How Nando’s is making a cheeky move into the art market
First published: Wednesday October 5th 2016
Nando’s has the world’s largest collection of contemporary South African art hanging on its walls. Now the chicken chain is making its surprise debut at Frieze Week Hot or Extra Hot? Wedges and corn? Please, god, no, not the Wing Roulette again. These are all quite normal preoccupations when dining at Nando’s. But the next time you find yourself in one of the UK’s 370 peri-peri chicken restaurants, drag your eyes away from your greasy hands and take a look at what is hanging on the walls.
Surprisingly, Nando’s is home to the largest private collection of contemporary South African art in the world. Its UK restaurants have some 7,300 works on display, part of a 17,000-piece collection that is scattered across 1,094 restaurants globally.
Nandos made its debut at the artworld bonanza that is Frieze week, with a Nando’s stand at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House, London.
Art in restaurants is nothing new. Scott’s, Sexy Fish and Sketch are just three London establishments that serve their food with a side order of Gary Hulme, Damien Hirst, or David Shrigley, while the Michelin-starred Pied a Terre has had an annual artist-in-residence since 2011.
In the beginning, that was exactly what people thought we should be doing – representing chilis and chickens and ketchup, but that’s obviously not what art is about Mirna Wessels, Nando’s Art Curator No wacky tiling at Nando’s For high-end restaurants, art is a way of displaying status, a reassuringly expensive flourish that complements the expensive food.
Chain restaurants are less given to expressions of individuality, for obvious reasons: anonymous large-scale canvases, wacky tiling, graffiti and the occasional inspirational slogan, suffice. Not so at Nando’s. The South African company – founded in 1987 in Johannesburg by friends Robert Brozin and Fernando Duarte – has been working with artists since 2002, via Yellowwoods Art, a philanthropic arm of the company that owns the chain. Its CEO Mirna Wessels also holds the title of Nando’s Art Curator; it is her job to find new artists to add to the collection.
The current roster is 260, though she remains tight-lipped on her annual budget. In 2014, the company, owned by Dick Enthoven was accused of using various offshore techniques to legally reduce its UK corporation tax bill by up to a third.
The restaurant group pointed out that it paid £12.6m UK corporation tax in 2013. Its interest in art, then, is one way of showing its good side. “It’s a brand that is very involved and passionate about making a difference to people’s lives, to the arts industry in South Africa and pulling community together,” says Wessels. “The restaurants are a perfect platform for us to showcase that.” One of the first pieces Wessels bought, 14 years ago, was a large chalk pastel drawing by Xolile Mtakatya, who began drawing on the walls of his prison cell in the Cape Town township of Mitchells Plain, where he was detained for political activism in 1987.
It is still hanging next to the serving hatch in the Berners Street restaurant in central London. Xolile Mtakatya’s drawing was the first acquired by Nando’s, in 2002; it still hangs in London’s Berners Street restaurant The works on display do not “represent” Nando’s or any kind of poultry-based corporate message, rather they are a “body of art that says something about South Africa today,” says Wessels. “In the beginning, that was exactly what people thought we should be doing – representing chilis and chickens and ketchup, but that’s obviously not what art is about.
It’s very important from our perspective that people realise they are important works by professional artists.” We find Lizette Chirrime’s gorgeous collage hanging outside the toilet in the Farringdon branch. It is upside down. A peril, perhaps, of running a vast global art collection from Cape Town There are no guidelines from on high. “But we have to consider the fact that it’s a family restaurant so we can’t be too explicit in the works we select,” says Wessels. “It’s quite hard to show three-dimensional works, and it’s difficult to show works behind glass because of the lighting in the restaurants.
So it’s mainly works on canvas.” They also commission works for specific spaces, including Wessels’ favourite piece, a large-scale mosaic in the King’s Cross branch that was designed by Clive van den Berg. “I’d eat at King’s Cross every day if I lived here,” she says, wistfully. The Nando’s collection mainly consists of works on canvas as they are easier to display in a restaurant setting The majority of the works are purchased from artists enrolled on Yellowwoods’ development programmes, such as Nando’s Chicken Run.
Once a month curators jump in a car and visit artists in their studios around Cape Town and Johannesburg, buying up works for the collection on the spot. The money goes straight to the artists. Nando’s enters the art world Having quietly hung these works on the walls for over a decade – putting the odd scrap of information about them in menus – Nando’s are now ready to shout about their art. It’s a good moment to do so.
The British Museum opens The Art of a Nation, its bumper survey of South African art at the end of the month. We have to consider the fact that it’s a family restaurant so we can’t be too explicit in the works we select. Three-dimensional works can be difficult For 1:54, the London/ New York art fair that is now in its fourth year, Nando’s will have a stand promoting the work of four of their artists. Between them, Maurice Mbikayi, Regi Bardavid, Pat Mautloa and Lizette Chirrime have over 400 artworks in the collection, of which over half are hanging in the UK, in restaurants from Edinburgh to Gatwick. Chirrime, 44, was a single mother, working as a secretary in an aluminium factory in Mozambique when she decided to change career. “Every time I drew I cried, there was a lot of pain in me. My boss saw me and he said, ‘You’re not meant to be working here with us, you’re an artist.’” She left her job in 2003 and started making work out of hessian food sacks and leftover cowhide/ drum skins she got from the local music academy.
Her first exhibition was a great success. “It was exciting but I only sold two pieces. The idea was to sell everything. I got angry but I didn’t give up, I kept making, making, making in my own home. I couldn’t afford a studio. I started to struggle, was almost homeless. My family thought I was lazy for not finding a job but there was a faith inside me. I said to my daughter, ‘One day this thing will take me far.’”
Lizette Chirrime has sold 260 works to Nando’s worldwide, including this piece in the Farringdon, London branch Having become famous in Mozambique, she moved to Cape Town where she knocked on gallery doors and eventually landed an artistic residency at the Castle of Good Hope. It was there that she was spotted by a Nando’s curator. She has now sold 226 works to the company for around 22,000 to 26,000 rand (£1250 to £1500) a piece. “The new works I’m making now have a lot more work in them, more stitching, so I would like to have more money for them, but it’s not bad. I’m not complaining,” she says. We meet in the Farringdon branch of Nando’s where she finds her work – a gorgeous collage of colourful scraps of South African and Mozambican fabrics, beads and dried fish scales, hanging outside the toilet, upside down. A peril, perhaps, of running a vast global art collection from Cape Town. “I’m quite disappointed with the space. I don’t like the idea of being near the toilet,” she says. As various Nando’s representatives rush to turn the work the right way up, she explains its origins. “It’s different fabrics for different cultures -my idea is to put them together so we are one, we are all united. I put good thoughts and energy and lots of love into my work so I’d like people to feed off that.
I believe in hope and unity, less consumption.” I don’t feel like I work for Nando’s, I feel like they’re the reason I exist. They buy what I do – if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what I’d be now. I might be selling one or two works to galleries Lizette Chirrime And how does it feel to know that her work is hanging above the heads of consumers all over the world? “I don’t feel like I work for Nando’s, I feel like they’re the reason I exist. They buy what I do – if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what I’d be now. I might be selling one or two works – galleries don’t work on the scale that Nando’s does. That makes it possible for me to exist as an artist, to feel proud to be myself.” Free chicken must be a bonus, too. “I stopped eating meat,” she laughs. “I don’t eat chicken anymore.”