Lito & Kim Camacho
Lito and Kim Camacho are collectors based in Singapore and Manila, who have accumulated one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art in the Asia-Pacific region. They began their collection in 1981 with the work of Filipino modern artists, then branched out into Southeast Asian art and Japanese contemporary art, including significant holdings of works by teamLab and Yayoi Kusama).
Hi Lito and Kim. Thank you for letting us into your home and sharing your collection with us. Can you share with us more about the space that we are in right now?
Lito: Right now, we are in our living room in Manila. We bought this house over 30 years ago, and our children grew up in this house before we moved to Singapore 15 years ago. By that time our collection had become quite big, so we started thinking about renovating and rebuilding this home. We wanted it to be purposely built for our art collection, so I worked really closely with our architect, Anton Mendoza, and gave him an overview of our art collection, especially some of the big important pieces. This was to ensure that we kept special places just for them. Our house now, as you can see, is built for art. We have an art track hanging system installed so that we can change out works without having to put up nails. There is also proper museum and gallery lighting, and certain parts of the house that are built for specific artworks. For example, at the entrance of the house you are greeted by Kusama’s Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets No. 2 (1998). The glass wall behind it was done specifically to display that piece. We also created a pedestal nearby to allow us to exhibit a work and this is our gigantic Kusama pumpkin sculpture sits now.
With such an amazing space to display your collection, how do you usually shortlist and select new works to acquire?
Kim: We go to art fairs, visit galleries and art exhibitions, and also read and study books. Most importantly, we try to keep up to date with what’s going on in the art scene through online art news and reading a lot of emails from galleries to see if there’s anything new that strikes our fancy. If something catches our eye, we go into more in depth study to understand who the artist is, what is their type of work, their place in art history, what their prices are like, et cetera. Then we evaluate if their works fit our collection, and if everything works out, then we take the plunge!
Lito: Yes, when we take the plunge, we take a very big plunge! (laughs) We also work very closely with auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips to find works that might suit our collection.
Is it important for you to meet the artist when you buy an artwork?
Kim: It is important to us but not essential. In other words, if we are able to speak to the artist to get a sense of their philosophy on life, what books they read, their mission in the arts, and which biennales or exhibitions they participate in, it helps us decide whether to add them into our collection or not. Of course, we also see if they’re a nice person or not - I don’t believe we’ve ever bought from an artist that we do not like.
Lito: We definitely try to make the effort to meet the artist and get to know them before we make our decision. But often, it’s more about trying to thank the artists for their work as well. As Kim said, it’s extremely rewarding to know the artist because when you understand the their intent, you really see their works in a different light and appreciate them more.
Kim: That’s what happened with Eddi Prabandono and his Vespa. We liked the Vespa the first time we saw it at Art Stage in Singapore in 2013, and then we saw it again in Palazzo Grimani in Venice during the 2015 Biennale. And eventually we got to meet the artist at Art Basel in Hong Kong in 2017, and we really liked him. So, we said, “Okay, let’s get the work.”
Lito: That was a decisive meeting. We were introduced by our friend, and Eddi is a genuinely nice guy. It’s hard not to like him. As Kim said, when you get to know the artist, the art looks different. So we immediately made the decision to get the Vespa and it is now sitting proudly in our living room.
Can you share with us how you installed this large sculptural piece in your home?
Lito: What I didn’t realise at the time we bought the work was that we could fully dismantle it into separate parts to make it easy to transport. It arrived here in several crates and Eddi came here to put it together himself. The work itself is quite easy to maintain, it’s more that because of its size, we had to find the perfect place for it. I was initially thinking of hanging it up on the ceiling in our lanai, which is two-stories high, but the logistics and the engineering challenges were just too much. Thankfully, we have this really long dining room, which turned out to be the perfect space for it.
We invited Eddi to come stay on our farm, which is about one and a half hours away from Manila, and told him that he could stay for as long as he wished. He really liked it and said it reminded him of his home in Yogyakarta. Before he left the farm, he came to us with an idea for a new work and asked if we would be interested. He showed us some drawings, and now that’s been realized as a big sculpture, which is situated on the farm. He stayed a total of 3 to 4 months and made 6 separate trips, where he brought his friends from Yogyakarta to help him to install the art because it’s a huge sculpture. The Vespa was a lot easier.
You also have one of the most comprehensive collections of Yayoi Kusama’s work. How did that interest in Kusama begin?
Kim: In 2004, the Japanese government invited Lito and I to visit Japan and allowed us to craft our own itinerary. Lito chose to meet the parliament and company presidents and tend to other business matters, and I just wanted to see the museums and art exhibitions. At that time, there was a major Matisse exhibition at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. I viewed it, along with several other exhibitions, but the one that struck me the most was a retrospective in the National Museum of Modern Art by Yayoi Kusama, who at the time I had not heard of before. I was immediately attracted to her works because they were so different. There was something very original and fresh about them, and the retrospective showed how adept she was at different mediums: she started with very small watercolours, moving to acrylic on canvas and sculptural pieces, and eventually entire room installations. Her versatility, sense of fun, originality and uniqueness were just outstanding! I was so impressed that I told Lito that if he could only spare one hour, this was the exhibition he had to see.
