Works by some of Africa’s best contemporary artists are on show in the “When the Heavens Meet the Earth” exhibition in Cambridge, UK. These are from a collection owned by millionaire Robert Devereux who has a special interest in African art. Beverly Andrews met him during the show.
Multi-millionaire Robert Devereux, a former partner in the UK-based Virgin empire and brother-in-law to tycoon Richard Branson, has selected over 35 works by African artists from his own collection and brought them together at the Heong Gallery in Britain’s university town of Cambridge.
These works, by some of the most renowned African contemporary artists, are part of his Sina Jina (Swahili for “I have no name”) collection. The intriguing title refers to the house of a former merchant – which has now been restored – in the ancient and picturesque island town of Lamu in Kenya.
Speaking to New African, Devereux explained the motivation behind his commitment to African art. “Contemporary art and Africa have been two of the great passions of my life. Combining an interest in the two was a very natural thing for me to do,” he says.
“In 1996, I decided to put a rucksack on my back and go to Africa. Though I had been to Africa before, there was something about the nature of that trip that convinced me to invest time there and to try to be more than just a tourist. I now have a home there, a significant forestry business, advise on private investment and support a number of arts organisations through the African Arts Trust.
“Wherever I go, I always try and find the local artists and take an interest in what they are doing; so I visited artists, galleries and institutions. I think that often the most interesting art is rooted in the particular, the specific, the local. While it must reach out to wider constituencies and be inclusive, it flourishes when it is connected to place and time. “
He referred to the fact that in the past, African artists have often faced a hostile reception in the West (the late British art critic, Brian Sewell, was a particularly vitriolic critic) but this no longer appears to be the case.
“International interest in African art is growing,” he says. “It is no longer the case that it is just several small galleries selling African art in London. The 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair and the increased attention for and acquisition of African art by major institutions like the Tate have been major drivers in the awareness of and respect for African artists.”
(1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair is named after the 54 countries that make up the single entity, Africa.) Devereux adds: “It has been wonderful to see the increase in awareness of work from the African continent both in the public and private segments, as well as the academic and the institutional. The fact that this appreciation has been gradual makes it more sustainable, I believe. It will continue to grow because the artists and talent are there. I hope that we are now in a virtuous circle where more attention and resources will encourage and enable more practice.”
Some of the outstanding work on display in this wonderful exhibition includes Kenyan artist Peterson Kamwathi’s Medical Establishment, the Ghanaian El Anatsui’s Oga and works from the Nigerian artist Nnenna Okore. All the works on display demonstrate an original, unique vision, something the art world very much needs at the moment since so much of what is produced in the West appears at times to be driven by narrow contemplation – something you could never accuse these artists of.
Robert concludes the interview by speculating on the future generation of African artists. “I hope that they will be able to make careers in their own countries. While I have absolutely nothing against artists making careers wherever they choose to, it is dispiriting to think that success in the West should be an important goal. One of the things the African Arts Trust is keen to foster is local appreciation and interest in the visual arts. Artists should be free to travel and practice wherever they want – but hopefully without losing their roots to the places from which they come.” NA
When the Heavens Meets the Earth continues at the Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge University until 21 May.