When Mateo Romero was twenty years old, he imagined painting a contemporary powwow scene on the wall in the basement of the Native American house. The painting of the powwow, just like the annual Dartmouth powwow back then, would be set at Occom Pond. There would be non-Native people taking pictures of sacred dancers – a commentary on the commodification of spirituality; there would be images of audience members drinking alcohol – a commentary on issues of addiction in Native communities; there would be images of Polaroid cameras and camcorders – signifiers of modernity at Dartmouth College in the year 1989. Mateo drew up some cartoons of this vision and presented them to his advisor who told him absolutely not. The critiques were too cutting, too critical. People would get mad.
“There was a whole series of touchy subjects that I embedded directly into the content of the piece,” Mateo said. “My instructors were like, we can’t have that on the wall. You can do that, but I can’t be part of the project where you do that. [Their] name went on it too. If [they] let me do some crazy stuff on the wall, [critics] would have pulled [them] up, too.”
So, Mateo painted a mural of a traditional Pueblo Corn Dance, set in the 1920s. It was a pleasant painting – beautiful and non-confrontational.
“When you’re twenty you go along with stuff like that,” Mateo said. “When you’re older you’re like No! That won’t stand, but at that point I was just… I was easily led.”
One of Mateo’s advisors, though usually supportive, disapproved of this mural in particular. He said Mateo was just “pissing on the wall.” By that, he meant that Mateo was presumptive, so engaged with himself that he thought his work was ready to be a permanent thing on a wall. In reality, Mateo was just fascinated by the culture of mural painting at Dartmouth: in the Basement of Baker Library, Orozco painted his murals; in the dining hall, Hovey painted his murals; in the African American student housing building, _______ painted his murals.
“In an adolescent way I was trying to be part of that,” Mateo said. “The Hovey murals were fascinating, these were the values of these people in this time – this hugely entitled white population. And they thought that Natives were kind of adolescents, they were just gonna pour alcohol down their throats. This idea, this colonial white idea – patriarchy, violence, dismissing other people – that’s very much alive right now. And you know, murals talk about that. Those are the actual values of those people at that point in time. So some of what I was trying to do in the first cartoons that I did was a response to the Hovey murals stuff. But I was censored. Like, no, you can’t talk about Natives and alcoholism and stuff. It’s not gonna go. They said no, I'm not gonna put my name on that, as a white instructor, because I will be crucified if I let you do that.”
Mateo also wanted to paint the mural because, at the time, he was insecure about his accomplishments – or lack thereof – as an artist. Back home, in Santa Fe, Mateo ran with a group of full-time artists who were a bit older than he. Mateo compared himself to them, and noticed that while he was at a liberal arts school learning math and writing in addition to art, his friends dedicated all of their time to art, and had some major projects underway. Mateo was anxious to get going himself.
Rather than going to art school, Mateo pursued a liberal arts education at Dartmouth because of his grandma. She used to watch PBS, which is where she heard about the Native American Program at Dartmouth. When Mateo was a kid, she told him he would go to that program one day – and he internalized that.
At Dartmouth, Mateo spent the majority of his time with the black community and the Native community. He didn’t connect with people outside of those communities very well.
“I was an artist and I wanted to be around people who were making art and films,” Mateo said. “[Other people did] pre-med and pre-law and all that stuff. That’s not bad or anything, I just thought it was kind of boring, a little privileged. If you're a young artist that’s not what you’re gonna gravitate to. Artists, musicians, that’s your tribe. My tribe was not [having] that mainstream experience because I just didn’t find it interesting.”
Mateo graduated with a degree in studio art in 1989. One year later, his mural was painted over with white.