Lito: So I snuck out of my official meetings, took an hour to visit the museum, and was as awed by Kusama’s art as Kim was. You have to consider that she started her art back in the 50s as Japanese woman who had moved to New York, so she was an outsider, and yet she persisted. I also got a sense of her courage and strong conviction because she was not very successful in the early days. Even her works from the 50s and 60s remain as contemporary today, and that shows how significant and important her art is in history. I guess we just fell in love, and that was the start of our love affair with Kusama. We tried to arrange a meeting with her and collect some of her work while in Japan, but it didn’t work out. A year later, we moved to Singapore and one day while I was alone in the rental house (with the kids and Kim in Manila), I saw an invitation addressed to the previous tenant to a Yayoi Kusama exhibition at a gallery here. I went to visit, and there were quite a number of fairly small works with reasonable prices, so I picked out a major piece and told the gallery to reserve it. Kim was arriving from Manila on the last day of the exhibition, so I told the gallery to please stay open so she could come straight from the airport for us to make a final decision. I guess that was the start of us collecting Kusama. That was the very first Kusama we ever bought.
Kim: After that I started to do my research and tried to buy as many pieces as I could because back then her prices were so reasonable. They were about 10% of what her prices are now. In some cases, even 1%.
Lito: Kim is being modest but she would do a lot of research. We were buying Kusama works wherever we could find them. Within 5 years, we had built enough of a collection to hold our own exhibition, and we were even invited by museums to do so. Our Kusama collection continues to grow as we have decided we’d like to hold a major retrospective one day that covers the full spectrum of her works from early to late, small to very large and all the different mediums, so we still try to fill any gaps we have.
How did you acquire the work you’ve chosen to feature in this exhibition, Ladder to Heaven?
Kim: I saw this work in 2004 during the retrospective in Tokyo where I first discovered Kusama, and was amazed by it. It is mind boggling when you look up and down and see the ladder going endlessly onto infinity. At the Singapore Biennale in 2006, which was the first biennale of Singapore, the work was displayed inside a Hindu temple. I went to see it and was still so impressed, so I persisted in enquiring when one became available, and that is the one we have now.
Lito: It is a very intimidating work to collect because it’s very tall, and we have a philosophy that when we buy art, we want to be able to exhibit it in our home. Thankfully, we did find a perfect spot (in the main living room) but it took a lot of engineering to install it. We had to get a few engineers and make some structural changes to that part of that house to be able to carry the weight of the work, but it was all worth it.
What impression would you like visitors to your collection to leave with?
Kim: I would like somebody who comes to view the collection in our home to be immediately hit with such a strong impression that their first word is ‘Wow’. That’s the objective.
Lito: I would also like them to see that it’s a very studied collection, one that took a lot of time to research and effort to bring together. When you look at the entire collection, it contains varied perspectives from all over the world, but it’s complete.
Kim: The other thing that we also try to do is to keep the collection looking fresh. Once in a while, we do a rehang and move pieces around to highlight different artists. A month ago, the second floor looked completely different than it does now. It’s nice to do some curating and put certain works up so that even good friends, despite having visited four or five times before, can still say “Oh my gosh! It looks different again!”
What’s next in building your collection? Any new artists you have an eye on?
Kim: Well, according to the galleries, we are the biggest private collector of the video works of teamLab so we will continue acquiring their work, along with Kusama’s. There is another artist that we’ve recently introduced into our collection - Tishan Hsu - who is very exciting. He marries art and technology and is so futuristic. In fact, his works were not appreciated early on because they were too far advanced. He was hinting at things that looked like ATMs and cell phones way before anybody even imagined them. We have about five of his works now. We continue to keep our eyes open for any exciting artists, and are open to changing directions and pruning our collection as well.
Lito: Some of the new artists that we’re collecting are not young, like Vassilakis Takis who recently passed away. Tishan Hsu is almost in his 70s, he’s a Chinese-American artist based in New York. So we’re collecting artists that we discover by coincidence or by research and so on. We are also collecting Filipino artists, especially contemporary pieces by the older artists like Roberto Chabet, who is the father of conceptual art in the Philippines, and Peewee Roldan, a very nice person who is very active in the art community.
What advice do you have for young collectors?
Kim: I would advise them to spend as much money as they can afford on their first piece. Aim high. It might be a few months’ worth of your salary but if it’s a good piece, you’ll never regret it.
Lito: Buy what you like, buy what appeals to you. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Also spend some time to study: visit museums, visit galleries, go to art fairs and so on. Acquaint yourself with the art. You have to try to develop an eye to be able to distinguish what truly appeals to you.