Karel Nel was born in 1955 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. He studied Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, St Martin’s School of Art, London and the University of California, Berkeley (Fulbright Placement 1988-89). He now lives and works in Johannesburg and is an associate professor at the School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. He has taught fine arts in the division since the early 80s. Nel is a respected collector of African, Asian, and Oceanic art with a particular interest in currencies.
Southern African material is his area of expertise, and he acts as an advisor to several national and international museums on their collections of African art. He has also been part of curatorial teams for major international exhibitions on early Zulu, Tsonga and Shangaan art, and has contributed to numerous publications on this material. He is interested in early Modernism in South Africa, with a particular focus on Preller, Battiss, Villa, and the Amadlozi Group. Nel is a practicing artist who exhibits regularly and is represented in numerous museums. He is well-known for large public commissions in both South Africa and abroad.
He has over many years been interested in the interface between art and science, and this ongoing investigation has led to his inclusion as artist-in-residence in the Cosmic Evolution Survey(COSMOS) project—one of the most comprehensive astronomy projects ever undertaken. COSMOS is a project that is involved in mapping galaxies and clusters of galaxies in a two-degree square area of the sky.
At the heart of Karel Nel’s work, Encounter of Circular Times, is a complex exploration of the interconnectedness of the material world with the spiritual and of the shifts and transformations that occur in between. It is an investigation of the relationship between sensory perception and inner vision and between aspects of the physical and the metaphysical, based on Nel’s interest in science and physics (and the instability of matter) in conjunction with various esoteric belief systems. This drawing does not present the viewer with a neat appearance of the visible world. Instead, it transcends notions of objective visual appearances and perceptions. Objects, spaces, and geometrical forms function symbolically and on multiple levels, furthermore, involved in the questioning of reality rather than solely a search for closure.
Visually, this is affected through the complex juxtaposition, interplay and layering of diagrammatic shapes, structures and motifs on a scale that effectively draws the viewer into the image. An ambiguous space is created here by Nel, one that is at once fragmented and in flux, yet at the same time a synthesis of seemingly opposing elements. This synthesis is reinforced by the dominance, in the center of the work, of circular, cylindrical forms and the rotating cone, which are recurrent motifs in Nel’s work. The circle, symbolically associated with harmony and unity, is further a reference to the cyclical nature of time (as inferred by the title).
The rotation of the cone seems to emit sparks, indicative of an energy field, referring not only to the energy resulting from the friction of matter but also to a process of transformation – the ‘forming principle’ of rotation alluding to the existence of a divine order. The warm colours of the cylinders and cone, implying luminescence, a life force, in combination with the cooler colours used in the background, create not only visual harmony but also allude to opposing forces – again symbolic not only of an outer but also of an inner radiance.
Ultimately, the viewer is presented with an image that is not only evocative, but also suggestive. What we experience when looking at Nel’s drawing is not a reality external to ourselves but rather a reality that is constructed in the process of our interaction with the work.