Taking a Stake in Pride; The Photography of Taos Pueblo’s Cameron Martinez is a Statement About His People.

Taos News (Taos, NM).   The Santa Fe New Mexican

By Susan Lahey
By the time he had his epiphany, standing outside Pizza Emergency smoking a cigarette, artist Cameron Martinez had already begun his journey. He’d grown up at Taos Pueblo, where history and mystery layer so thickly over every aspect of life they pervade one’s thinking. He’d studied American Indian history at the University of New Mexico-Taos and found himself enraged, throwing the book against the wall and picking it up again, trying to cope with the centuries of abuse and betrayal. He’d traveled to Hawaii, where he studied business, of all things, and discovered the ocean.

“Hawaii was awesome to me, having grown up in the Southwest,” he said. “I took cornmeal, like we do, prayed to the waters and jumped in. And the water accepted me. It was so crazy … the energy I felt when I caught my first wave (while learning to surf). It felt like being on top of Taos Mountain. I could feel all the power of the energy, how the Earth spins and rotates.” But what he’d learned about his own people drew him back to Taos. He took a year off school to plot a direction. And that’s when he stood outside and watched the two birds in the tree outside the pizza place where he worked. He kept thinking of them in frame. How would he photograph them? Suddenly he thought about how much he loved photography, and this led to his application to the Institute of American Indian Art.

“I looked into the institute and ended up changing my life,” he said. “Business was such a linear way of thinking for me. Art is so circular. There are multiple equations and multiple answers to the equations. It really opened up my world. I take everything I learned from my Native American studies courses and apply them to art. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I felt free and released. It’s not just the photography. I’m a ceramist, a painter, a little bit of a jeweler — at IA you get exposed to all different mediums.”

His show, currently at the Mixed Corn Blessing Gallery on 108A Civic Plaza Drive, reflects a culmination of much that he has learned. He prefers black-and-white photos using silver gelatin to any modern photography techniques. His hero is Jerry Uelsmann who created the kinds of surreal photographs that people only expect now from computer programs.

Many of his works are statements about his people. One series, called “Indian Gaming,” depicts American Indians in full ceremonial dress, shooting pool. He’s planning one with his grandmother in her buckskin dress, playing slots. “I love my whole Indian gaming series,” he said “How natives play these days, like going to casinos, going to bars, we do all these things and it goes back to the whole duality of worlds. It’s something superficial, but underneath we still have the ancient way of being. Gambling’s as old as Native America itself. We’ve always had some form of gambling.”

One powerful series in the show is called “Losing Touch” and shows Martinez’ grandfather, wrapped in a blanket, walking in different places — a city alley, the pueblo. “It’s really about my grandfather and him getting old,” Martinez said. “My grandfather is one of the main reasons I participate at Taos Pueblo.

He has a big role to play in our society. He’s like the backbone for it all. When he does go, it will really be time to step up and fill that role. And wondering ‘Have I been grounded enough to do it?’ We’ll be losing that weight. I see it happening all the time, everywhere within other tribes and other communities. I don’t want that to happen.”

It was his two grandfathers, Martinez said, who taught him that knowledge of the outside world was essential to protection of the Indian. Because they didn’t understand the world outside them, their ancestors lost their lands. So Martinez embraces his knowledge of the outside world. He’s thinking of going to graduate school in Chicago, somewhere on the West Coast, or even South Africa, to become a filmmaker. But he will return to Taos. “I come from both ways of thinking,” he said. “I come from the Western European way of thinking and the pueblo way. The way of life at the pueblo takes a whole lifetime to understand. It is a whole way of life. It is very demanding at times. So if we’re away, it’s hard to be part of it.” When he’s ready, he intends to land as a filmmaker. “I think in the end film is where my life is headed. (I’m) tired of sad, depressing movies about Indians. I want to make something bad-ass. Something uplifting. Something that will make Indian people proud to be Indians again.”

©2010 Susan Lahey, All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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