On modern Indigenous culture, artistry and misappropriation.
Cara Romero is both a commercial and fine art photographer — and a born visual storyteller. Her photography is a sometimes whimsical, often complex examination of modern culture with a distinctly modern Indigenous worldview. It is multilayered, and it invites viewers to enter into its nuanced visual architecture with a willingness to check preconceived notions about Native art, culture and peoples at the door. This year Romero will be showing at both Indian Market and the new Indigenous Fine Art Market.
Married to the dynamic and highly regarded contemporary Cochiti Pueblo artist Diego Romero and the proud mother of two boys, Romero is the daughter of a Chemehuevi father and a German-Irish mother. She majored in cultural anthropology at the University of Houston and studied photography at Oklahoma State University and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. In addition to her photographic work, she’s currently director of the Indigenous Knowledge program at Santa Fe’s Bioneers, a nonprofit dedicated to positive social change.
I spoke with Romero about her own story, her work and her thoughtful approach to Native misappropriation — popular culture’s use of Indigenous people’s dress, traditions, language and images.
SMO: How did you find your niche in photography?
CR: In the beginning I set out to do photojournalism. … I found IAIA … after I had a degree in cultural anthropology, and everyone [said], what are you going to do with that? During my senior block at the University of Houston, I took photography and I thought, that’s what I’m going to do with it. I’m going to write about Indians, and I’m going to do photojournalism and photo documentary and write alongside with my photography.
At U. of H., I had an instructor who was a protest photographer. … He had a lot of content in his black and white film, and simultaneously, when I was doing cultural anthropology on Native America, I [thought], they’re not writing it correctly. I really wanted to help rewrite or retell what they were telling people — and [use] photography. It just hit my life at the right time. I fell in love with it instantly and I figured out I was good at the content part. I was really good at telling a story. …
Some people base their photography on more of a graphic or an aesthetic, and yes, I’m trained in that. But with each photograph I’m really trying to say something, or create a conversation, have some content in there that’s universal as well as … very wrapped up in Indian identity.
SMO: How has the Institute of American Indian Arts shaped your work?
CR: I learned so much about where people were from and what was important to us as a people and where you don’t go with your artwork and about cultural sensitivity. I’m so inspired by the people who I went to school with. Every single one of them … touched my life, and I think that shows up in my work. I think I pay homage to all the people I went to school with. And who came before me.
Every single one of us has our own unique insight into … our own Native art history. I think that will always continue to inform me — to know who’s come before me, what they’ve done, what taboos they’ve broken, how they’ve leveled the playing field for us, what they haven’t done, where they’ve made mistakes. …
I think as contemporary Indian artists we’re … not speaking for an entire race or cultural identity because we’re all so diverse within ourselves, but there’s a common universal theme there. I hope that I push that edge in my lifetime. There have been some brilliant people who have come out of the Institute. I think artists kind of have this ability to safely speak. About societal pressures. Or social injustices. I think that’s really what so many of the artists from IA do, not to mention also preserving tradition, that’s the whole other side of it, while being contemporary. There’s a lot of people there preserving, carrying on, and I think that’s equally important. It takes both.
SMO: How do we, as Indigenous artists, maintain cultural integrity while still pushing the boundaries of our own craft, of our own preconceived notions?
CR: I think what comes up a lot for me, and we’ve been having this discussion a lot around the house, has to do with Native cultural misappropriation. I’ve been looking at so many photographs of non-Native people in regalia … and [I am] continuing to learn and continuing to keep an open heart about where I stand on things. …
I want to show how beautiful our culture is, and all that comes along with it, and make photographs that are equally as beautiful for mainstream society to look at, and say this is [Native/non-Native cultural exchange] … but done the right way. This is how we honor ourselves, this is the delicate balance of how we have a foot in both worlds, and this is what our everyday life is like — and also have it come across as very much Indian, and also as a very sacred thing. …
A lot of [mainstream Native cultural misappropriation] is very sexualized. I’ve been having this conversation about the models in my work … do I make them sexy? Is that appropriate? We’ve been having these conversations around the house, like, “You can’t do that.” But I say, “I know, but they’re doing it! And I can’t do it?”
I think it comes back to the IA family. I really depend on the people who are so much like me who are walking in this world of what can we do and what can’t we do and why. Let’s have a conversation about it. Why is that too offensive? I think it would be an interesting place to take the work.
My work is very much a cross-section, the way it’s developed with my training. I really want to do a lot of editorial portrait, and that’s where the work is taking it. It’s got this certain sense, that certain foundation from IA, that traditional photo documentary, but there’s just a little bit of staging there which puts it in the editorial portrait realm. I think what I’m trying to do with that is not just show the Indian in regalia but show them in their everyday lives — and [that’s how] their personalities, their interactions with their families and their interactions with this world come out. That’s the content that I’m looking for.
I’m looking to battle the cultural misappropriation, the beautiful artwork that’s out there that’s so offensive to us, and I’d like to work on that stereotype … and show our people in a correct light, in a very thoughtful way but also be contemporary — take some risks while doing it. …
I think somewhere down the line I began to understand what exploitation of our peoples was. And I carry that really close to heart, because I never wanted to exploit anybody. So that limits me a great deal as an artist, … being particularly sensitive to my subjects. What that means to me is that it’s very personal. Everybody that I photograph is my friend or my family. All of these photographs are built on deep, deep relationships. Because I always want the photographs to serve them as well. And I feel like that heals, in a sense, [countering] the exploitive nature of photography.
SMO: How do you feel about the “policing” of Indian art by other Native artists? How far is too far for an Indigenous artist?
CR: I think we always go back to asking our elders and knowing what is or isn’t appropriate within our own cultures. … Even while Diego seems so free, there are things that he won’t put in his artwork because it’s taboo, and because he’s thought these things through. And those are important conversations to have, as well as breaking the taboos, saying, “No, I can do this. I’m going to do this.” Art sometimes is just a matter of whether you’re doing it or not.
SMO: What do you think of the IFAM movement, and how does your work fit in?
CR: I’m one of the artists who’s doing both markets. … I didn’t want to have to pick one or the other this year. … I support any Native non-profit that’s out there because we’re all doing good work for ourselves. … And their location was a big game-changer, to be down in the Railyard. And my work fitting in? I think it fits into both places. …
I think one of the most dangerous things you can do is tell an Indian that they’re only good if they’re the same way they were 50 years ago or 30 years ago or 200 hundred years ago. A lot of people want to do a lot of different kind of artwork and I think we’re looking at a lot of contemporary artwork and saying, is that Indian? The answer is, of course it is, but is there a market for it? …
I’m really hoping that not only are the artists going to be able to show whatever’s in their hearts and what they’re creating as contemporary Indians, but I also hope that the supporters show up and buy and that these artists can really shine where they may not have been able to before — because there are some badass artists who are there!
Sara Marie Ortiz is a widely published writer of experimental nonfiction prose and poetry. She earned her BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Creative Writing Program and her MFA in creative writing, with a concentration in creative nonfiction, from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She lives in Seattle.