houses, art

At Home With Artist And Curator Karel Nel

Artist Karel Nel's home and studio are – like one of his mesmerising works – alive with emblems and icons assembled over the course of his life and travels.

Elsa Young
Karel Nel | House and Leisure
Works by Karel Nel 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 work surface.

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 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 Mudhif becoming a sort of museum for those with an interest in the field. 

Karel Nel | House and Leisure
An 18th century Zanzibari door welcomes visitors at the entrance to Karel’s studio.

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 it was subdivided on his return from Berkeley in the USA, Karel began work on what would become a semi-enclosed house and studio space built around a large, dark pool.

Karel Nel | House and Leisure
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 the Johannesburg home and studio of the artist and curator Karel Nel.

The resulting structure is reflected in its waters as a series of shallow barrel vaults held up by thick mud-coloured walls, with large sliding doors that stack away unobtrusively, allowing the interior to flow freely into the articulated courtyard.

Karel Nel | House and Leisure
The view past another Zanzibari door towards the library-guest room reveals an ebony Lamu throne stepped back in an alcove, a daybed designed by Allan Schwarz, and a Baule bush-cow mask.

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 acquired 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. 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.

Karel Nel | House and Leisure
African and Oceanic objects stand on a platform in the lobby entrance, in front of photographer Richard Cutler’s leather-bound library.
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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 of Karel Nel's home with us:

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.

Karel Nel | House and Leisure
The brightly lit, barrel-vaulted kitchen was designed by Heidi and Selwyn Arenstein of Future Classics.

‘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 people who stay over on that Mies van der Rohe daybed. They are scientists, astronomers, photographers, protectors of apes, and collectors of fossils and stars.

‘Karel has an eye and a heart. I remember when he acquired the 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 projected consciousness and inner journeys while dreaming in this bedroom.’

Karel Nel | House and Leisure
Alexis Preller’s oil, ‘You Will Never Know’ (1971), forms a backdrop to a collection of stone lingams from South East Asia, placed at the foot end of Karel’s sleeping platform.
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Karel Nel | House and Leisure
The view into the bedroom’s courtyard, a pair of Digby Hoets vessels and a stool by Pierre Chareau are positioned beside Karel’s bed and an Eileen Grey lacquer screen.

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.

Karel Nel | House and Leisure
In the library, two Chinese Ming hardwood chairs flank an 18th century Dogon Toguna post from Mali.

‘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.’ 

Karel Nel | House and Leisure
This view of the library reveals the Schwarz daybed, a Tutsi milk screen and an overflow of books stacked on a Nagashima bench.

View a video tour of Karel Nel's home here:

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