Karel Nel
Status of Dust
Exhibition 9 November 2003 ­ 22 January 2004
Main Gallery

Karel Nel is one of South Africa’s most distinguished and internationally respected contemporary artists. Based in Johannesburg, he is Associate Professor of Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand. His work can be found in every museum and public collection in South Africa. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C. acquired a major work in 1999 and in 2002 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, selected for their permanent collection Initiatory Site, a magnificent eight foot wide work from the Status of Dust exhibition.

Status of Dust is linked to notions of deep time and information encoded within the formless substance that for centuries has been used as a metaphor for birth and death, “dust to dust”. Nel focuses on the forensic nature of our time, and investigates site-specific pigments such as red ochre from the paleolithic period to the present, used in initiatory practices and in art within sacred or remote cultures. His fascination with complex analysis of matter continues his long-standing interest in the relationship between science and art, technology and perception. In a distinctive and powerful combination of the conceptual and the physical, Nel’s art engages in a concrete metaphysics; it deals with the interface between experience and its notation in some form of the ways in which we inscribe individual and collective consciousness into the material world.

Distilled to a primal minimalism, his sophisticated works have a rare and compelling beauty. Saturated in coloured pigments, using earth or red, black, yellow and white ochres, or even glassy volcanic sand from the island of Réunion where he is working on a long term environmental sculptural project, his palette reflects his nomadic journeying to both remote and highly urban regions around the world. Nel’s ‘canvases’ often constitute rare plant materials collected from distant locations, such as baobab fibre from Madagascar, or rare Tanzanian bark cloth made from the ficus ficus tree.

“I think of Karel Nel’s art as a redemptive aesthetic. It invokes all that historical time has long forgotten or withheld: the uncertainty of the earth, the earth as fabric and process, adjunct to secret recesses and supporter of shadows. This is also the ‘status of dust’.
His work pays attention to the sensational textures that form the perceptual base of place. Indeed, it is an art that is topological precisely because it avoids the easy reduction of nature into an image, and rather allows forms to surface like fossils from their natural matrix.”

Jessica Dubow
Extract from Status of Dust: A Profane Spirituality, A Radical Materiality in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition
Karel Nel is a former Fulbright scholar to the University of California, Berkeley, and has won numerous international awards, commissions and residencies. His expertise in the field of African art and artefacts is widely recognized and he consistently contributes to key publications in the field. He is an informal adviser both to The Metropolitan Museum’s Department of The Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, New York and to The British Museum, London.