Robert Devereux on the Magical and the Real

Robert Devereux on the Magical and the Real
This February, Robert Devereux will for the first time, display to the public, 35 works from his Sina Jina Collection at The Heong Gallery. Themed When the Heavens Meet the Earth, the exhibition highlights the collector’s commitment to emerging artists who challenge Western preconceptions. Devereux who first started collecting art from Africa and the diaspora 15 years ago, has long been a supporter of contemporary visual arts. In 2010, he recognised how hard it is for many artists to make a career in art, particularly those based in Africa, a continent he had grown to know and connect with since he first visited in 1996. As a result, he auctioned four hundred and sixteen works from his collection of post-war British art at Sotheby’s. The proceeds helped establish The African Arts Trust (TAAT), a body that continues to fund grassroots organisations in expanding opportunities for artists. He has also served as chairman of the board of Frieze, the African Acquisitions Committee at Tate and as an advisor to 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair.

When did your interest in collecting art begin?

My engagement with the arts began as a fourteen-year-old visiting museums in Italy. I studied History of Art under an inspiring teacher, spent more time at university in the History of Art Department than my own, and married an art dealer with a wonderful eye. By my early 20s, I could afford the odd purchase, mostly in support of my wife’s gallery, and my life as a ‘collector’ begun. There were very few people buying contemporary art then and the contrast with today could not be greater.

Aida Muluneh, No. 7 from the 99 series, 2013, digital photograph, 100 x 100 cm, copyright the artist, courtesy The Heong Gallery

How sizeable is your collection, and how would you describe your curatorial thrust and collecting habits?

My collection is now about 5-600 works; it was significantly pruned in 2010 when I sold some 400 works at Sotheby’s to support the creation of the African Arts Trust.

I am not a curator and I don’t take a “curatorial” approach to my collection. For me, collecting is a very personal affair—I have always bought what I loved and have always been led by what emotionally and visually stimulates me; in many ways that is quite random. The main thrust of what I do is to try to support young and developing artists at an early stage in their careers. I am not interested in filling gaps or being representative or comprehensive.

I also like to know something about the context in which work is made and how it relates to its environment. The process of learning is one of the joys of collecting. The exhibition at The Heong Gallery of more than thirty-five works represents only ten percent of Sina Jina, the rest comprises pieces from the 1960s and up to the present day.

Nandipha Mntambo, Enchantment, 2012, Cow hide, cow tails and resin, 170 x 100 x 155 cm. copyright the artist, courtesy The Heong Gallery

Many of your works are drawn from Africa; do some of them hold personal histories for you?

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. I had been to South Africa and Kenya a number of times, but in 1996 I went on a life-changing backpacking trip travelling up the east coast of Africa and that was the moment at which I thought Africa is a place I want to spend more time and invest more of myself in. 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 and became hooked on the scene. The legacy of that trip has been an exhilarating twenty years in which the Sina Jina Collection has been established. I take the view that 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.

From February 25 to May 21, 2017, about 35 pieces from your Sina Jina Collection will be shown in the exhibition When the Heavens Meet the Earth. What informs the title of the exhibition and what do you hope to achieve?

The title comes from Nnenna Okore’s sculpture included in the show; I like the suggestion of the meeting place between the spirit and the flesh, between the magical and the real, between the sublime and the concrete—which is an aspect of all creativity.

Nnenna Okore, When the Heavens meet the Earth, 2011, yarn, varied dimensions. Photo Jonathan Greet, Image courtesy October Gallery, London

I have no great mission in doing it, but I hope it will be seen and enjoyed by as many people as possible. I also hope that it will introduce them to some new faces and ideas and demonstrate the diversity of contemporary art. It’s about sharing.

Sina Jina seems an unlikely title for a collection, particularly with its Irish and Swahili origins. What is your thinking behind it?

