Robert Devereux fell in love with Africa – and then with its art. He talks to Mark Palmer about how his life has been changed by the continent's artists.

Portrait by Richard Cannon

Robert Devereux is not the first European to develop an abiding passion for Africa – but he is in a league of his own when it comes to championing African art. Two years ago, he sold more than 300 artworks from his private collection – including pieces by Lucian Freud, Anthony Caro, and Frank Auerbach – and raised nearly £5 million to set up the African Arts Trust, which supports artists on the African continent.

Now, he is turning his attention specifically to establishing an arts school in Kenya and is asking African artists themselves to donate their work as a means of raising the core funding. The sale will be held at Bonhams in May.

Some of those artists, such as Peterson Kamwathi, Michael Soi and Beatrice Wangechi, already are highly regarded and well-established in their respective fields. Asking them to submit their work for no immediate personal gain might seem ambitious, but Devereux is not an everyday fundraiser, or indeed a stereotypical philanthropist.

"I am obsessed with legacy," he says. "It is absolutely not my intention that the African Arts Trust will manage any projects we set up. We are enablers, not managers. In fact, I don't know exactly how an arts school will work. It will be organizations on the ground which will decide how the money should be spent."

Devereux is a former partner of Richard Branson, but sold his interests in Virgin in the mid-1990s. Running in tandem to his commercial activities has been a growing interest in art and not-for-profit initiatives. Both these have converged on Africa, where Devereux now spends at least three months of the year in his house in Lamu, Kenya.

"I spent some time in Africa in the early 1990s and that was when a lightbulb went on. It was a particular time of my life when I was trying to live a little as I did as a student. I went from Durban to Mogadishu in Somalia and realized that I wanted to spend time in Africa. I am not a good tourist. I need to engage properly with somewhere and I discovered that this was where I could do that."

Devereux grew up in Northumberland and he makes a connection between there and Africa. "I think it has something to do with the land – untrodden and a feeling that it has been there forever. What I love about Africa, apart from its wonderful people who are immensely friendly despite their adversity, is the sense of there being a freedom to roam."

Devereux has long looked at a country through the prism of its art. "Whenever I go somewhere, I want to find out where the artists are. They tend to be settled in the most interesting parts of town. Moreover, art in all its form is the biggest expression of our humanity. You can't measure its success, but I believe it is more powerful than aid. It is the basis for a creative and humane society."

The issue for African artists has been finding the balance between doing justice to their creativity and making enough money to support themselves. "They have to earn a living and so they tend to play safe," says Devereux. "There is a big difference between what's in their heads and what they actually produce. An arts school – which could be a three-month summer school or offer travel bursaries – will help artists engage in a wider field of thought and give them a chance to develop their practice."

There is no doubt that the reputation of African art is gaining momentum. A tapestry by El Anatsui, the Ghanaian sculptor, sold for £541,250 at Bonhams in May 2012, and works by the Kenyan ceramicist, Magdalene Odundo, and the Nigerian sculptor, Ben Enwonwu, have commanded six-figure sums in the US.

This burgeoning market has been recognized by the Tate, which now has an African Art Acquisitions committee, of which Devereux is co-chairman. One of the first African works he bought was a wood cut by Kenyan artist Peterson Kamwathi. "I love the manual nature of his work. He is a master draftsman but he is also subtly political."

Bonhams's Africa Now – the only sale of its kind anywhere in the world – is in its fifth year. "When we started, it was a lonely furrow we were plowing," says Bonhams director Giles Peppiatt.

"There just wasn't a buying constituency out there. But today we send out catalogs to 4,000-5,000 collectors. In terms of its art, Africa represents something of a whole new territory. The beauty of African art is that it's fresh."

Devereux shrugs off the contribution he himself has made to African art. "It is a privilege to do it. Communities have broken down and so society needs real philanthropy. There is a recognition that we need to give something back."

Mark Palmer is an editor and journalist for British newspapers.


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