Clay Formes Contemporary Clay from South Africa_Art Formes_Hylton-Nel_ceramics

biography

HYLTON

NEL

B.1941

A SCRIBBLY KIND OF HOUSE

fig. 1. RECLINING MERMAID IN BLACK DRESS (2000)

South African Ceramic Artists_Contemporary Clay_ART FORMES_Hylton Nel

Small towns and cities are the constellation points scattered through the life and career of self-described “artist-potter” Hylton Nel. He first felt the cold press of clay beneath his palm in Kimberly where he went to school, and in Makhanda, while studying Fine Arts at Rhodes University, his experiments grew in ambition and scale. Nel graduated in 1963 and lived abroad, studying in Antwerp, before moving back to South Africa in 1974 where he migrated between Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Gqeberha. In 1991, Nel moved to Bethulie in the Free State, becoming a mentor to the late ceramic artist Nico Masemola. Nel has been living and working in Calitzdorp, a small town in the Karoo, since 2002. The artist has a penchant for seeking out far-flung spaces, an ability to withdraw from the clamour of the world and find a quiet space from which to work through the material of life – the people, poetry, politics, sex, comedy and tragedy that charge his work. Nel’s prolific body of work has travelled widely to institutions around the world, including the Jewish Museum in New York, Gl. Holtegaard in Denmark, and The Fine Art Society in London, to name a few.

HYLTON NEL

B.1941 (N’KANA, ZAMBIA)

A SCRIBBLY KIND OF HOUSE​

Hylton Nel spent much of his early life on a cattle farm in the Northern Cape. A childhood game involved painting pictures on pieces of eggshell after the geese had hatched, and hiding them in secret places on the farm. This furnishing of the land- scape with a transient self-made culture – an attentiveness, an insistent delight in the view from the margins – is a thread one might follow throughout the artist’s practice. “One day [my grandmother] asked each of us to draw a house and she would say which was the best,” recounts Nel*. “My cousin drew a very neat linear house and I drew a scribbly kind of house. My grandmother chose my cousin’s as the best, and I burst into tears. She tried to comfort me by saying, ‘Never mind, you were not meant to be an artist’. This was no comfort because I thought I was meant to be an artist. So I just cried.” The gleam in the harsh farm landscape is gathered and painted and scattered repeatedly across Nel’s unconventional art student youth, in the ongoing isolation of queer identity, and in social and political turmoil across three-quarters of a century. It is getting used to the handwriting of one’s own trajectory – scribbly, uncompromising, benevolent. This is the work of the “artist-potter”: life lived in the scribbly kind of house, life made liveable, learning to live in it, eating off the plate of it. Nel’s ceramic world is populated with plates, bowls, figures, and vessels – forms which have travelled a long way, laced with centuries of making. Informed by a deep appreciation for art history, Nel has spent much of his life collecting treasure – a life of refuge in beautiful, often historical objects. His Calitzdorp home is filled with dynasties of Chinese ceramics, busts from Antiquity, neolithic jade, 19th-century Italian marble and Victorian Staffordshire. These references slip into Nel’s work in unexpected ways: the brushstrokes of Chinese Swatow ware or traditional Chinese painting have been playfully abstracted, floating amidst turquoise glaze, count- less figures of youthful red-lipped Madonnas (with child), aroused male nudes à la grecque, and biblical scenes that have been squashed within the confines of a bowl.

“Nel has been expressing himself through the medium of clay for almost 60 years. The surfaces and forms act as windows into the artist’s mind – a questioning, contemplative, playful, restless place. For Nel, no idea is irrelevant and no form is nobler than the other.”

fig. jo roets, SPINAL ENCHANTMENT #3 (2022)

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Clay Formes

contemporary clay from south africa

CLAY FORMES is the first of its kind: a survey of contemporary clay from South Africa. This volume, through exquisite photography and literary essays, showcases multiple generations of living South African artists, each innovating the potentialities of clay and ceramics. This publication offers enthusiasts and collectors a glimpse into the studios of thirty important South African artists and opens a window into the complexity of each body of work, revealing the richness of both contemporary clay and ceramic tradition within South African art.

Clay Formes Contemporary Clay from South Africa_Art Formes Book

This publication has sought to reflect its subject: to be as fluid as water and as weighty as earth. All this is done in the hopes of leaving behind a fresh approach to this manifold medium, and of presenting to the world the previously unexplored richness of sculptural clay in South Africa.

Dedicated to contemporary clay and ceramics from South Africa. The first publication of its kind, published by Art Formes. 

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