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Mexico’s Ambassador and His Amazing Collections

HE Federico Salas represents Mexico diplomatically, as that nation’s ambassador to Indonesia, and culturally, with a distinct personal collection of Mexican art, furniture and products that run from the traditional to the avant garde.

Photos by Bagus Tri Laksono

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Harvard-educated Federico Salas, a native of Mexico City, has served his country as ambassador to the Czech Republic, Israel and Indonesia. In Jakarta, he resides in a colonial-style home in Kuningan, South Jakarta, that was developed as a rental property in the 1980s. “It’s a very unique residence with a unique residential design,” Salas says.

The one-floor house has two expansive wings separated by a garden and swimming pool. The division creates two distinct characters: One wing is all business. The other is the space that Salas calls home in Indonesia.

Both areas, however, reflect Salas’ excellent design sense and taste as an art collector.

“I do have a tendency to keep things,” Salas, who has been collecting contemporary Mexican art since the 1980s, says of his pieces, which can be seen in every room. “It makes a place personal, to see familiar things.”

Greeting guests in the foyer, for example, is a sculpture titled “Wings”, crafted from discarded marble by Hector Alvarado. Behind it is a painting from the artist Roberto Cortazar titled “Five Nude Women”.

The piece by Alvarado, a Mexican sculptor once based in Jakarta, is a striking focal point for the foyer, Salas says. It’s also a selfie magnet, he adds, noting that people often overlook the sensual, dark painting from Cortazar in the background.

From the foyer, two openings lead to an immense drawing room that spans the length of the house and has ceilings that top five meters. Sofas and chairs adorned with made-to-order Yogyakarta batik are arranged to define two conversation areas. Along a wall, which is shared with windows that offer views of the garden, are cabinets with ceramic curios such as Trees of Life.

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“There’s a great tendency for modernism in Mexico, but people also like the traditional,” Salas says of the Trees, pointing to one that was a state gift when Enrique Peña Nieto, then governor of the State of Mexico and currently Mexico’s president, visited Israel in 2010. It is a pre-Hispanic art form that took on Christian themes to educate local residents after the Spanish conquest.”

Mexican artists draw inspiration and colour from older or pre-Hispanic artisans, he adds, but not always, pointing at a Talavera-style black-and-white ceramic plate and vase.

Talavera ceramics are a unique masterpiece of Mexico. Adapted from an Italian glaze technique that was likely introduced to Mexico via Spain through the Moors, true Talavera works are exclusively made in workshops in Puebla and nearby Atlixco, Cholula, and Tecali. The pieces are vibrant despite a traditionally limited palette: Only natural pigments of six standard colours may be used.

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The room, which Salas has given a black-and-white theme, is dominated by two immense textured canvases by the talented Mexican artist Beatriz Zamora titled “Black”. The paintings, donated by the artist to the Mexican foreign ministry, would overwhelm a smaller space. Here the monochrome black creations command attention, filling the room while not overpowering it.

One of the foyer openings features a screen with cloth panels crafted from batik Salas purchased from the artisan Slamet Riyanto. Flanking the black-and-white room are a dining room and an intimate reception area.

The latter features ceramic eggs crafted by a Mexican artist Salas met in Jerusalem, while the dining room features colourful woven placements from Hidalgo, along with a pair of Loro Blonyo (inseparable couple) figures, a staple of traditional Javanese home. The examples here are unusual, with silver plating.

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Opposite the social wing is a private area that the ambassador uses to receive friends, and where his playful and friendly border collie and King Charles Spaniel reside.

The room is given a center by a Petrof grand piano picked up in the Czech Republic. On the bench sits an annotated sonata by Haydn (Salas plays for himself in the evenings). On the piano itself is a shawl given to him by Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Salas has tamed the similarly immense private wing with two very large pieces by a Mexican artist that he had with him in Tel Aviv in his official residence. “In that house, the pieces were squeezed in. Now they are almost lost.”

One wall features framed pictures from a notebook of José Luis Cuevas, a controversial artist of Mexico’s “Breakaway Generation” with a career spanning eight decades.

The illustrations, and the entire home, express Salas perfectly: Exquisitely Mexican, yet hardly traditional.

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