Archive

A life of art

August / September 2019

Words by Garreth van Niekerk  Photography by Elsa Young

ABOVE  Mudhif, named in memory of architect Norman Eaton and artist Alexis Preller and inspired by the traditional reed structures of the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq, is Johanneburg home and studio of the artist and curator Karel Nel.

Few private homes figure so prominently in the story of South African art as that of curator, educator and artist Karel Nel. The Modernist structure, known as The Mudhif, has become iconic for its place in the imagery of Karel’s life and work. It is also the space where the artist’s collection of African and Oceanic art is housed, resulting in The Mudhif becoming a sort of museum for those with an interest in the field. 

Karel grew up on the property, which is located in the quiet Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia, and it’s here where he began collecting and cataloguing objects as a young child. When he and his sister took over the property from their parents some years ago, Karel began work on what would become a semi-enclosed house and studio space built around a large, dark pool. The structure is reflected in its waters as a series of shallow barrel vaults held up by thick mud-coloured walls and large sliding doors that stack away unobtrusively, allowing the interior to flow freely into the articulated courtyard.

London-based architect Dexter Moren worked closely with Karel, and designed the building to incorporate a series of treasured Zanzibari doors. The largest and earliest of these was collected in the 1930s, while the remaining four were bought in 1945 by the Modernist architect Norman Eaton. On Eaton’s death in 1966, two of the doors were bequeathed to artist Alexis Preller, who built his own mudhif to house them, referring directly to the ancient tradition of the reed guest houses created by the Marsh Arabs of Iraq.

Preller died before the doors were ever installed, and they were auctioned off and disappeared from knowledge. Then, many years later, Karel tracked them down, and they became the inspiration for his studio. This is where Karel prepares for his exhibitions, surrounded by a collection of historical, sacred objects made by artists from around the world. In light of this collaborative energy, we wanted to see how Karel’s closest colleagues and friends view his home, in order to better understand its importance. Fashion designer Marianne Fassler and visual artist Joni Brenner share their thoughts and memories with us.

ABOVE  The view past an 18th century Zanzibar door towards the library-guest room reveals an ebony Lamu throne stepped back in an alcove, a daybed designed by Allan Schwarz and a bale bush-cow mask.

 

BELOW  African and Oceanic objects stand on a platform in the lobby entrance, in front of photographer Richard Cutler’s leather-bound library.

ABOVE  The view past an 18th century Zanzibar door towards the library-guest room reveals an ebony Lamu throne stepped back in an alcove, a daybed designed by Allan Schwarz and a bale bush-cow mask.

ABOVE African and Oceanic objects stand on a platform in the lobby entrance, in front of photographer Richard Cutler’s leather-bound library.

ABOVE African and Oceanic objects stand on a platform in the lobby entrance, in front of photographer Richard Cutler’s leather-bound library.

Marianne Fassler

‘I remember when Karel lived in a tiny room in his parents’ home, which is still on the property. He has been a collector for years, but I had no concept of just how much he had accumulated until it was “revealed” in the larger space.

‘My overriding memory is not necessarily the bricks and mortar of the building. It is the warmth and glow of the long dinner table, and the delicious vegetarian dishes Karel conjures up in his all-black kitchen. I have many memories of the conversations around that table, of the collection of people who stay over on those Eames day beds. They are scientists, astronomers, photographers, protectors of apes, and collectors of stones and stars.

‘Karel has an eye and a heart. I remember when he acquired the entire library of a friend fallen on hard times, and installed it in the entrance of his home. I remember the times we cried, the times we bowed our heads and the times we laughed and celebrated. I remember the giant leaves, the single frangipani flower, the sprig of prunis in a vase. I remember the solitary futon, the Eileen Gray screen, the altar around the bed, and the thought of astral travelling while dreaming in this bedroom.’     

‘I have many memories of the conversations around that table, of the collection of people who stay over on those Eames day beds. They are scientists, astronomers, photographers, protectors of apes, and collectors of stones
and stars.’ – Marianne Fassler

ABOVE LEFT  A collection of Oceanic currency objects.

ABOVE  The brightly lit barrel-vaulted kitchen in black was designed by Heidi and Selwyn Arenstein of Future Classics.

ABOVE  In the library, two Chinese Ming hardwood chairs flank an 18th century Dogon Toguna post from Mali.

ABOVE LEFT  A collection of Oceanic currency objects. ABOVE  In the library, two Chinese Ming hardwood chairs flank an 18th century Dogon Toguna post from Mali.


LEFT  The brightly lit barrel-vaulted kitchen in black was designed by Heidi and Selwyn Arenstein of Future Classics.

Joni Brenner

‘Karel’s home is a potent site of co-existence: plants, trees, leaves, animals, objects, artworks and the narratives of all their makers and custodians through time are comprehensively enmeshed in the thoughtful life of Karel Nel. ‘Identified by specific trajectories, storylines and the pathways along which they’ve travelled, each object encapsulates a set of relations that weave Karel and his vision into a broad community of past and present artists, designers, dealers, collectors, historians, writers, palaeo-scientists and astronomers.

‘The giant Senufo guardian bird sculpture was bequeathed from the personal collection of the African art dealer Vittorio Meneghelli, and other impressive works of art joined this home when Esmé Berman, Phillip Tobias and Egon Guenther died. These objects and their creators continue and are again enlivened here through the mind and vision of Karel Nel. ‘So, in different ways, each object represents lines of life and loss, change and continuity.’

RIGHT  This view of the library reveals the Schwartz daybed, a Tutsi milk screen and an overflow of books stacked on a Nagashima bench.


BELOW  Works by Karel lean against the working wall of the studio – lounge, a space punctuated by tall Pacific pieces and a long refectory table that doubles as a dining table and a work surface.

BELOW  This view of the library reveals the Schwartz daybed, a Tutsi milk screen and an overflow of books stacked on a Nagashima bench.

BELOW  Works by Karel lean against the working wall of the studio – lounge, a space punctuated by tall Pacific pieces and a long refectory table that doubles as a dining table and a work surface.