Preferences and Discoveries
Julio Pantoja Ribeiro, Europ'Art, Barcelona, Spain, February 1992.
(Translated from Spanish to French by Evelyne Levy)
We know your work as an artist, but we don’t know your passion for collections . . .
As to the collections, without being a collector. I would say that I accumulate things with which I enjoy sharing my life. It all began very early, when I inherited a stamp collection from my grandfather, but I very quickly understood that it was taking a lot of energy to continue with it, and more important, it bored me greatly.
At the start of the fifties, I left on a trip to study in Europe, and with the earnings from the sale of the stamps, I began to buy – in Madrid – engravings. I first came upon an old edition of Los Caprichos, an aqua fortis engraving by Gutiérrez Solana, and then, in Paris, Piranesi, Daumier, Felicien-Rops, Chagall, Dix, etc. This same collection was later to be enriched with contemporary European and Latin-American engravings. These engravings today make up part of the basic collection of the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Córdoba. Later I developed a passion for the Pre-Columbian.
When did you discover Pre-Columbian art?
When I returned from Europe, I discovered in myself a pressing desire to know America. In May 1957, After I bought a car and adapted it for the circumstances, I started out on the road, deciding that my final destination must be Mexico. Starting with Tiahuanaco in Bolivia, I was finding on my route the vestiges of different cultures which are scattered about the continent. I think that these months were the most intense ones in my life: the contact with the abused descendants of these ancient civilizations, the governments neglect of their most perishable heritages. . . On one road in Peru, near the coast, children sold me pieces of painted cotton which came from the funerary fardos of Chancay. Later, traveling through Ecuador, other children sold me, for a few bits of change, stylized figurines which came from Valdivia. I arrived in Mexico with a small load which I had to divest myself of shortly thereafter. But later on, with the same passion, I continued my research, adapting it to my finances, which were not really encouraging at the time. I got used to traveling with my treasures: from Mexico passing through Córdoba and then Buenos Aires, finally landing in Paris, where I have chosen to live.
In a collection, how do you deal with preferences, how are priorities established?
For the ceramics, that I own, I give first place to representations of people or animals. For me, this is the first condition. Of all the ceramics, my preference is certainly for those of the Nazca culture. Here I find a very good example of the refinement of societies. They were done with the greatest technical perfection. The designs, the shapes and the colors are wonderful. In any case, it is very difficult for me to establish a hierarchy. Each culture, in its diversity, has different interests. And I have the same relationship with ceramics as with the El Magdalena urns, the Mochicas of the first period, or the erotics of the Mochica III period. They are all necessary in my daily life.
As I find myself in your house, knowing your paintings and your collection, I would describe you as a recidivist. Why this obsession for series?
The truth is that I have no idea why. It is true that for some time, I have tended to “specialize” and I think that the childhood memories, the lead soldiers which I liked so much, left deep marks. Because of this, certainly, the army of funerary masks from Chancay (1200-1400), all painted an orange red, with their hair and their feathers. Grouped together , they convey the idea of multitude, with a strange presence. Something similar happened to me with the funerary urns which come from the north of Colombia, in particular those of Magdalena. These urns, which are generally large, are made of beige ceramic and crowned with figures, standing or seated, in various positions. I have twenty-four of them, and together they produce a surprising effect. From time to time, I change them from one place to another and I see myself as a small boy doing the same thing with my lead soldiers.
It was in Paris that you began to become interested in African art?
On my first trip, I visited the Musée de l’Homme and I don’t think I was more excited than that. Later I met Jacques Kerchache, who suggested that I swap some of my pieces with him. At that time, he had a gallery on rue de Seine. This exchange was for certain the detonator of my new passion; very convenient, because Paris is still one of the greatest markets for African art, with its galleries, museums and foundations, in constant activity, and its periodic offerings in the sale rooms. The discovery of the desired object in a gallery, the succession of unhoped for encounters and the participation, from time to time, in auctions, is for me a way of breaking with daily routine and to give vent to my passion boldly.
And in African art, what are your preferences?
Among the things I got by swapping were two masks from the Ekoi society of Niger. I found them fascinating. These masks are generally 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 expressivity is a constant contradiction with the treatment of the object. I think this expressiveness explains why there are not too many enthusiasts and why, from time to time, top-choice pieces appear on the market. It is these objects which keep me company while I work.
You spend part of the year in Argentina. During this period, does the collector go into hibernation or does he discover in this country other sources of interest?
Actually, since the 80’s, after long years of absence from Argentina, I regularly spend a few months in Córdoba. There I began to collect Pre-Columbian ceramics from the north of Argentina, which unfortunately is not well known. I think judging by the technical level and the inventiveness of its forms, it rivals the best South American pieces. Furthermore, it has allowed me to get to know well a part of my country that I was not familiar with.
Here, in your house, I feel a little intimidated by all these objects, masks, totems which surround us on all sides. You have a family and children. How do they handle your passions, which you impose on them?
I must admit that well before starting a family, the objects already occupied a part of my life and were invading my space. It is true that where I placed them depended on the age of the younger generation. I have always left the pieces of less value within the reach of the children. They were free to put them on the ground and do what they wanted to with them. Generally, starting at age three, they gave them up and they then were completely part of the décor. However some tossed balls did create work for the restorer. In any case, six children grew up here and I must say that the damages were minimal.