Will former Frieze chairman Robert Devereux’s collection of art from Africa and the diaspora return to the continent?

As the first public show of the work opens in the UK, the former Virgin partner says he is looking for an “appropriate recipient” for donation

by Anny Shaw  |  17 January 2017
Will former Frieze chairman Robert Devereux’s collection of art from Africa and the diaspora return to the continent?
Robert Devereux
Robert Devereux, the former chairman of Frieze and a collector of “contemporary art connected to the African continent”, as he describes it, is showing part of his collection for the first time in public next month.

The exhibition, When the Heavens Meet the Earth, features more than 35 works from his 350-strong collection, which is usually housed in a restored merchant’s house in Lamu, Kenya. It opens at The Heong Gallery at Downing College, Cambridge, where Devereux studied history, on 25 February (until 21 May).

Devereux, who first started collecting art from Africa and the diaspora 15 years ago, says now is a good time to show his collection as he has temporarily stopped buying art following his epic walk through the Rift Valley in East Africa last year. The seven-month trek raised money for Save the Rhino and The African Arts Trust. In 2010, Devereux sold two-thirds of his collection of post-war British art at Sotheby’s, raising £4.73m to establish the trust, which offers grants to arts organisations across East Africa.

“It seems like now is a good time to take stock and work out what to do with the collection,” he says. “If I could find an appropriate recipient I would love to donate a sizeable part of it in the next 20 years.” Devereux says he would like to see his collection end up on the African continent. “Ultimately, however, it would come down to where it would be most effective.”

Devereux’s first engagement with African art was through the west London gallery of his then-wife, Vanessa Branson, who represented three South African artists, including William Kentridge. “One of my first purchases was a work by Kentridge; I used to buy a lot from Vanessa’s gallery,” he says.  

Devereux first visited Africa in 1996, having left his job as a partner in Richard Branson’s Virgin empire that year. Armed with a backpack and a small amount of money, he travelled up the east coast of Africa, which ignited his passion for the region.

His collection, however, is more eclectic, featuring works by artists from across the continent including Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Zimbabwe—as well as those from the diaspora. El Anatsui, Meschac Gaba, Romuald Hazoume, Ibrahim Mahama and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are among those featured in the Cambridge show.

“My aspirations for the exhibition are pretty mundane; most people won’t know the majority of these artists and I hope they enjoy getting to know them,” Devereux says. “I also hope, in a tiny way, it will contribute to the positive story Africa has to tell.”

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