The reclusive and charming life of South African artist Hylton Nel

Hylton's Edge

By Chris Chafin

On a recent Saturday afternoon, artist Hylton Nel was sitting in his home outside Kalitzdorp, in the Western Cape region of South Africa, watching a celebrity murder trial and thinking about bikini waxes. What was troubling him, specifically, was a bowl he'd been working on, which was decorated with little figures, including a woman sporting only “what you’d call, ‘a Brazilian,’” he explained. But the more he thought about it, the less sure he was that it was a good idea.

“Say if someone puts some chocolates in there and offers them to a friend,” he continued. “And the one who picks up the chocolate that's covering the Brazilian might think, ‘Oh! I didn’t really want that.’ And so adding a triangle with the string around the waist could make everyone happy.”

Nel, who turned 73 this year, is known for his work in both of these areas: ceramics and designs that skate between whimsical, charming, mildly befuddling, and gleefully vulgar. His pieces, typically plates and bowls, but occasional expanding into figures, are decorated with a wild array of subjects. Recurring motifs include cats, partially clothed women, personalities from the news (several in recent years were addressed directly to Barack Obama), and pieces at some kind of ironic remove—like the a plate decorated with a painting of a vase, which is decorated with a painting of a young couple, contorted slightly beyond the limits of reality, but still happily holding hands. Nel is also not shy about putting a drawing of a penis on something.

“I don’t think I’m aiming to be funny,” Nel told me. “You know, just the way the brush moves; illustrations get sort of accidental expressions. And then I think, oh, this looks like so-and-so. I sometimes afterwards see the thing as amusing, but not at the time of making. At the time of making, I’m thinking mainly of drawing okay.”

Nel has the extremely dry sense of humor of the aging Commonwealth gentleman that he is. He playfully challenged me on my use of the word “discreet” at one point, during which I became sure I sounded like a moron. He occasionally had trouble hearing me, but seemingly only when I said something he disagreed with or found a bit dim, when he’d very kindly say, “I’m so sorry, but I just didn’t quite get that.” Later, he mentioned his love of Chinese culture, and I asked him if he’s interested more in classical culture, or if he keeps up with artists like Ai Wei Wei. After a pregnant pause, he said, “I’m aware of Ai Wei Wei, but I’m not quite sure if I could keep up with him.”

He is a classically trained artist, having attended art schools both in South Africa and Europe, beginning in the very early 1960s. He considered and rejected many other mediums before focusing on ceramics, most notably painting. “With painting,” he said, “I used to find it very difficult to know when a thing would be complete. It would always look like a work in progress to me, and just go on and on. But with [ceramics], I don’t have that feeling. It seems to me that there are some people that can do a sustained, long-time effort at something. Like, say, writing a novel. I have short bursts of energy, and so they’re best put into more immediate things.”

Hylton Nel © Hylton Nel; Photo © Mario Todeschini. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
Nel has a complicated relationship with his work. For many years, he simply did not hold on to much of it, selling or destroying virtually every piece he produced. “There’s often a brief euphoric period,” after finishing a piece, he explained, “when you think, ah! That was great. That was really great. And then a day, or half a day, or the morning passes, and you look at it again and you think oh my god.” But luckily for those of us who deeply enjoy his witty irreverence, the almost painfully modest artist admits that, “I’ve taught myself not to smash a thing until it’s been around for some months.”

After decades of selling this work to a rapt international collectorship, he’s now trying to hold on to more of it, and is perhaps beginning to see his work the way others do. “I used to send the things to market and just let everything go. But then I’d go to people’s houses and there would be these things,” of his, he said.  “And I would think, that’s nice. That’s really nice. With these things, they’re individual, so each is one of a kind. And if you let them all go, then you’ve got nothing left. You have the feeling of not being able to do it anymore. You think, oh, god, they’re all gone and I can’t do it anymore,” that he could never again produce that exact piece. In other words, confronted—outside the context of his own studio and artist's tunnel vision—with just how remarkable and unique his work is, Nel has been unable to resist starting a collection. It’s not hard for me to see why. But it's refreshing that the artist himself seems to be the last to know his own genius.

  • Text by

    • Chris Chafin

      Chris Chafin

      Chris is a Brooklyn-based writer who's contributed to publications like Rolling StoneWiredFast Company, and The Awl. He'd be flattered if you'd consider following him on Twitter