(1955 – )

Karel Nel

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.



Observe, Art First, London


Silent Thresholds, Art First, London


There But Not There: The Significance of Absence, Art First, London 


The Brilliance of Darkness, Art First, London


Lost light: fugitive images from deep space, Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg (solo)


The London Art Fair, Islington2005In the Presence of Leaves, Art First, London (solo)


Leslie Sacks Fine Art, Brentwood, Los Angeles (solo)

Ten Years of Democracy, South Africa National Gallery, Cape Town


Place, Galerie Asbaek, Copenhagen and Kastrupgardsamlingen, Kastrup, Denmark, Touring to Pretoria Art Museum and Oliwenhuis Art Museum, Bloemfontein, South Africa

Status of Dust, Art First, London (solo)


Status of Dust, Art First, New York (solo)


Art First at 10, Art First, London


The Shachat Art Collection, SASOL Art Museum, Stellenbosch, South Africa2000Volcanic Texts, Art First, London (solo)


Solo Journeys, Standard Back Gallery, Johannesburg (solo)

Claiming Art/Reclaiming Space: Post Apartheid Art from South Africa, Smithsonian, Washington DC

Emergence, Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts,, Grahamtown and touring exhibition


Divided City Installation, In Nearer than Bronze Exhibition, Sandton Civic Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa

Images of Paradise and Death, Leslie Sacks Fine Art, Los Angeles (solo)


Art ’97, The London Contemporary Art Fair with Art First1996Art ’96, The London Contemporary Art Fair with Art First1996View on the Inner House, Art First, London (solo)


Three Years On, Art First, London

‘Insights’, Wright Gallery, New York

‘Vita Art Today’, Johannesburg Art Gallery


Terminos Installation, Johannesburg Art Gallery for the Johannesburg Biennale

Common and Uncommon Ground, South African Art to Atlanta, City Gallery East, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

‘Art ’95’, The London Contemporary Art Fair with Art First

Isles and the Inner House, Leslie Sacks Fine Art, Brentwood, Los Angeles (solo)


Inner Province, Art First, London (solo)

Art ’94’, The London Contemporary Art Fair with Art First1994‘Artists Under the Southern Cross’, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Giholte-Baard-Breda Fonden, Copenhagen, with Doris Bloom and Marlene Dumas


Resident Artist, Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown

‘Art ’93’, The London Contemporary Art Fair, Islington

‘Affinities’, Contemporary South African Art, Venice Biennale (and Rome)


Institute of Contemporary Art, Johannesburg

‘Art Meets Science’, Grahamstown Festival of the Arts


University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley1991Three South African Artists: A Contemplative View, Midlands Contemporary Art, Birmingham


Recent Work, Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg (solo)


Valparaiso Biennale, Chile

Tapestries , Linda Goodman Gallery, and tour to South Africa National Gallery

‘Vita Art Now’, Johannesburg Art Gallery

National Drawing Competition Exhibition, Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown


Selections From a Century’, Johannesburg Art Gallery

Quite Lives, Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of Witwatersrand (solo)


‘Tributaries A View of Contemporary South African Art , BMW Exhibition, touring Germany and Europe

Cape Town Triennial

Paperworks Group Show (prizewinner)

Tatham Gallery, Pietermaritzburg Association of Arts, Natal

Recent Drawings and Guest Artist, Johannesburg Art Gallery (solo)


Cape Town Triennial (Gold Medallist)


Drawings, Olivetti Gallery, Johannesburg (solo)

Durban Arts ’801980‘Young Artists’, Olivetti Gallery1980‘Sculpture ’80’, University of Pretoria

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