African Modern & Contemporary Art

Visionary Legacy: Robert Devereux

By Carolina Mostert

Many of the works included in the current exhibition When the Heavens Meet the Earth at the Heong Gallery (Downing College, Cambridge University), are created by artists whose works appear for sale in the forthcoming Modern and Contemporary African Art auction at Sotheby's on 16 May. The exhibition showcases the collection of Robert Devereux, for whom the art of Africa has specific resonance. The preservation of culture in Africa still relies on speech. Western civilisation, at the beginning, was also mediated through impalpable words. Ancient Greek Aoidos, "singers" sang about their community's achievements. Their poetry travelled from mouth to ear, and finally to the hands of the rhapsodes. The "stitchers of songs" knitted what they heard into written texts for the benefit of posterity. These Western characters are echoed in a story about Africa.


Between September 2015 and April 2016, Devereux made his way through the Rift Valley in East Africa, crossing six countries, walking, cycling and kayaking for 6500 km. What can a man who spent a lifetime travelling through Africa expect from an adventure like this? The answer lies in an anecdote. As he paddled up the East coast of Lake Malawi, strong waves overturned his canoe and the kikote fell from his legs. Burnt by the sun, he towed the canoe to a dock where three women – possibly from the Yao tribe inhabiting the coast – were washing fabrics in the lake. They refused to sell their cloth; but just as Robert returned to his canoe, resigned to brave the scorching heat, the older of the three rushed towards him with a beautiful piece of fabric. "She wouldn't accept any money; confirming what I knew of the nature of many African people: generous, despite their poverty". The woman did with her needle's work what rhapsodes achieved with their pen: she handed over the material for an important story to be told.


Romuald Hazoumè’s Sénégalouise hangs at the entrance to the gallery, a plastic container tipped sideways whose handle recalls a protruding nose, the cavity beneath it digging two eye-sockets. Printed cloth wrapped around the base mimics a shawl draped on a forehead. Hazoumè works with waste. This practice asserts that poverty cannot discourage the production of art – just as it did not impede the old woman's generosity. Sénégalouise carries a deeper message. The container is left unsealed; due to its tilted position, any liquid inside would spill on the floor. What should be shut with a cap becomes a mouth, wide open, as is the case in Hazoumè’s La Mère Covitet, which will be offered for sale in the 16 May auction.


Sensuality imbues Rotimi Fani-Kayode's Grapes. The muscular arms suggest it is a man we see. Yet long hair hides his features; the left arm covers where we could otherwise see breasts; a black shadow swallows the chest, deepening our doubt. The photograph is a self-portrait; its ambiguity shields the artist's identity, marginalised for being, in his own words, 'Black, African, homosexual'.

Grapes introduces the dichotomy underlying the whole exhibition. The title focuses on the white fruit held in the palm of a hand that is black. The blue eyes peeking through in Anthony Okello's Masquerade Series suggest X is mixed-race. Masks change our identity during festivities. This painted one provocatively hides the black, betraying the fairer element: a question of skin prompts this white masquerade. Pascale Martine Tayou also tricks the eye. Nail heads and beads glued on a papery surface represent African conflict diamonds. His Diamond Fighters are sketched with graphite: the mineral with the same composition of diamonds. Strong bonds between carbon atoms form the hardest substance on earth; weaker ones produce the softer one used to draw. The fighters appear inextricably bound to their cause: unsettling, because truly nothing is as precious as the moral integrity of man.


El Anatsui made Oga with found materials whose previous lives defy the artwork: random buttons, a comb. Beauty lies in their familiar feel. Wooden fence posts constitute Oga's structure. Side by side on the wall, they signify unity; in the ground they define spatial boundaries. Dominique Zinkpè celebrates blurred boundaries with Minuit à Abomey. Abomey, capital of Dahomey, kingdom in existence between 1600 and 1900, remains suspended between reality and myth. Midnight marks the turning point between today and tomorrow; but as black darkness fades, luminous daylight transpires. 


Nandipha Mntambo moulded the cow hide raised in the middle of the gallery on her own body: as her second skin, she chose a space where black and white coexist. Enchantment reveals, perhaps, how something that happens in nature, to many still looks like magic, a dream. So the statement "Art begin where nature stops" written on Meschac Gaba's motor cycle number plate, makes sense: artists like Mntambo assume the responsibility to work this magic, and make the dream come true.


"People in Africa walk a lot", Devereux explains: "and their journey always has a purpose." In crossing paths, he walked through the Rift Valley with strangers for miles. They walk to find water, buy and exchange goods, visit neighbouring villages. "They wouldn't believe I could walk with no goal… So I said I walked for philosophy. They accepted that". If people who are moved by necessity can truly understand one who is moved by knowledge, this is proof that nourishing our mind is as essential as eating food.

NNENNA OKORE, STRATA, 2011. ESTIMATE: £18,000—24,000.

The artworks exhibited in the gallery are contemporary, rooted in the present and with a visionary ambition. Their value lies in what they mean to us; even more, in what they will teach the people of the future, as they turn backwards to the past made tangible through art. The ethereal and the earthy meet in Nnenna Okore's installation: the arrangement of rough, sturdy burlap takes on an airy, celestial feel. When the Heavens Meet the Earth – or it could well be the other way round, for us, who are elevated by such things.



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