How Robert Devereux built up one of the world’s greatest collections of contemporary African art

Works by El Anatsui and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are among the highlights of the collection offered in London on 13 October, with a percentage of profits from the sale going to benefit arts and environmental charities focusing on Africa and its diaspora

It was in 2005 that Robert Devereux decided to change his approach to collecting. The former Virgin executive had always been a keen buyer of contemporary art. However, finding himself spending more time in East Africa, he resolved to focus on supporting artists from the continent.

Soon after, Devereux saw the Hayward Gallery exhibition Africa Remix, curated by Simon Njami. ‘That show is etched on my mind,’ he says. As if to emphasise the point, he later bought the Samuel Fosso photograph (below) that graced the cover of the exhibition catalogue.

Samuel Fosso (b. 1962), Le Chef: Celui Qui A Vendu L’Afrique Aux Colons (The Chief who Sold Africa to the Colonists), 1997. C-print; this work is number five from an edition of eight. Image: 33¾ x 34 in (85.8 x 86.5 cm). Sold for £20,160 on 13 October 2022 at Christie’s in London

Based in Sussex, in southern England, Devereux has a long association with East Africa, which began in 1996 when he travelled up the coast from Mozambique to Kenya, eventually buying a house on the island of Lamu. ‘It was an old merchant’s house and curiously had no name, so I called it Sina Jina, which means “a place with no name” in Swahili.’

On 13 October, during Frieze Week, A Place With No Name: Works from the Sina Jina Collection will be offered at Christie’s in London. A percentage of the proceeds of the auction will go towards supporting the work of The African Arts Trust, which intends to use the funds to support the work of Gasworks, The Africa Centre, Lamu Environment Fund and Bët Bi.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977), Highpower, 2008. Oil on linen. 78⅝ x 47⅛ in (199.7 x 119.7 cm). Sold for £1,482,000 on 13 October 2022 at Christie’s in London

Devereux’s is one of the largest collections of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. He has described himself as an ‘instinctive’ collector, saying, ‘I have never collected with any real strategy, purpose or plan other than to work with and support artists from the African continent in a relatively early stage of their career. I acquire art that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up — it is as simple and as unsophisticated as that.’

El Anatsui (b. 1944), Oga I, 2003. Acrylic and found objects on carved wood, in 10 parts. Overall: 38¼ x 41⅜ in (97 x 105 cm)

Instinctive it may be, but Devereux has an eye for talent. His collection is a roll call of rising stars and established figures such as El Anatsui, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Elias Sime, and he says that of the 2,000 or so works he has acquired over the years, ‘you can count on the fingers of one hand the ones I’ve regretted buying’.

His collection has recently become more focused on artists from East Africa. ‘I don’t travel the way I used to, because of the climate crisis,’ he says. ‘I fly once a year to Nairobi, and that’s it.’

He is also a firm believer in building up a relationship with the artists whose work he acquires: ‘I know collectors who will pay serious money for something they have never seen, but I believe that to really understand a work of art, you need to stand in its presence.’

Elias Sime (b. 1968), Untitled, circa 2000s. Hand-stitched cotton, dyed cloth and aluminium bottle cap on canvas. 37⅛ x 61 in (94.5 x 155 cm). Sold for £119,700 on 13 October 2022 at Christie’s in London

In the past 20 years, he has seen a dramatic increase in the demand for African contemporary art in Europe and the United States. ‘Some of the prices being paid are phenomenal,’ he says.

But Devereux feels that it is also important for artists to develop strong domestic markets. ‘South Africa and Nigeria are leaders in the field,’ he says. ‘I work with galleries in Kenya to help promote the idea of buying art to potential local collectors.’ The key, he adds, is passion: ‘You should never buy for investment.’

Beatrice Wanjiku (b. 1978), Study II (Savages Series), 2017. Ink and graphite on paper. 30⅛ x 22½ in (76.5 x 57 cm). Sold for £3,528 on 13 October 2022 at Christie’s in London

Devereux was on the board of 1:54 in London and agrees that the art fair has played a significant role in spotlighting young artists from Africa. In 2012 he became the first chair of the Tate Africa Acquisitions Committee.

‘From Tate’s perspective, it was a recognition that they needed to significantly improve and increase their contemporary offering from Africa,’ he says. ‘I agreed because I want to promote and give a platform to artists from the African continent whenever I can.’

Paul Onditi (b. 1980), Lawful Order, 2019. Oil, transfer and mixed media on digital polyester inkjet plate. 55⅛ x 42¾ in (140 x 108.5 cm)

Lately Devereux has been excited by a group of up-and-coming artists based in Nairobi, among them Beatrice Wanjiku — ‘a wonderful figurative painter’ whose work is ‘very dark and visceral’.

He is a keen supporter of artists with a political message. ‘Peterson Kamwathi is a very serious artist and addresses the political situation in Kenya in subtle, sophisticated ways,’ he says. The paintings of Paul Onditi, which confront climate change, are also close to his heart.

Peterson Kamwathi (b. 1980), Untitled (ECK) (from Sitting Allowance series), 2009. Charcoal and soft pastel on paper. Executed in 2009. 59⅝ x 94¾ in (151.4 x 240.7 cm). Sold for £32,760 on 13 October 2022 at Christie’s in London

Devereux constantly lends works from his collection, recognising the importance of well-curated exhibitions in introducing audiences to new artists from Africa. ‘It is an imperative,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t countenance not lending.’

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He recently saw Ekow Eshun’s critically acclaimed show In the Black Fantastic  at the Hayward. ‘It’s such a coherent selection, quite chilling in its way because it is so apocalyptic,’ he says. ‘A lot has changed in the last few years. People are finally open to the idea that there are alternative histories to the ones we learned.’

The consignor of this collection will donate a minimum of 20 per cent of his proceeds of sale to The African Arts Trust (registered in England and Wales with charity number 1141553). The African Arts Trust has indicated that it intends to use the funds to support the work of Gasworks, The Africa Centre, Lamu Environment Fund and Bët Bi

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