In Studio with Robert Devereux

Sharon: I’m here with Robert Devereux, it’s the morning after the opening of ‘When The Heavens Meet The Earth’, featuring 35 works - about 10% of your collection, as I’m told.

Robert: Roughly speaking, yes, I’ve lost count!

Sharon: How does it feel to be sitting here now, after the opening last night?

Robert: It was a great evening last night, with a lovely atmosphere and attendance. I said last night, that it’s a real privilege to show some of my works in this beautiful gallery.

Sharon: Yes, we are excited to see the selection of works here.

Robert: It is interesting, because it’s not a conventional contemporary museum hang. There are photographs hung beside paintings, and works of materiality. Tessa Jackson is a professional curator, and she’s been very tolerant of my desire to do things very differently. I really wanted to show the variety, a little slice of the work that’s connected to the continent.

Sharon: Brilliant! It’s exciting because these are all artists we know now, but of course you knew and collected them years before.

Robert: I suppose what I tried to do was to put enough known names in, that people would be intrigued, and mix these up with less well known names.

Sharon: It’s been said that generally, a collector always remembers the first piece they bought. Is this the same with you?

Robert: I do have in mind the first piece I bought. Whether it really is the first piece I bought, I am not sure. Of course it bears very little relation to anything that’s in the gallery or indeed much of what I subsequently collected. And if you’re next question is going to be who was the artist, the answer is I can’t remember.

Sharon: laughs

Robert: I can tell you, I bought it at the Bath Art Fair, probably 1982 or something, lost in the midst of time.

Sharon: I’ve also read that you distance yourself from the idea of being a collector. In essence, I think you’ve redefined what that means..

Robert: laughs

Sharon:.. for yourself, in the sense that you are more engaged in the art, how it’s exhibited, and the wider art scene.

Robert: Well, that’s nice of you to say so. I’ve had to think a lot about the attitude of a collector. I’ve been uncomfortable about the notion of being called a collector. People collect in many different ways. A lot of collectors who are visible have a program, and I definitely don’t. I have a broad focus, but my collecting is very reactive, in the sense that I collect what I encounter, what I see and what I love. I don’t sit down, read the books, read the articles, and think, ‘Okay, this is what I need to make a coherent collection.’ There’s no template to create coherence, as may be evident.

Sharon: laughs

Robert: Generally, I love the work and I love to live with it. But I’d be equally happy if it was somewhere else. The whole notion of owning other people’s creative endeavours is a curious one if you think about it. It’s a cliche to say I’m a custodian of the work, but that’s how I feel about it.

Sharon: It’s a bit unfair of me to ask, because it’s probably like asking a parent to choose from their children, (laughs) but are there any favourites here for you?

Robert: In fact, my son last night tried a very devious tactic of asking which picture I would take if there was a fire. Generally, it would be invidious to pick, I genuinely don’t have a favourite, there are probably seven or eight that I would. But as I said to him last night, that would mean not taking that one or that one.

Sharon: And then you’d end up taking everything. (laughs)

Robert: So I’m not avoiding the question, but there isn’t an answer to the question.

Sharon: When you’re seeing a piece for the first time, in an exhibition or studio, is there a thought process that goes on when you’re considering, ‘Should I purchase this or not?’

Robert: Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes it’s very spontaneous. I always think of the Otobong piece which is here. I had never encountered her work, and I actually saw the piece at an art fair in Paris many years ago. I didn’t know it was by an artist connected to Africa. I spent a little bit of time talking to the Dutch gallerist, and I bought it on the spot.

Sometimes, particularly when I know the artist better, I spend more time considering the work. Sometimes I’m lucky in that my initial responses to works are consistent and it stays. There are times when you encounter something, it talks to you, and then it slightly fades away. Again, I’m a very inconsistent person, and I don’t think the way I acquire can be consistent.

Sharon: Whenever I travel to a new city, I must visit a gallery or museum there. I believe that I haven’t experience a city, unless I’ve experienced the art within. So I thought it was amazing when you mentioned in the catalogue that whenever you visit a new city, you visit artists in their studio to see what they are producing. Are there any cities that come to mind?

Robert: I suppose the most obvious would be Nairobi because it’s a city, that I’ve known over many years. It’s a city in which I’ve discovered many artists, and my perception of Nairobi is led by its artist community. It’s a really interesting perception of a city like Nairobi which is huge and throbbing with many other forms of life as well. Johannesburg would be the same, as a city I visit a lot because my forestry business is based there. There is a thriving artistic community there.

Sharon: You cite your 1996 trip to Maputo as one that really drew you to Africa..

(both laugh)

What were some of the highlights of that trip? Were there particular moments in that trip where you thought, ‘Wow?’

Robert: I don’t think there was a moment. I think it was more of the way I probably experienced Africa on that trip. I’d been a number of times before, but I’d either been on business, in my Virgin days, to go and collect unpaid debts from Nigerians..

Sharon: laughs

Robert: ..or I’d be on safari, or I’d be in Cape Town, and on this occasion, I’d encountered another side of life. I went with a rucksack on my back, and $10 a day. To say I encountered a new Africa, is sort of a stupid thing to say. I think it was the quality of that experience of trying to travel on the buses and trying to hitchhike, largely unsuccessfully, that gave me a whole new perspective. After that I thought, ‘I’d like to find a way of not visiting as a tourist. I’d like to find a way of doing something that’s a bit more engaged.’

Sharon: What mediums have you been drawn to over time, in terms of artworks?

Robert: I’m very eclectic in my approach and like most people I started with painting. I get irritated with the debate on whether painting is dead. It’s complete nonsense, because painting is and always will be a totally viable mode of expression for an artist.

I love 3D work - there’s very little sculpture here - partly because it’s more complicated to install and de-install. Funny enough, I also thought I didn’t have a good eye for photography, for lens based work. But there’s actually a lot of lens based work in here and in my collection, which I think is partly indicative of a strength of the artistic community which whom I’m engaged.

There isn’t much film in the collection, but it’s not because i don’t value film or think it’s not an interesting medium. It’s just that I haven’t seen much. I’ve never really worked out how to integrate it into my everyday domestic life.

Sharon: What’s coming up this year in terms of the program for the African Arts Trust.

Robert: Well we don’t have a program, it’s a foundation that gives grants to applicants. We’re completely dependent on who applies, and there are a number of organizations who we fund on a yearly basis. We fund The Kuona Trust in Nairobi, 30 Degrees East in Kampala, NAFASI in Dar Es Salaam. One of the biggest problems for small scale NGOs is finding core funding. Everybody wants to fund a project or a show - but we fund a lot of core overhead, because if you don’t fund the core, you can’t run the project.

Sharon: You mentioned in a recent interview that you are thinking about at some point, taking some of your art to the continent to exhibit.

Robert: Somebody asked me about what I was going to do with my collection, and I think I said that one of the things I would love to do, is to find a home for it in Africa. That still remains the case, although I’ve also promised my children that before I give it away, I will see what their wishes and desires would be. I’m not a curator, but I have said that I would be really happy to lend on a long term basis, a section of my collection.

Sharon: Thank you for doing with me on this bright and early morning.

Robert: It’s a pleasure.

Sharon Obuobi