M&C Saatchi Abel Contemporary Art Collection

WORDS Biddi Rorke PHOTOS Jan Ras

The office walls of advertising agency M&C Saatchi Abel are adorned with fresh, brave and beautiful pieces by established and upcoming artists from the African continent.

When advertising guru Mike Abel co-founded creativity in the realm of advertising, and that which is formally considered art.

Today, the M&C Saatchi Abel Contemporary Art Collection encompasses more than 120 artworks, and elevates the agency’s two campuses in Cape Town and Johannesburg from functional office spaces to galleries. From a highly covetable Mary Sibande photograph that depicts a domestic worker knitting a Superman cape, to a sparkly Rosie Mudge created from automotive paint and glitter glue, and a sobering acrylic-and-pastel tribute to the fallen miners of Marikana by Bambo Sibiya, the works co-exist in perfectly imperfect harmony.

Although there is astute business acumen behind many of the purchasing decisions, Mike is suitably irreverent when it comes to explaining his investment strategy. “Every year I set a budget aside – and then I blow it, every single time,” he says, laughing. “And while I invest too much in art for it not to be a diversified investment strategy, I never buy a piece solely for that purpose. If a piece calls me, speaks to me or chooses me, I simply have to have it. A passionate collector is always able to, as they say, maak ’n plan.” Strategy aside, the impressive collection adds unquantifiable emotional value and currency to the business of making advertisements. “Art and advertising share similarities and parallels because they both start with a clear, original and intelligent concept,” Mike says. “In addition, they are both a reflection of society at any given time.”

M&C Saatchi Abel

A work by Johan Murray, Figures by Cecil Skotnes, Still Life with Red Vase by Norman O’Flynn, Saturday Afternoon in Sunward Park by David Goldblatt, Remnants 5 by Thania Petersen, Conversation by Cecil Skotnes

He adds that the lines between art and advertising often blur because “so many ads are pieces of art – they challenge and confront; they push you to think”, while art also exists to stimulate debate, and to provoke thoughts, ideas and concepts. “I see this in action every day when clients, colleagues or agency staff stand in front of an artwork, wanting to engage in conversation about the message, the technique or the artist,” he says.

When it comes to considering a new addition, Mike first looks for the simple idea or concept behind it before assessing any technical skill. “Originality is key, and we like pieces that are inherently thought-provoking or clever, as opposed to trying to be that,” he says. “There are some highly rated South African artists who aren’t part of our collection because we believe their work is intentionally provocative, and lacks authenticity in its voice or message.” In his recent autobiography Willing & Abel, Mike explains why it’s no coincidence that the Saatchi name is inextricably linked with art. “One of the global agency’s co-founders – the C of M&C Saatchi – is Charles, the ‘artoholic’ founder and owner of the Saatchi Gallery in London, one of the world’s most famous homes of contemporary art.”

M&C Saatchi Abel
An untitled photo by Joshua Rubin, an untitled sketch, The Offering by Ruby Swinney, Between Grief and High Delight by Ilené Bothma, Waiting for Food Parcels by Themba Khumalo; (bottom row) Bayeza by Wonder Buhle Mbambo, After the Good Philosopher by Penny Siopis, The Position of the Artist Now, And Sculptors of Today – a two-piece wooden text work by Stuart Bird, Soup Kitchen by Marc Shoul, Venice by Gregoire Boonzaier; (on table, left) Specimen 9 by Luke Kaplan.

As a business that operates in the creative space, the agency is proud of the meaningful role it plays in supporting young artists. “We don’t just feature established artists – we are constantly on the lookout for the up-and-coming and the unknown,” Mike says. “Our growing collection represents various ideologies, social commentaries and perspectives from both South African and African artists.”

And the support doesn’t stop there. “We were involved in the initial stages of the Zeitz MOCAA, donating a gallery to the museum, and handling all of its branding and marketing pro bono,” says Mike. The art-loving agency also conceptualised collateral for the Norval Foundation when it first opened, and supports an HIV/AIDS orphanage in Khayelitsha with the aim of enhancing imagination and creativity in children.

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