Mario Testino on Art, Freedom and his MATE

Mario Testino’s particular brand of feel-good photography — Princess Diana smiling sweetly, a scantily-clad yet wholesome Gisele Bundchen, bronze-skinned boys cavorting on a beach in Rio — might lead some to think he’s been seduced by his own high production values and celebrity focus. But that wouldn’t be the complete picture. 

What Mario seeks in his photos is a natural effervescence, because to him happiness equals freedom. The search for this freedom started early, propelling him toward the twinkling lights of London in the 1970s, far removed from his native Peru. It’s also the impetus that drove him back to Lima last year to open MATE gallery. “[MATE] is something I have worked on for many years,” he tells me. “I have long had a desire to give back to my home country and I feel the best way I can do that is through the arts.” 

Opening tonight at MATE is a very personal giving back. The exhibit Somos Libres (“We are free”, the beginning of the Peruvian national anthem, written upon winning independence from Spain) showcases works by established artists — Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Paul McCarthy — alongside emerging artists. “For me, this exhibition is about the freedom and inspiration I have found in contemporary art over the past 30 years. I wanted to show a selection of works that have had a particular significance to me in both my professional and personal life. I also wanted to show that contemporary art has no limits — it’s this freedom of expression that excites me.”

More than an acronym of his name, MATE is suggestive of other important properties of Mario’s arc, namely friendship, camaraderie, and the collaborative spirit. “In my work I have collaborated with artists like Vik Muniz, John Currin, Beatriz Milhazes, Keith Haring and George Condo. The process of collaboration is definitely something I want to continue.”

Of course art, with its vast expanse and unknowable forces at work, is not a realm one ventures into alone. As such, Mario began his collecting under the auspices of London gallerist Sadie Coles. “[She] encouraged me and helped guide me through other forms of art I was less familiar with. I was immediately drawn to contemporary art and what I found young artists to be saying about our society — that really struck a chord with me.”

How exactly does being struck happen, I wondered? “I think it’s different every time. I try and look beyond what I am familiar with or perhaps what instantly appeals to me because that would be based on what I already know. I like to try and discover something new.” Not that Mario is done with photography. “Would I see myself becoming exclusively a fine artist? Maybe not.”

Somos Libres, October 15, 2013 – April 6, 2014, MATE Asociación Mario Testino, 409 Pedro de Osma Avenue, Barranco, Lima 4, Peru