Curator Diego Romero was born in Berkeley, California, to Santiago and Cornelia Romero, and raised at Comics and Comix. After studying under such notable instructors as Otellie Loloma at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe; Ralph Bacerra at the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, Los Angeles; and Adrian Saxe at the University of California, Los Angeles, he began his career in clay, exploring his reflections on Native identity and history. A self-described half Berkeley boy, half Cochiti man who makes art on the perimeter, he remains a stalwart chronicler of the absurdity of human nature.
Diego chose the following for the Grounded in Clay exhibit:
“Singing Man” mono
While the collection at SAR houses many exciting pieces, I gravitate toward Cochiti figurines. The making of ceramic figures known as monos is an age-old tradition unique to the Pueblo of Cochiti. Monos are appealing not only because of their figurative nature, but also because of their humor—a quality that binds us in our shared human experience. Humor and figurative art remind us of timeless conversations through art and of our interconnectedness as humans.
At first glance, the Cochiti mono I refer to as “Singing Man” is whimsical and light-hearted. But stay with the piece longer and you will see the incredible care and detail invested in this nuanced portrait. This detail gives insight into the beautiful way Cochiti artists lovingly document the people and traditions of their Pueblo.
A classic example of Cochiti design, the mono is hand-built from Native clay and painted with white slip, with details added in vegetal and mineral paints. From top to bottom, we see first the handling of his Southern Rio Grande hairstyle and the humorous rendering of his wispy mustache. We know he is a traditional singer from his open mouth, face paint, and rattle. Notice his pierced ears. His clothing features elements that are distinctly Cochiti in style, including his diamond-patterned vest, a stylized belt of repeating triangles, his decorative pants, and red moccasins. He is dressed to participate in a ceremony, as indicated by his chest emblem of an evergreen branch and a rain cloud, and his sash with a concha design (which, on the back of the figure, holds his fringed cornmeal pouch). He sweetly cradles a companion, perhaps a lamb, its forehead adorned with an evergreen branch. The details and subtle humor make me feel connected to the piece, and I understand that the artist has created a timeless figure, one that represents a rich and vibrant culture rather than a single person.
Cochiti mono figurines are intimate documents of time and place and people, and are laden with contextual clues about the unchanging elements of the traditions and culture of Cochiti Pueblo. Most importantly, monos relate the humanity of Pueblo people, which is often overlooked in art history. The maker of “Singing Man” paid attention to cultural and historical accuracy, but also endowed the mono with subtle humor, so that we can easily relate to him.