The Chongo Brothers. The name conjures up images of camaraderie, of brothers in arms or in spirit. Cochiti Pueblo artists Mateo and Diego Romero (top left and right, respectively) received the name — the word for a traditional Pueblo hair bun — from their relatives. It was intended as a humorous, endearing term for two brothers who, especially in their youth, were often inseparable, and who remain so even now.
“I would feel a great space or loss if I didn’t see my brother all the time,” said Mateo Romero, a painter. “Of our original nuclear family, it’s really just me and my brother now.”
The artists are being jointly honored with the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s 2019 Living Treasures award at 5:30 p.m. Friday, May 24. They were selected as Living Treasures from a list of approximately 20 other nominated artists, said Della Warrior, the museum’s director. Jane Buchsbaum, Ardith Eichner, Karen Freeman, and other members of the Native Treasures Artist Committee determined the final selection, along with Warrior.
The Friday evening celebration includes a live auction and silent auction to support exhibitions and programs at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (MIAC). In addition to artwork from the Romero brothers, the auction features stellar work from past recipients of the Living Treasures artist award, including Dan Namingha, Teri Greeves, Keri Ataumbi, and Jody Naranjo. The brothers will also have booths at the annual Native Treasures Art Market at the Santa FeCommunity Convention Center (201 W. Marcy St.) on Saturday, May 25, and Sunday, May 26.
In addition, Mateo’s paintings and lithography, and Diego’s ceramics and lithography, are featured in a two-person show, The Brothers Chongo: A Tragic Comedy in Two Parts, on view through Oct. 31 in the MIAC lobby. It’s the first time the brothers have exhibited jointly since their 1995 show The Chongo Brothers: Third Generation Cochiti Artists opened at the museum.
Both artists, through their respective mediums of paint and ceramics, explore the contemporary indigenous experience, sometimes with humor and often with references to their Cochiti Pueblo heritage.
“Obviously, their works are very different on the surface,” said Lillia McEnaney, MIAC curatorial assistant, who co-curated the show with Tony Chavarria, the museum’s curator of ethnology. “They’re very different styles. Mateo’s is a lot more expressive, and Diego’s has a lot more fine lines. But I do think that, if you look a little deeper, they do have a lot of similar themes. The most important thing that bridges their work is the idea of narrative and storytelling and how that fosters a conversation about social issues and personal histories. It really fosters a conversation about what it means to be indigenous today.”
Mateo and Diego, now in their early 50s, were born and raised in Berkeley, California, two years apart. Diego is the older of the two. They were urban Natives whose father was from Cochiti. He took the boys to the Pueblo every summer.
“Both of us actually lived there,” said Mateo. “My brother lived there when he was about 15 to 18, and I was there around 1990 for about a year and a half after I did my undergraduate work.”
The brothers are both tribal members of Cochiti and, although Mateo lives in Pojoaque Pueblo and Diego lives in Santa Fe, they still participate in the ceremonial life of the Pueblo, taking part in the Native dances.
Diego earned a BFA from Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles before obtaining an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1993. Mateo did his undergraduate work at Dartmouth College and obtained an MFA in printmaking from the University of New Mexico. Both artists also studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
But growing up, they shared a room until they were in their late teens; they collected comic books and learned how to draw from copying comic book art. To this day, Diego uses comic figures in his pottery, placing narrative scenes — wry commentaries on historical and modern-day indigenous experiences — inside vessels modeled on Ancestral Pueblo, Mimbres, and ancient Greek pottery.
“He made this leap, putting these cartoons with these historic designs,” Mateo said. “They were figurative but very contemporary. They even had thought bubbles, like something you see in Archie comics or in the Sunday paper.”
After leaving Dartmouth, Mateo went to live in his grandmother’s house at Cochiti, which had been unoccupied since her death. He vividly recalled the region’s fierce storms and the impression it made on him.
“These rainstorms would come over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and it was the most beautiful, forceful stuff I’d ever seen,” he said. “Later, I learned that the pressure builds up on one side of the Sangre de Cristos. And when the clouds pour over the rim of the mountains and down into the valley where Cochiti is situated, there’s these incredible atmospheric effects: the lightning, dark, dark clouds, intense rain. I’d never been that close to something like that.”
Living in a rural area like Cochiti was a different experience from being in an urban center like Berkeley. He described it as physically austere, with little in the way of resources, removed from the materialistic, capitalistic society that surrounds it.
“But what it has is cultural texture, religious, spiritual, and ceremonial texture,” he said. “If you’re an artist, kind of like Jack Kerouac in On the Road, and you’re looking for experiences to fill yourself with, you can reflect on these [in Cochiti] and make art. It’s an amazing place to be because of the dances, the ceremonies, the architecture, and the language. Cochiti is an ancient culture. It’s atavistic. It’s tribal. It’s a really rich space in terms of ethno-aesthetics and art.”
Sporting jeans and a Marvel Comics Punisher T-shirt, his short hair mussed up, Mateo had a relaxed appearance and demeanor that belied his intense focus. He talked about painting with a deep sense of passion and commitment.
Unlike Diego’s ceramics, with their clean, sharp lines and geometric patterns, Mateo’s figurative paintings are gestural, with loose, flowing brushwork reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism and the wet-into-wet style of the Ashcan painters, such as Robert Henri. His subject matter includes Native dancers in ceremonial dress, landscapes, and portraits of people in contemporary settings or contemporary activities, like stepping out of a car or listening to music on a turntable. These are details that might seem out of place chronologically, at least at first — a female figure lounging at home, adorned with a Pueblo-style tableta headdress — but they just as well may be markers of a present-day reality.
“I’ve had my work described as nostalgic and anachronistic, and I’ve also had it described as vibrant and alive,” he said. “It would be presumptuous for me to say. I’m not didactic about the work. Both things can be true, but maybe it’s a truth the viewer constructs. I think the best work that I do proceeds from a place that’s very connected to culture, time and place, and people.”
Mateo discusses his brother with reverence and admiration. He particularly noted Diego’s devilish sense of humor.
“One time, we were sitting in a coffee shop and another artist, [Chiricahua Apache sculptor] Bob Haozous, came in, and this French film crew was following him and taping him. And my brother just started telling these Coyote stories off the cuff.”
Mimicking Diego affecting the sober, authoritative tone of a wise old Native storyteller, Mateo said, “A long time ago, Coyote came to Peacock and mocked him for the beauty of his feathers.”
“The film crew just turned to him and started filming, and he went on telling these stories about the Coyote and the Peacock for like 15, 20 minutes.”
In the nearly 30 years since their last shared exhibit, the brothers’ subject matter has not changed much. But the level of skill they employ to make their visions manifest has only grown.
“In 30 years of doing it, you become very fluid,” Mateo said. “You become more confident, more capable. You take more risks. The ideas are the same but the realization of the ideas has become more crystallized and more defined.” ◀
▼ Living Treasures Artist Celebration
Museum of Indian Arts & Culture
5:30 p.m. Friday, May 24
Tickets $150; 505-982-6366, email@example.com
▼ Native Treasures Art Market
Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W. Marcy St.
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 25; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 26
$15 on Saturday; $10 on Sunday; $20 for both days, available at door
Early bird admission: 9 a.m. Saturday and includes admission for both days for $40
For tickets and information, call 800-777-2489 or visit communityconventioncenter.com
▼ The Brothers Chongo: A Tragic Comedy in Two Parts; through Oct. 31
Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, 710 Camino Lejo
Free admission to the museum’s lobby; 505-476-1269, miaclab.org