Reconstructing Childhood

BLEECKER STREET - Antonio Seguí is known as a painter. But you are also a collector mainly of Pre-Columbian art and African art. What is the source of this passion?

ANTONIO SEGUI - I have always like to accumulate objects with which I like to share my life. It all began very early, when I inherited a collection of stamps from my grandfather. At the beginning of the 50’s, I left to study in Europe and (with the earnings from the sale of the stamps) I began, in Madrid, to buy engravings: Los Caprichos by Goya, then, in Paris, prints by Piranesi, Daumier, Felician-Rops, Chagall, Otto Dix… The passion for pre-Columbian came to me later. In May 1957, having returned to Argentina, after buying a car, I set out on the road and chose Mexico as my final destination. Starting in Tiahuanaco, in Bolivia, I encountered on the road the vestiges of different cultures which were spread about the continent. I think that these months were the most intense of my life: the contact with the scorned descendants of these ancient civilizations, the lack of interest on the part of governments at the time for this perishable inheritance…
On a road in Peru, near the coast, children sold me pieces of painted cotton which came from the funerary fardos of Chancay. The masks made of red wood were placed there, right on the street… Later, in Ecuador, other children offered me terracotta figures from Valdivia . . . Over the years, my collection has known a certain number of avatars, but I continued my search, getting used to traveling with my treasures: from Mexico via Córdoba, my home town, and Buenos Aires, and on to Paris, which I chose as my place of residence… Pre-Columbian art objects have accompanied me everywhere.

B. S. - And African art?

A. S. - I had the good fortune to meet Jacques Kerchache, the inspiration for the Quai Branly museum. Through him, for example, I acquired an important group of Mumuyé statues from Nigeria, and also my first Bamiléké elephant masks from Cameroon in exquisite beaded material. Then I made the acquaintance, in his country, of a king who gave me a number of pieces. Ordinarily the elephant masks are burned when they are no longer used. Here, in Arcueil, I have assembled a good thirty of the…

B. S. - What approach do you prefer in dealing with the unbelievable diversity of works from tribal cultures, and more generally non-European art?

A. S. - I have never collected Asian art, and very few objects from Oceania. My preferred areas are Pre-Columbian and African civilizations. Sometimes I have collected objects that are not well known and not highly valued, like these Chane masks from the north of Argentina, hanging from a cross-beam in the studio. In Pre-Columbian art, where ceramics is concerned, I have given preference to representations of human beings and animals. My preferences are for creations of the Nazca culture, which are very refined in design, shape, and color—and technically perfect. I have the same relationship with the Mochica of the first period and the erotics of the Mochica III period, as well as with the urns of El Magdalena, in Colombia; I own a whole group of them. All these things are necessary in my daily life.

B. S. - Let’s talk about these urns. In one of the underground rooms in your home, which resembles a crypt, they are aligned in two rows: the effect is startling. In one of the reception rooms, two display cases face each other, filled with tens of funerary masks from Chancay. These cinnabar-red figures, with their shell eyes and black pupils, produce a much more powerful effect than an isolated object. Same thing for this collection of masks and marionettes from Nigeria, for the group of Mumuyé statues, for the elephant masks. Where does this taste for series, groupings, come from?

A. S. - The truth is that I have no idea. I think that childhood memories, lead soldiers have something to do with it. That certainly connects with this army of funerary masks from Chancay all painted an orange-red, with their hairstyles and feathers. Grouped in this way, they suggest a multitude, with a strange presence. The same is true of the funerary urns from the Magdalena. I have twenty-four of them; from time to time, I move them around and I see myself again as a small boy doing the same thing with lead soldiers.

B. S. - Not all your objects are so serious. Unlike more than one collector of primitive art, it could be said that you are not as sensitive to the interior dimension of these figures, to their individual mystery, as to the ability they have to exteriorize a feeling, to their expressive power, and also to the variety of their postures. There is also this taste for color, the polychrome…

A. S. - Among the objects obtained by exchange with Jacques Kerchache, there were two Ekoi masks which I found fascinating. These masks are often double, one light and the other dark, life and death united. Their characteristic quality is to be covered with leather, with a very deep patina. Aside from the sensuousness of the material and the elegance of the hairstyles, their heightened expressiveness is in constant contradiction with the treatment of the object. This expressiveness is not so much what most of the collectors are seeking in African art. Nor, moreover, the humor, gaiety, and vividness of the colors, the pictural aspect. It is just this pictural quality and often, this imagination which charms me, for example, in the Bamiléké elephant masks. I like for an object to amuse me. I appreciate invention in all its forms. Some years ago, at Kamer’s, I saw some Peruvian mummies for sale. I would never be able to buy this kind of thing. These are not works of the hand of man, and I would feel uncomfortable about them.

B. S. - Masks and marionettes favor type over the psychological dimensions; posture, attitude count more than individuality. The characters who move about on your canvases, with their false movements, like so many comic or disturbing variants of the same standard unit, would they be to some extent related to all these figures referred to as “primitive,” that you enjoy assembling around you? The idea of “series” itself, with the relationship between one and multiples implying a spatial effect, are they not also found in your work as an artist?

A. S. - It is quite possible, although I am not really aware of it. On the other hand, I know how much the figures that I draw are linked to the world of my childhood. With the war, sophisticated Japanese or German wind-up toys, with which I had played up until then, were no longer imported to Argentina. I had to be content with more modest toys, made right there, the expression of a folk art which today has practically disappeared. The fellows you see in my paintings come from there. And thus we come back to the memory of the lead soldiers I mentioned in talking about the urns from the Magdalena. The collections and painting are alike perhaps from this standpoint… What I paint is an historical reconstruction of my childhood.

Conversation with Antonio Seguí, Bleecker Street 1-2 (Abordages – Masks et Figures), Editions Dumerchez, 2004.