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Portrait of KIM and LITO CAMACHO. Photo by Elaine W. Ng for ArtAsiaPacific.

Culture Vultures

Kim And Lito Camacho

Also available in:  Chinese

In an era full of aspiring, soi-disant collectors, it can be startling to encounter the real thing. At a dinner last September in Singapore, to honor Filipino husband-wife artist-duo Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, I found myself sitting across from an elegant, colorfully dressed woman and her very understated husband. After introducing myself, my dinner companion proudly declared that she knew ArtAsiaPacific, and noted that an article on celebrated Japanese new-media collective teamLab in the 2017 September/October issue had featured many of their own works by the group. At that moment something clicked, and I realized that I had been seated with Maria Clara and Jose Isidro “Lito” Camacho—the couple who own not only six major digital works by teamLab but also one of the most impressive collections of Yayoi Kusama works in the world. 

Unlike many of the current art buyers in Asia, the Camachos started acquiring works well before it was fashionable to do so. Both came from families that embraced the arts. Lito’s mother actively supported Angono artists in Rizal province, where he grew up. Maria Clara, known among friends as Kim, was born into a creative and musical family. During the late 1970s, just after they both graduated from Harvard Business School— where they first met and fell in love—they moved to New York for Lito’s job at Bankers Trust and began taking advantage of the city’s generous cultural offerings. Art was a mutual interest of theirs. During my visit to their home earlier this year, Lito recollected, “There was a small group of young Filipinos staying in New York. We hung out together and called ourselves ‘culture vultures.’ We would go to the opera, the museums, the Cloisters. We showed up at all kinds of arts and culture activities.” Although they had bought their first piece—a limited-edition print by Manuel Rodriguez, Sr.—in New York, mainly to inject some color into their midtown apartment, it was only when they returned to the Philippines in 1981 that they began to collect in earnest. 

Once home, they were exposed to many of the great modern Filipino artists of the first half of the 20th century who were undervalued by local collectors and who are still relatively unknown to art historians and scholars outside of the Philippines. They began to collect these artists, many of whom were still alive at the time and considered “contemporary.” They understood that there was a gap to be filled—to both support these artists and to preserve their works for future generations. Among the vast modern holdings in their collection, there are a number of major works by the first National Artist of the Philippines, Fernando Amorsolo (1892–1972), who is revered for his idyllic paintings—particularly from the 1920s and 1930s—which capture rural Filipino life. Their collection also contains significant works by American-Filipino abstract expressionist painter Alfonso Ossario (1916–1990) and Anita Magsaysay-Ho (1914–2012), the sole female member of the influential Thirteen Moderns artist group. 

In the mid-1980s, the Camachos began to move around the Asia-Pacific region. Kim launched a business in the Philippines that produced fashion accessories for major international brands in the United States, and Bankers Trust sent Lito to Tokyo, then Hong Kong and Singapore. During that period, they began to acquire Chinese antiquities and Persian carpets from dealers on Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road, and then Southeast Asian modern masters, such as Bali-based Belgian expatriate painter Adrien- Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès, and Vũ Cao Đàm from Vietnam, mainly at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in Singapore. They are uncertain of the total number of works presently in their collection, but they estimate it is around 800 pieces. 

A few years after Kim closed her business in 1994, to spend more time with her six children, Sotheby’s Henry Howard-Sneyd shrewdly approached her to represent the auction house in the Philippines, as she was one of their most enthusiastic and well-connected clients. During that period, Lito was appointed energy secretary and later secretary of finance for the Philippines under the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration. While her husband was stabilizing the country’s economy, Kim pursued a personal mission to give Philippines art more regional and international visibility. Looking back on her four years at Sotheby’s, Kim said, “When I started there were fewer than four paintings by Filipino artists in Sotheby’s annual Southeast Asian sale in Singapore. Just before I stepped down in 2005, there were over 50 works. I wanted to put Philippine art on the global market map.” Lito, now the vice chairman of Credit Suisse, modestly observes, “I am more provincial than Kim. She has a much broader world view.” 

After leaving the auction business, Kim devoted herself to researching and building their collection of Yayoi Kusama. Today they own more than 100 works by the artist popular for her psychedelic paintings of dots, webs and dizzying mirrored installations. “We are totally obsessed with Kusama because the work feeds on itself. Galleries from all over the world, and private collectors who want to sell are after us all the time.” While Kim does not claim that their Kusama collection is the biggest, she does insist that theirs is one of the most important. Their home, which they have owned since 1987 and was recently renovated to be more art-friendly, houses Kusama’s paintings, drawings and prints—old and new, small and large—as well as monumental sculptural works, from massive pumpkins to immersive sculptures with sprouting phallic forms. Their Kusama works have been exhibited at the Museo Reina Sofia in Spain and Centre Pompidou in Paris, as well as at the National Art Center, Tokyo’s recent blockbuster “Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul,” which drew more than 500,000 visitors in its three-month run. Many of their other Kusamas are still on tour in traveling exhibitions. 

Their love of Japanese art does not begin and end with Kusama or teamLab. While bidding on a Kusama work in 2005, Kim discovered works by Gutai artists in a Japanese auction catalog. Her interest piqued when her son, the artist Enzo Camacho, then a student at Harvard, encouraged her to delve into the Japanese avant-garde. “You should definitely look at Gutai; scholars are re-writing art history to reflect the importance of their work,” Enzo told her. Soon after, the family was ferociously collecting postwar Japanese art, from Gutai founder Jiro Yoshihara to the youngest member of the group Tsuyoshi Maekawa, and many of these acquisitions were shown at the Ayala Museum in Manila in 2016. 

Beyond collecting, the Camachos support the National Gallery of Singapore (NGS), a museum that is methodically assembling and exhibiting modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art. Lito sits on the NGS board and Kim helps with its annual fundraiser. They have also recently started a pastoral artist residency on their farm outside Manila—with no strings attached for their guests. The first resident is Yogyakarta-based sculptor Eddi Prabandono, known for his wacky sculptures using Italian Vespa scooters. Among their six children, two of them—Bea and Enzo—are both up-and-coming conceptual artists making work that is radically different from anything their parents collect. But of course, Kim becomes a beaming mother whenever she shows or discusses their work. How long will it take the Camachos to embrace non-object based, idea-heavy art? Whenever this happens, they are sure to be forerunners in this genre as well. 

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