero, the older brother. However, he added, “We both identify with [being Native], I suppose, and we both cling to that perspective.”

The award is presented to Native American artists who have produced exceptional work, said Della Warrior, the executive director of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture.

The brothers were raised in Berkeley, Calif., where there was a very small Native American population. Although their father, Santiago Romero, was a renowned painter, it wasn’t until they moved to his ancestral Cochiti Pueblo in their 20s that they fully connected to their roots and began integrating themes of Native culture and history into their art.

“I realized it was in my blood, literally,” said Diego Romero, 54, adding he and his brother were inspired by family members such as their grandmother, Teresita Chavez Romero, a famous Cochiti polychrome artist, as well as countless jewelers and painters across New Mexico.

Both studied art in college — Mateo at Dartmouth, Diego at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe — and later earned master’s degrees.

Mateo Romero, who lives in Pojoaque Pueblo, uses thick and vibrant paints to tell stories of war, traditional dance and prayer. His newest work, he said, depicts New Mexico landscapes in a “heavy, muscular, sensual” way. Many of these paintings are titled in the Tewa language, including a scene of El Pedernal, called Tsi Ping Owingeh, or Village of Flint Mountain.

Mateo Romero, 52, said many of his earlier works are mixed media paintings, which embed photographs, and show “moments in between” spiritual or traditional ceremonies. The goal, he said, has always been to bring viewers into his work to “feel” the experiences he paints.

For Diego Romero, who lives in Santa Fe, the focus is pottery. His ceramic vessels — traditional in style with earthy tones and perfectly shaped clay — use a “gritty” and “edgy” aesthetic to convey Pueblo realities, as well as broader social and political themes. He said the art is inspired by comic books he read growing up, and that almost every piece uses dark humor.

His plate titled Theatre of War, for example, was inspired by President Donald Trump’s peculiar relationship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. It shows a hybrid of a Greek mythological figure, a superhero and a Mimbres person — a prehistoric human from the Southwest — riding a missile. Other works show narratives related to climate change, the Dakota Access Pipeline and countless other activist-related themes.

“[His art] creates an awareness and helps people understand some of the experiences Native people have, and hopefully inspires them to want to know more,” Warrior said.

Upon being named the 2019 Native Treasures, the Romeros said they were in shock.

“It’s a huge honor,” said Mateo Romero, who emphasized as an artist, he once feared uncertainty of his future. “I’m very flattered and am very appreciative.”

The Romeros each will be honored with a plaque and $500 at a ceremony on Museum Hill in May. Their artwork will be on display at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s Diker Gallery as part of an exhibit titled Diego and Mateo Romero: A Larger Vision, starting April 6.