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 Associate Professor at the School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand.

Awards, residencies, commissions, exhibitions, curatorial work and publications - national and international - only hint at Nel's concentrated achievements within three 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. 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 increasing 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".