Since his appointment in 2004, Karel Nel has been the resident artist working with a team of the world’s foremost astronomers on COSMOS, one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken to map a two degree field of the universe. Much of Nel’s subsequent work has been informed by the ideas, insights, images and raw data issuing from radio, x-ray, infrared and optical telescopes used by the scientists in their research.
Nel joins the COSMOS team on their annual conference in different cities around the world, as they exchange their latest findings. In 2017 at the University of Tokyo, Nel delivered to the team a presentation entitled The Structure of Darkness which engaged ideas related to dark matter, dark energy and other powerful informing agents that shape our universe and which are also reflected in his art. In 2018, at the Copenhagen conference, the focus in Nel’s related paper was the visual and scientific conventions of representing the notion of vanishing points and their impact on what becomes the centre of attention while other objects remain on the periphery or go unobserved. This aspect of the investigation is broadly underpinned his drawings from 2008 onwards.
In 2012 Nel was an advisor, contributor and participant of the major exhibition “African Cosmos, Stellar Arts: African Cultural Astronomy form Antiquity to the Present” conceived and curated by Christine Mullen Kreamer at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C. Major sponsorship for this exhibition came from the Government of the Republic of South Africa and South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology.
Awards, residencies, commissions, exhibitions, curatorial work and publications - national and international - only hint at Nel's concentrated achievements within four active decades. His work may be found in public collections throughout South Africa, including the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, and the Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria Galleries. In the USA his work is in the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In the UK, his important work, ‘Potent Fields’ was acquired by the British Museum and presented in their ground-breaking exhibition, “South Africa: the art of a nation” in 2017. Key private collectors in South Africa the USA, UK and Europe increasingly seek out his work.
Although known as a collector and curator of African traditional and modern artefacts, and with a background training in sculpture, Nel's major artistic output is drawing. Working with pastel and richly coloured pigment on bonded fibre fabric, and also with a range of other materials such as ochre, volcanic glass, sand and 'dust' from significant places around the world, his use of rare materials onto which he applies pigment, has included Baobab bark fibre, bark cloth made from the ficus ficus tree, Pandanus leaves from Micronesia and giant leaves from the Coco de Mer palms of the Seychelles. Often created on a large scale (2 x 3 m), his art is at times rigorously abstract, or sometimes more representational, depicting objects and textiles from his collection, or structures and environments from his extensive travels.
A complex, sophisticated language has emerged which reflects his abiding interest in scientific phenomena and the rich relationship between art and science. In 1994 a contemporary South African poet, Stephen Watson, wrote cogently of Nel's work: "Of necessity, his art has had to follow the trajectory of an inner journey, trawling amidst the rich multiplicity of the world's cultural traditions, their rites and symbols, searching for that imagery which might connect our conscious lives with the deepest spiritual potential within ourselves".