TEXT: Selina Ting
IMAGES: Courtesy of Lourdes Samson and Peak magazine
Original Text published on COBO Social on 21 May 2018. Courtesy of COBO Social
Together with her husband Michelangelo, Lourdes Samson is one of the most open and active collectors in Singapore. The couple started collecting Filipino contemporary art and then expanded their collection to cover the region. For them, collecting represents the chance to learn more about Southeast Asia and create fruitful conversations.
To showcase one’s own art collection is an act of deep vulnerability, especially in Singapore, where they are notoriously private. In that regard, Lourdes and Michelangelo Samson prove to be the exception, as they are willing to share their collection with the public if the occasion arises, like at this year’s Art Stage Singapore.
“I have never suffered from a lack of confidence,” says collector Lourdes Samson. “We know our taste. We understand the works. We understand why we like these particular artists. So we realise that our aesthetic might not be the same as everybody else’s, but everyone is entitled to their own taste. I think that finding your own collecting voice is what building a good collection is all about.”
Originally from the Philippines and both hailing from a family of collectors, the Samsons are among the most committed art patrons in Singapore. Having cultivated relationships with artists for over 12 years and actively volunteering for the city state’s arts community, Lourdes strongly believes in the collector’s contribution to the art discourse.
Can you tell us about the beginning of your collecting?
We started to seriously collect around 2006, maybe 2005. Previously to that we bought very decorative paintings to fill the walls. Then, around 2006, we changed the way that we looked at art because the contemporary pieces coming out from the Philippines at that time were very edgy, very different from what our parents were collecting. These artists were our age, and so we felt a connection with them, I suppose. Then these were works that no one was really looking at because they were dark and difficult. But for some reason, we felt a connection. We started buying and it was very inexpensive at that time. Now, those artists are very established and there is no way you can get a piece unless the gallery offers you one before the show opens. We were very fortunate to have been able to get their works early on.
What do you think were the main factors that led to the emergence of this particular generation of artists?
I’d say that this particular group of artists came from a very conceptual background. The University of the Philippines Fine Art School was under the leadership of Roberto Chabet and I think he was moulding them into very conceptual thinkers. So, some of their pieces were not the usual pretty, decorative works. Instead, they looked at the dark side or the inner world. Some of them engaged with pop culture, film noir, photography and incorporated different mediums in their paintings.
Then, the market caught on and they suddenly started being shown outside of the Philippines, in other regions. Filipino artists were taken by some gallerists, like Valentine Willie for instance, who took them to Singapore and Malaysia. Some of them were shown in Indonesia and so got a wider audience. At the same time, the auction market here was kicking off and some of the artists were included in the auctions during that period, which drove up their prices.
In 2007-2009, the auction market was really heating up, initially for the Filipino masters, like Amorsolo and Manansala. Slowly, contemporary works started to be included in these auctions and the market went ahead with contemporary art as well. It was then that we started to look at works outside of the Philippines.
Which artists from the other parts of the region motivated your interest in contemporary art?
We were living in Singapore, but we knew gallerists and dealers in the Philippines. At the start, we were still able to get pieces from the local shows in the Philippines, but then we couldn’t get work anymore when the market started going crazy, and we were based here in Singapore, so it was very difficult. Being based here meant that we were exposed to more regional artists and we visited galleries carrying Indonesian, Malaysian, Singaporean artists, and we educated ourselves about those artists. So, now we have expanded our collection to cover Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. We have collected quite a number of Southeast Asian artists, but the core of our collection is still Filipino.
Do you find similarities between the artists who are from different parts of the region you collect?
Yes. Southeast Asia is a very interesting region. Although it is very diverse, it shared a lot of historical commonalities before the coming of the colonial masters. There was a lot of trade and migration happening in this region, especially in the 12th or 13th century, which created a shared history. All of these countries came out from the colonial period and tried to establish an identity for themselves. Consequentially, a lot of contemporary art in Southeast Asia talks about issues that revolve around identity, migration, colonialism etc. Even the discussion on religion is part of post-colonial histories. The religion of each country is different, but as a whole, the region is very spiritual, in the sense that religion plays a big part in society. In Thailand, for instance, religion is one of the pillars of the nation. Although there is supposedly a separation of church and state in the Philippines, religion still plays a huge role in politics. Sometimes artists use the symbols and codes of religion to hint at certain issues, even if they are not believers themselves.
When you and your husband decide to buy a work, does specific features, such as the material, the form, or medium, become a decisive factor?
At the start, we focused mainly on paintings, but I think as we matured in terms of our collecting, materiality became a more interesting aspect of the artwork. I think as you grow as a collector, you move away from the traditional and the conventional and are more open to other mediums. Today, we also have a lot of installations, some sculptures, mixed media works, light boxes and video as well. It was 2012 when we bought our first video art piece and since then we have been growing video collection from artists around the region. In fact, I’m doing a MA in Art History at La Salle and my dissertation is on video art from the Philippines.
Has doing your MA made you more focused on collecting video work?
Yes, actually it has. My husband jokingly complains that this is a very expensive MA because I’m suddenly finding new artists that we need to collect! It’s good because it has really opened my mind to other artists and I really understand the historical conditions that influenced them. Once you have an understanding of the theory, it makes your analysis of artworks more meaningful and you start to see connections. One thing I’ve learned about art history is that it draws on several other disciplines, like sociology, cultural theory, history and philosophy. I feel I now have a more nuanced understanding of art compared to the past.
Do you feel there is a danger of you overanalysing or taking longer to decide because you are steeped in art theories and history?
I think the initial aesthetic reaction is still there. When we decide to purchase a work, the first thing that draws you in is really the aesthetics. However, we won’t decide whether or not to buy it immediately, unless it is an artist whose practice we really know about from our previous research or exposure to it which has enabled us to really understand the artist’s practice and significance in art history in an overall context. I think a collection is valuable if it has a coherent theme or it signifies or reflects a certain time period.
Do you spend more of your leisure time with friends from the art world or friends from other parts of your life?
I usually spend it with friends who are non-art folks. Having said that, one of the best things about being a collector is that you get to be in close contact with this wonderful network of curators and gallerists and artists. That enables us to not just learn about the art, but also create relationships with these people. We have made a lot of friends from the art collecting world. Sometimes, when we open our home, we’ll also ask collectors from outside to come.
I feel the best dinners that we’ve hosted are always those with people from the art world. They are intellectuals who are usually interested in other things, like music, cinema or literature. So, these dinner conversations are always the most stimulating. Usually, it is very difficult to get in a good conversation during the art openings when it’s noisy and it is not an intimate setting.
What are the major differences between Singapore and the Philippines in terms of the art world and the collecting market?
I think the main difference is the culture. There is a long tradition of art in the Philippines. The Spaniards brought it a long time ago, so even the lower strata of society has a form of drawing, painting or a poster in their homes. Whereas the aesthetic is very spare and minimalist here in Singapore. Maybe Singaporeans in general feel they don’t have a good understanding of art, so they are scared that they might get cheated or overpay for something. So, they prefer not to get into that. I think it is a cultural thing. Maybe this will change as Singapore’s younger generation become more exposed to art. The government is really pushing for art to be part of the community, so I’m confident that it will gradually happen.
Thank you very much!