The artist’s photographs shine a light on the unseen, resisting colonial categorization and institutional biases around art made by Native artists.
SANTA FE, N. Mex. — Artist Cara Romero (Chemehuevi) works to make the invisible visible, shining a light on the unseen and redirecting attention away from misrepresentation toward accurately nuanced, thoughtful portraits and scenes of contemporary Indigenous life. Originally a liberal arts major, Romero initially thought she would become a professor of Indigenous studies in the academic sphere. But upon enrolling in a black-and-white photography class with protest photographer Bill Thomas, Romero re-directed her work. “It all really came from a place of not seeing [Indigenous peoples’] reflection in academia and media portrayals,” Romero told Hyperallergic during an interview. “I have this lived experience in the Southwest, on the reservation. Having that perspective going to a big urban epicenter that was outside of the Southwest, I realized the rest of America has no grasp of who we are.” The artist borrowed a camera from a friend for the course and has not looked back since.
For almost two decades, Romero has made a name for herself as not only a leading Indigenous artist but as a photographer working at the top of her game in the global contemporary art world, showing in institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and The Met. Currently, her work is on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art as part of Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography, organized by Will Wilson (Diné) and Amon Carter’s John Rohrbach, Senior Curator of Photographs.
One of her works in the exhibition, “Evolvers” (2019), which comes from her Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits of the Desert series, was originally commissioned for and installed on billboards for the 2019 edition of Desert X in Coachella Valley. The image features four children running in the desert through a field of windmill turbines. Romero calls these children “time-traveling visitors from Chemehuevi” who represent warriors of memory, fighting to remind us of the sustained colonial occupation of Indigenous lands and the attempts at forced assimilation and erasure of Indigenous cultures. “Evolvers” is exemplary of Romero’s practice, through which she creates visibility for Indigenous peoples globally and her home territory in and around the Chemehuevi reservation in Southern California. She also aims to amplify conversations about climate collapse and environmental racism.
The 2022 film Cara Romero: Following the Light, directed by Kaela Waldstein, which was nominated for and won Best Documentary Short at the 2022 Red Nation International Film Festival, gives a deeper dive into Romero’s background and behind-the-scenes footage from some of her shoots including her work with her husband, celebrated Cochiti ceramic artist Diego Romero, National Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Mvskoke Nation), and 2022 Guggenheim Fellow Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota).
Romero’s work negates dominant culture’s forgetfulness of Indigenous communities, land, and futures and alerts the viewer to the historic and continued presence of these communities in North America. It also fights against colonial categorization and institutional biases around art made by Indigenous artists. “It’s interesting because you know, photography wasn’t really considered a Native art form for a very long time,” said Romero. “I was kind of an outsider — not only to my own community but to institutions that had Native collections.” The artist noted that often institutions do not know where to place her art, in part due to the general paucity of work by living Indigenous artists in those collections. “Even most recently with some of the biggest and most prestigious institutions, it’s like, Is it Native art or is it in the photography collection?” she said. “To me it really doesn’t matter, it’s their need for categorization.”