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From The Ground Up

From The Ground Up
  • PublishedSeptember 18, 2013

In 2010, the businessman, philanthropist and art collector Robert Devereux sold £4m of his prestigious post-war art collection, in order to build the African Arts Trust. Three years on, the trust has funded ambitious projects and bold new artists; from Baudouin Mouanda’s residency at Gasworks Gallery in London, to Nancy Mteki’s residency at Deveron Arts, to supporting Kampala’s first contemporary art festival (KLA ART). Basia Lewandowska Cummings spoke with one of contemporary African art’s biggest supporters about his motivations, and what he feels the future might hold for the networks and institutions he is doing so much to support.

Basia Lewanowska Cummings: Your African art collection now includes more than 400 pieces. How did you become interested in contemporary art from Africa?

Robert Devereux: I suppose simply because contemporary art and Africa have been two of the great loves and passions of my life. Combining an interest in the two was a very natural thing for me to do. Wherever I go, I always try and find the local artists and take an interest in what they are doing.

BLC: Three years ago, you decided to sell your post-war collection to set up the African Art Trust. Why did you feel, as a prominent art collector, that it was an appropriate time to invest in African art?

RD: I don’t actually invest in African art. There are people that do, and I leave it up to them to decide whether that’s a valid motivation for collecting art, but it has nothing to do with my motivations.

I think it’s a very important distinction to make between investing and funding. I’m not saying that you can’t necessarily invest, and also have a passionate engagement with both the artists and the art, but I think it does change the nature of your engagement. It’s also partly a pragmatic distinction, as an entrepreneur and a businessman; I think that it’s extremely difficult to actually invest in art. It doesn’t behave like other asset categories.

BLC: Given your background in humanitarian initiatives, did people question why you didn’t decide to invest in other aspects of infrastructure (building wells and schools)? It seems to be a criticism that is leveled at people who are involved in the arts, as if art is a frivolous pursuit.

RD: I find that a very easy critique: the two things I’m most involved in, is conservation and the visual arts. Particularly where I work with artistic projects, people ask me why don’t I support children and the homeless and the poor, which to a lesser extent I do, but it’s a very complex subject. I mean, I am appalled at what people like Maria Miller say – our current culture secretary – that the government should only support arts ventures where it has an economic impact. I think that is a disgraceful thing to say. Having said that, the fact of the matter is obviously that the arts is part of an economic sector, and so supporting the arts is not devoid of wider economic positive impact. But on a more fundamental level, I think that art is as important a part of human life, as food and shelter and clothing are.

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BLC: It’s historically been the case that colonisers invest heavily in the cultural life of its former colonies; a good example is the French interest in West Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.  Now, there are new alliances, for example, there’s a lot of talk about what China is doing in many countries in Africa. Do you see new pockets of arts and culture blooming as a result of these alliances?

RD: I don’t really take all this talk about China too seriously, not in the artistic sphere. China’s engagement with Africa is incredibly complex, it’s very easy to be superficially damning of it. Obviously in the West the general comment on it is very negative, and I can understand why. But, I’d be more impressed if these criticisms came from African commentators, rather than from Westerners.

I see very little engagement between the Chinese and the African artists and institutions who they might deal with. But of course there is a horrifying exception to that, which is the Kenyan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. But to me it’s not an issue; the more Chinese collectors who come and buy African art, the better, but I don’t see much sign of that.

BLC: When you were setting up the African Arts Trust, what were your priorities?

RD: They are fairly clear: to support African artists. I’m not interested in art education at secondary level; I support practising artists, who have the ability and the talent, and the determination to make a career and a living out of art. I support them through grassroots organisations, which are operating for the most part in Africa. We won’t support artists directly, for a variety of reasons. But we try to create a sustainable and long-term benefit. I think by supporting organisations that in turn support artists, we can do more with our money.

BLC: And where do you feel that has been particularly successful?

RD: At the moment we focus on Southern and Eastern Africa, and that’s where I spend most of my time. The Kuona Trust in Nairobi, which we’re one of the funders of, have an incredible rate of activity that they engage in, and the range of support they give to a large number of artists is very impressive. And then look at the creation of 32º East in Kampala, which I don’t think would have been possible without the support of the African Arts Trust. And then look at NAFASI art space in Tanzania. There is, I suppose, quite a theme – which is that we support grassroots organisations that can provide a wide range of support and services, from studios, to the internet, to gallery space, and deliver that to local artists.

BLC: Within that matrix of new arts institutions, and the network that this in turn fosters, how do you feel the art fair fits within this?

RD: The connection between the commercial side and the creative side is umbilical – artists can’t survive unless they sell their work. Without the income from arts infrastructure, the only major source of income for artists will come from the sale of their work.

So, if the artists who we support don’t find a market for their work, then it will all have been in vain. I’m sure that there will be artists we support through our organisations present at 1:54. Perhaps not that many, as our focus is usually at an earlier stage of an artist’s career, and 1:54 will be made up of galleries and artists who are quite established. Which is how it should be. I think the art fair will create a focus for the incredible wealth of creative talent from Africa. And hopefully, it will encourage people to explore more widely and dig more deeply.

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New African

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