Did Nando's display racist artwork?

Did you know that Nando's hold the world's largest collection of South African art? You can enjoy the 21,300 pieces of art (and admire the impressive art techniques (opens in new tab)used) alongside your peri-peri chicken in branches around the country. But the chicken chain's foray into art has recently met some controversy as one of the paintings has been labelled racist.

A Half a Loaf Is Better Than None, a painting by black South African artist Khaya Sineyile, was on display on the wall of a newly opened Birmingham branch of the restaurant until a customer spotted it and contacted Nando's CEO, Colin Hill.

Sineyile: A Half A Loaf is Better Than None

(Image credit: Khaya Sineyale via Africanah.org)

The customer expressed his outrage and Hill responded with an apology, and a promise that the artwork had been immediately removed following the complaint. Hill admitted that on this occasion Nando's had "got it wrong" and assured the customer the art selection process would be reviewed. 

But the customer felt the apology didn't go far enough, accusing Hill of "corporate nonsense". He later explained his reaction:

"It shows four people of colour who would have been historically subject to degradation and hardship in an implement – here, a toaster – used to cook or burn bread. To me, it’s akin to hanging a picture of someone in an oven or being chopped up. It’s completely dehumanising people of colour."

There's no denying the imagery is shocking, but what were the artist's intentions? Is it fair to say it is racist? Or is there more going on here? Let's look at what we know about the artist.

Sineyile: Usana Olungalilyo Lufela Embelekweni

(Image credit: Khaya Sineyile)

Sinyile is an artist from New Crossroads in Nyanga, Cape Town. Freelance writer Themba Tsoti describes his approach (opens in new tab) as "attempting to cultivate an alternative consciousness regarding how artists from his background are perceived."  

Sinyile's artwork often plays with the connection between people and household objects, exploring how social station or personality can be imprinted on an object, and how the physical environment effects and impacts the psyche. The work above – Usana Olungalilyo Lufela Embelekweni, 2017 – depicts people inside an eggbox in another example of the interplay between society and the objects ingrained within it.

Lorna Ferguson, Former director of the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg, put the piece into this context when she gave her interpretation of A Half Loaf Is Better Than None to Sunday Times Live (opens in new tab)

"South Africans are used to having open talks around race and racism, this translates into our artwork. We are used to seeing protest work. This piece does not mean that black people should be toasted, instead it can be interpreted as black people have been toasted by racism and oppression."

Ferguson added, "Of course there are many ways to interpret art… The background is a total juxtaposition which creates a quirky piece."

Nando's has since defended the work, labelling it a statement on the "far reaching effects of social inequality in South Africa".

Sineyale and painting

(Image credit: Sunday Times Live)

South Africa has a nuanced and complex history, and its artwork is likely to reflect that. It isn't easy to explain, especially in the time it takes to eat that peri-peri chicken. So to take a piece of art with imagery as  as this and place it in a restaurant, with no context, explanation or background on the artist, was perhaps not a wise move. 

It's not the first time that a bold branding choice has resulted in controversy (see our post on 18 controversial moments in branding) (opens in new tab), but this is more complex than most.

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Georgia Coggan is currently Creative Bloq's Acting Deputy Editor. Georgia started her freelance career working for CB in 2018, and since then has worked across the site on news, ecom, SEO content... basically anything and everything. Now covering the Dep Ed role for three months, Georgia is a slave to the style guide, a logo geek and loves all things London Underground (its branding history, and not at rush hour).