A man with furry ears, a short tail and black Converse shoes is caught between two lady loves. The three of them stand outside a bar called Saints & Sinners in Española, N.M., their tense moment awash in a devilish red glow.
“Lots of legendary tales go along with saints and sinners, but also that idea of ‘Who am I to judge?’ ” Romero said by phone.
The photo’s title references a beloved, mischief-making character from Native American tales. “Even though they are painting the town red, and Coyote is there and making questionable decisions, it’s also a cautionary tale not to judge each other,” Romero said.
The Santa Fe-based artist is a storyteller herself. Her rich photos draw viewers into stories about Indigenous culture and history, while working to combat stereotypes of Native people.
Her dad is Chemehuevi and her mom is of German-Irish descent. Born in Inglewood, Calif., she grew up in Santa Fe, Houston and on the Chemehuevi Valley Indian Reservation, along the shore of Lake Havasu in the Mojave Desert.
Romero’s decision to work in the medium of photography is significant. Initially inspired by Edward Curtis, the controversial chronicler of Native American life, she pushes back against the medium’s exploitive nature, collaborating with friends and relatives to stage dramatic shots that touch on the supernatural in everyday life and the ways in which indigeneity expresses itself.
She believes that Native people are every bit as indigenous as they were before colonialism. And by working collaboratively, she feels she is not just taking from her culture, but also giving back to the person, and telling a story.
“Cara is working in a medium that has a long history of photographing Native Americans, and she is very aware of that history,” said Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Romero was part of Mia’s recent exhibition “Hearts of Our People,” a pioneering show devoted to art by Native women.
“In her work she is speaking in part about that history, which really activates the work itself, but she is not stopping there — she is identifying the people and places in the work and they are so layered with meaning,” said Yohe.
In two photos, warrior twin kids from the days when “animals were people,” according to the Chemehuevi creation story, are set against Southern California palm trees. These mythological creatures have traveled to the present moment, and they also happen to be Romero’s nephews.
In her remaking of the “American Girl Doll,” she replaces the sad, stereotypical “Native American” doll with actual Native women, including their names and elements that represent their tribes.
“TV Indians” takes on stereotypes of Native Americans, framing four friends and relatives (including Romero’s son and daughter) against the backdrop of a pile of old televisions displaying moments from Hollywood films like 1970s “Little Big Man” and 1990s “Dances With Wolves” — films that remain “somewhat beloved,” said Romero, despite their stereotyping and their white protagonists who “save everyone.”
This sepia-toned image has an otherworldly quality. By obviously staging her photographs, rather than working in a documentary style, Romero aims to heighten the visibility of her subjects.
“The supernatural, or ‘magical realism’ as it is called, is part of the Indigenous worldview, and that became central to my voice,” she said.
Twin Cities audiences will recognize “Kaa,” a photo from the Mia exhibit. It shows her friend, a young Santa Clara Pueblo woman named Kaa Folwell, who sits on her knees, her long hair flying, her body covered in an ancestral Puebloan design. She represents Clay Woman, the “mother of all things and the being to whom all things return,” according to the exhibition catalog.
Yohe views Romero’s work as being “about empowerment — of the people who are part of the process, of being in this co-creation — and that is so drastically different than what was often the case of portraits of Native people. That power differential [between photographer and subject], she is coming at it from a level of equality and humanity, drawing us into the human side.”