“I’m not meant to be buying at the moment,” says Robert Devereux with the air of a man who is easily, delightedly persuaded by art. He ought, perhaps, to stay away from fairs, but as a former chair of Frieze and a current board member of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, he is drawn to them in an ambassadorial capacity – “I have a few light duties because I know all the galleries,” he says – and he knows he will inevitably end up buying, too.
MICHAEL SOI, THE POSTER IN TOWN, 2011. FROM THE COLLECTION OF ROBERT DEVEREUX. COURTESY THE ARTIST, PHOTO BY © CHRIS MCANDREW.
The uniqueness of a piece of art is what has him by the throat. “Standing in front of a work, whether it’s a painting by William Kentridge, or a great three-dimensional El Anatsui, and seeing where the artist’s hand has been at work, it’s just incredibly moving,” says the collector. “There really is something powerful about a unique artefact, a one-off.”
Since selling his founder’s stake in the Virgin Group in the mid-1990s and discovering Kenya and Tanzania on foot with a rucksack during what he describes as a “mid-life crisis,” Devereux has been driven by his love of Africa: investing in sustainable forestry plantations in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda; making a home in Lamu, Kenya; setting up the African Arts Trust and assembling the roughly 400 pieces that comprise the Sina Jina (“no name” in Swahili) Collection, which is devoted to contemporary artists living in or originally from Africa. His impact as a champion and patron of African art has been significant.
ROBERT DEVEREUX IN FRONT OF AÏDA MULUNEH’S AN IDLE MIND FROM THE WOLF YOU FEED SERIES, 2014, AND ANTHONY OKELLO’S X FROM THE MASQUERADE SERIES. PHOTO BY © CHRIS MCANDREW, COURTESY THE ARTISTS, ONE OFF GALLERY AND DAVID KRUT.
Now Devereux is about to return to his roots: Gateshead, in Northeast England. “It’s a place I’m very fond of, and I would like to leave something there. I spent my early years in Jesmond, a suburb of Newcastle, and then we moved to a housing estate in Gosforth,” he recalls. “I had a Geordie accent before I was sent away to school. I have a huge sense of happiness and calm when I hear a Geordie voice. I’ve been quite peripatetic in my life, and I’ve lived in London for 40-odd years, but Gateshead is where I really feel at home,” he continues. “I think roots are really important and valuable, and I love books about ‘place.’ Who wants to be a homogenised citizen of the globe?”
There really is something powerful about a unique artefact, a one-off
He is planning to build an arts project in central Gateshead: “A mix of commercial gallery, non-commercial gallery, artists’ studios, a learning resource, a library, a visual resource library and a live-work space,” he explains. The library is a key element for Devereux, as he is a bibliophile, always keen to share good writing. He doesn’t yet know the scale of the project or its title, and says he has “no interest” in putting his name on it. He finds that the people on “Gateshead council have been brilliant, they have a very enlightened arts policy,” he notes. “They have the Sage culture centre, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North and the Workplace Gallery, where I’m on the board. It’s a hub.”
DOMINIQUE ZINKPÈ, MINUIT À ABOMEY, 2006. FROM THE COLLECTION OF ROBERT DEVEREUX. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND ED CROSS FINE ART, PHOTO BY © CHRIS MCANDREW.
Devereux has long dealt with “the huge guilt of owning unique works of art” by keeping his collection dynamic. Not for him is the simple pleasure of owning. “I find ownership a challenging concept, which is ironic for someone who owns rather a lot. I don’t think you can own a work of art in the way you might a car or a table,” he explains. “It is the emanation of a creative soul. It’s a cliché to say, I’m just the custodian, but that’s how I feel.”
He has already dispersed one lifetime’s worth of art – his post-war British collection, including works by Frank Auerbach, Anthony Caro and Lucian Freud, which sold in 2010 at Sotheby’s for more than £4 million. The proceeds were used to set up his trust for emerging African artists. (Sotheby’s waived the auction fees to support the cause.) “I believe in perpetual revolution,” explains Devereux. “I always like things in flux and on the move. I’m a change junkie.”
AÏDA MULUNEH, AN IDLE MIND, FROM THE WOLF YOU FEED SERIES, 2014. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND DAVID KRUT, PHOTO BY © CHRIS MCANDREW.
The way Devereux buys is participatory: “I always say to gallerists, If someone else wants it, let them have it. My interest is more that the artist sells their work than that I own it.” He holds back from meeting artists too quickly.
“I often like to get to know the work first. It means my perception of it isn’t too influenced by their intentions and so on,” he says. “Then, of course, it hugely enriches the experience to get to know the artist later.” He doesn’t speak Swahili and relies on quick dashes into artistic neighbourhoods during stopovers. “Whenever I’m travelling and have a spare half a day, I try to find where the artists are and visit their studios. I won’t pretend they’re my closest friends, but I do hang out with artists sometimes, mainly because they like me to buy them a drink.”
I don’t think you can own a work of art in the way you might a car or a table. It is the emanation of a creative soul
Could he be the latest to be accused of that modern bugbear, “cultural appropriation,” in its most literal sense? Devereux laughs. “A disproportionate amount of collecting is done by people from outside the continent,” he says. “Nairobi won’t really develop an art infrastructure until they have local collectors, so part of what I do with the African Arts Trust and by talking to people is to try to encourage local collecting. They can’t rely entirely on overseas people like me. In Nigeria, there’s a strong and growing local market. In South Africa, there has been for a long time. And it will happen in other countries. Meanwhile, artists need to sell work to live.”
EL ANATSUI, OGAL, 2003. COURTESY THE ARTIST, PHOTO BY © ANDY STAGG.
Some of the art he owns has come to England, such as the cow-hide mannequin Enchantment, by Nandipha Mntambo, which was included in a 2017 exhibition of selected works from the Sina Jina Collection at his alma mater, Downing College, Cambridge. The Mntambo work now resides near Devereux’s home in Sussex, in a barn that he has converted into a private gallery. (His South African partner will not have it in the house – she doesn’t own any animal skins for ethical reasons.) “But most of my collection is still in Africa, partly for logistical reasons. I’ve always wanted it to end up in Africa, perhaps in South Africa, where there’s a well-developed art infrastructure, or perhaps in Nairobi, which is where my journey started and is my spiritual home in Africa, or Tangier, because it’s got so many influences and it’s accessible to Europe,” he muses. “I don’t yet know, but I’d love to do something with the National Museums of Kenya. I’ve tried and they’re not very receptive, but maybe I’ve not tried hard enough.”
He has also found it “very difficult” to arrange visas for African artists to visit Britain, which grates all the more as he considers himself a conduit both in the art world and more widely. Hence his new members’ club, The Conduit, for “impact investors” whose motives are social and environmental as well as financial. In Gateshead, Devereux is creating the library from his own shelves and, most significantly, sharing some of his art. “I spend a good deal of my life working on getting it out of bubble wrap and into sight,” he says, “where it ought to be.”
Hermione Eyre is a contributing editor of the Evening Standard and author of Viper Wine (Hogarth).
For information about Modern and Contemporary Art auctions at Sotheby’s, visit sothebys.com/contemporaryafrican.