It’s a Swahili word that means “the house with no name”, which is the name of my house in Lamu. It is one of the oldest merchant houses in the town, which was historically a major trading entrepôt on the route from the gulf to the west coast of India; the traditional Swahili homes, with their intricate and delicate plasterwork, are vital parts of its history. I called the house that because—unusually for one of the older houses in Lamu—it has never had a name. I like the idea of anonymity, of something that doesn’t tell you what it is, and I love the music of it.

Pascale Marthine Tayou, Diamond Fighters B, 2011, paper, collage, graphite, glue and metal, 165 x 212 cm, copyright the artist

I only gave the collection a name because I was told I had to! And I chose Sina Jina because it creates an emotional connection between two precious things. I certainly didn’t want to put my own name on it, and as Swahili is the Esperanto of East Africa, it seemed suitably inclusive.

Besides staging this exhibition, what other ways have you fulfilled your commitment to “emerging artists who challenge Western preconceptions of, and hegemony over cultural expressions and contemporary art?”

Mainly through the establishment of the African Arts Trust, but also by buying these emerging artist’s work

What can you say about the increasing global attention to African art, how sustainable is it, and what does the future portend for it?

It has been wonderful to see the gradual increase in the awareness of work connected to the African continent across all segments; the public and the private, the academic and the institutional. I welcome the fact that is has been gradual as I think this makes it more sustainable. It is entirely sustainable and will continue to grow, simply because the artists are there and hopefully we are now in a virtuous circle where more attention and resources will encourage and enable more practice.

Otobong Nkanga, Trapped, Q.C. Yaba, 1991, Lagos from Filtered Memories 1990-1992, acrylic and stickers on paper, four pieces, 42 x 29 cm each, copyright the artist

Your long association with Africa includes serving as the adviser to the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair and chair of Tate’s Acquisition Committee. What has been the impact of these initiatives on artistic production from Africa?

I have never seen any detailed research and analysis of this so my view is entirely circumstantial, but there is no doubt in my mind that they have both been major drivers in the trend discussed above. The Tate has lent credibility and visibility and, more importantly, helped place the work in the context of international art. 1:54 has not only created the most important market place for work from the continent, but also a platform to bring together all the interested parties to debate, exchange and engage.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Erector, 2007, oil on canvas, 55 x 41 cm, copyright the artist, courtesy The Heong Gallery

In 2010, you sold your post-war British art collection through Sotheby’s to establish The African Art Trust (TAAT), a body that funds grassroots organisations in expanding opportunities for artists. What have been the major successes of the organisation, and how impactful has it been across Africa fulfilling its objectives?

The main objective of The African Arts Trust is to support practising artists on the African continent through local grassroots organisations. We try to create sustainable and long-term benefits for artists. The organisations that we support include The Kuona Trust in Nairobi, 32º East in Kampala, NAFASI in Tanzania, First Floor and Gallery Delta in Harare and Assemblage in Johannesburg – these all have in common the provision of a wide range of support, services, from studios, to the internet, to gallery space and a library. We provide core funding which is the hardest to find, project funding is easier but without the core there would be no projects. We have a relatively simple application process and are able to respond quickly and in a very un-bureaucratic way—a virtue of being a very small organisation with a flat decision-making structure. So I think we fill a gap. We also support residencies, travel grants, top up grants for exhibitions and studio bursaries. We are a grant giver and never have ownership of projects so we always have funding partners and respond to requests rather than have an agenda of our own to pursue.

Robert Devereux

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When the Heavens Meet the Earth: Works from the Sina Jina Collection, February 25 – May 21, 2017, The Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge, CB2 1DQ,


Oliver Enwonwu is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka magazine, Director, Omenka Gallery and Chief Executive, Revilo. He holds a first degree in Biochemistry, advanced diploma in Exploration Geophysics (distinction), Post Graduate Diplomas in Applied Geophysics and Visual Art (distinction) and a Masters in Art History, all from the University of Lagos. He is the founder, Executive Director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. He also sits on the board of several organizations including the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria and the Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria. Enwonwu is also president of both the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Alliance of Nigerian Art Galleries.

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