‘Much of my drawing and environmental artwork explore the external and internal phenomena we call reality and, in my work, I draw on both artistic and scientific ways of making the world.’ Karel Nel
Wayfarer, Mudif, Johannesburg, 2004, 2005, forms part of a series of drawings by Karel Nel shown on his 2005 London Exhibition titled, In the Presence of Leaves. This series of works constitute a breathtaking body of drawings that are elegies for our times: tributes to the beauty and symbolic value of trees and their threatened position through environmental exploitation.
Nel has travelled extensively to remote parts of the world, collecting some of the largest leaves in existence. From the famous Coco de Mer palms on the Seychelles to Baobab fibres found in Morandava in Madagascar, and the Pandanus leaves of Rabal, New Island, in Micronesia, these exquisite specimens have been taken to Nel's studio in Johannesburg to become the very substance of his investigations into nature and the ecological conundrums of our time.
Nel says, ‘Leaves have always struck me as such remarkable structures. They have the ability to produce nutrition from sunlight, and their forms clearly reflect the radiant nature of their purely contained and diffuse energy fields. For they have been a model for me of the sacred, purposeful and non-wasteful life that continues quietly without partaking in the violent food chain of consumption upon consumption. They are nonetheless flamboyant, while transitory and cyclical, with transcendent inevitability in their life cycle.’
In Wayfarer, Mudif, Nel draws the vast leaf of the coco-de-mer palm of the Seychelles in his studio, Mudif, in Johannesburg. Two wooden stools of the Asante people of Ghana stand before the leaf as testament to the enforced exile of Asantehene (king) Prempe I to the Seychelles by the British in the late nineteenth century.
Wayfarer, Mudif, evokes the simple life on North Island, a beautiful until recently uninhabited island in the Seychelles where over the past years Nel has explored and had the opportunity to work for specific periods. With a lean-to made of a huge palm leaf for shelter, and later in the exquisitely designed structures by architect Silvio Rech, he scoured the great palm forests of the island observing plants, birds, fruits and hundred-year-old tortoises.
After complex negotiations with the Seychelles Ministry of Environment, Nel was able to harvest three vast coco de mer palm leaves to accompany him back to his studio. These were transformed into a magnificent series of large drawings that describes a natural luxuriance. The leaves are set in atmospheric, elemental architectural spaces. Reflected in the works is Nel's meditative approach to the natural world: to its temporal dynamics and the lines, points and relations where art, science and biology meet.
Nel is one of South Africa's most distinguished and internationally respected artists. He is Associate Professor of Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand, travels extensively and is a renowned collector and curator of traditional African artefacts. He is a former Fulbright scholar to the University of California, Berkeley and is the winner of numerous awards, commissions and residencies. His work may be found in most museums and public and private collections in South Africa, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and in the British Museum, London.
Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, Lost Light: Fugitive Images from Deep Space, Karel Nel, 12 April 2007 – 26 May 2007.
Art First Contemporary Art, London, In the Presence of Leaves: Karel Nel, 13 September 2005 - 13 October 2005.
Chris Spring (2008). Angaza Afrika: African Art Now, Cape Town: Francolin Publishers. Illustrated in colour on page 229.
Karel Nel and Emile Maurice (eds.) (2007). Lost Light: Fugitive Images from Deep Space, Johannesburg: Standard Bank Gallery. Illustrated on page 35.