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A different lens

SANTA FE, N.M. — Cara Romero’s “The Last Indian Market” is part parody, myth and homage, an assemblage of 12 “disciples” framing a Buffalo Man as its magnetic centerpiece.

The Santa Fe-based Chemehuevi photographer directed this playful take on both the Santa Fe Indian Market and Leonardo Da Vinci at the Coyote Cafe in 2015.

“Last Indian Market” by Cara Romero.

The figural lineup incorporates a dozen who’s who of Native artists. There’s famed film director Chris Eyre, Romero’s husband; the celebrated Cochiti Pueblo potter Diego Romero, self-cast as Judas; and bead and performance artist Marcus Amerman in the central role of a furry Christ figure. Indian Market groupies can also spot jeweler Kenneth Johnson; painter Darrell Vigil Gray; Jemez Pueblo potter Kathleen Wall; printmaker/painter Linda Lomahafetewa; designer Pilar Agoyo; and painter America Meredith.

Romero stitched the print together from five photographs.

“It was a parody,” she acknowledged. “I really wanted to portray the people of our time. It was an artistic statement that we understand pop culture.”

A Santa Fe Indian Market artist since 2009, Romero has won multiple awards and has exhibited at the National Museum of the American Indian; the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture; and in Britain’s American Museum.

Her great break came when the Smithsonian Institution bought her 30-by-30-inch mounted archival pigment photograph “Water Memory” at the 2015 Santa Fe Indian Market.

“Water Memory” by Cara RomeroMarket.

Shot in the swimming pool at Santa Fe’s El Rey Motel, its turquoise water surges around two figures dressed in Santa Clara Pueblo corn dance finery. The viewer is left to interpret its meaning. Is the liquid abode a womb-like reference? Or are the figures drowning as they float to the floor? Are they immersed, yet still breathing, thanks to some oceanic deity?

The photo straddles twin histories: the flooding of tribal lands to build U.S. dams and the pumping of resources from Native soils by extractive industry.

In 1940, the Army Corps of Engineers removed the Chemehuevi people from their homes to create Lake Havasu.

Romero says to this day the lake feels haunted. She grew up on the Chemehuevi Valley Indian Reservation in California.

“It was a pivotal piece,” she acknowledged. “It was a way to express our catastrophic idea of climate change. It became about life cycles and the protection of Mother Earth.”

She shot the piece underwater next to a scuba diving instructor, taking thousands of images across two days.

“I worked with friends and families who had been similarly affected by flooding,” she said.

In a sense, Romero’s photography is rooted in a kind of cultural archaeology.

She pursued a degree in cultural anthropology at the University of Houston before shifting her focus when she realized photographs could express more than words.

Cara Romero captures a portrait of her nephews. (Courtesy of PBS)

“I think I was just made for the medium,” she said. “I was delving into a lot of Native studies. I was very disheartened that it was all taught in historical context.”

Born into poverty, she could only afford a disposable camera. But a single black-and-white college photography class cemented her future.

“I realized early on I had an eye for content,” she said. “Others may have been greater technically, but I had a lot to say. I had no shortage of ideas. I took all the classes that I could.”

At 22, she “ran off to art school in Santa Fe,” landing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

“I think at the beginning, the (Edward) Curtis print defined what Native photography was,” Romero said. “Even in IAIA, we were really checking that style. I realized I needed to tell my own story.”

“Coyote Tales No. 1” by Cora Romero

“Coyote Tales No. 1” poses the trickster as the devil between two young women as they linger before EspaƱola’s “Saints and Sinners” bar.

“We learn vicariously through his mistakes,” Romero said. “It’s definitely about painting the town red and being young in New Mexico.”

She still sketches out her ideas on paper before picking up her camera, a storyteller sans words.

“Naomi” by Cara Romero

“Naomi” sprang from her desire to create her own Native American Girl dolls representing various tribes.

“We have very little accurate representation,” she said.

Romero earns about half her income from her website; the other half comes from the now-shuttered Indian Market.

“I think it was a little bit of a shock” she said of its coronavirus closure. “But I really don’t have a problem with it. Our elders are way more important than our economy. We’ll use our resilience and resourcefulness to endure.”

Since Romero is self-isolating because of the pandemic, she can’t ask her friends to pose for her theatrical compositions. She says her three children are her current models.

“I can use my Team Quarantine.”

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