Reuben Manuel, A Man Waiting with his Dogs.
Reuben Manuel, A Man Waiting with his Dogs.
Image: Supplied

The importance of mentorship in the arts cannot be overstated. And while artists are, by and large, solitary creatures, the concept of art apprenticeships goes as far back as the Renaissance. Not only is it a vehicle to hand down skill, but it also serves to nurture the next creative generation.

Revered artist-potter Hylton Nel has, over the years, drawn together a collective of ceramicists in his home town of Calitzdorp. An entirely organic process, through which artists informally started to visit his studio and pick up a piece of clay to experiment with, it’s evolved into something of a community. “It came about by chance, out of the landscape,” he says. In his gentle guidance of Imeldo “Melvin” Wagenaar, Hannes “Basie” Gerhadus, Jacobus Frans, Mexicano Da Pointers, and Reuben Manuel, who have become members of the unofficial “School of Nel”, the artist has assumed the role of teacher (not for the first time — those in the know will be familiar with the work of his former mentee, the late Nico Masemola, who went on to great success as an artist).

Nel’s work, which spans 50 years and is instantly recognisable for its distinctive but diverse visual language, encompasses figurines, small sculptures, plates, and bowls, and touches on everything from political commentary (Barack Obama has various pieces dedicated to him) to art history and literature (often expressed via text). He’s known for his whimsical depictions of everyday life — cats are a recurring theme — and irreverent humour.

His unique style has made him wildly collectable, and now, at the height of his renown, he’s giving a space to this group of aspiring Karoo artists, each of whom has channelled aspects of Nel’s work into their own pieces. “Looking at the work of his protégés, you can definitely see the echoes of Hylton,” says Michael Chandler of Chandler House, whose Voorkamer Gallery hosted the first group show in January.

Hannes “Basie” Gerhadus, A Seated Monkey.
Hannes “Basie” Gerhadus, A Seated Monkey.
Image: Supplied
Hannes “Basie” Gerhadus, A Large Hare.
Hannes “Basie” Gerhadus, A Large Hare.
Image: Supplied

The artists are self-taught for the most part, with Nel’s studio serving as a creative incubator for them to explore the medium. “My role is mostly practical and technical, advising them on the position of a handle, helping them make the glazes, things like that,” he says. “It’s a muddled and fairly chaotic enterprise, but it moves along,” he says.

Nel has found witnessing the process rewarding. “For them it’s also a journey of discovery.” Additionally, for those who left school early, this endeavour presents an opportunity to earn an income. “I think they also enjoy the process of making something that didn’t exist before,” he adds.

Reuben Manuel, A Man Riding an Equid.
Reuben Manuel, A Man Riding an Equid.
Image: Supplied
Imeldo “Melvin” Wagenaar, A Cross-Legged Hare - Green.
Imeldo “Melvin” Wagenaar, A Cross-Legged Hare - Green.
Image: Supplied
Mexicano Da Pointers, commemorative mug inscribed with “Corona Virus Pandemic”.
Mexicano Da Pointers, commemorative mug inscribed with “Corona Virus Pandemic”.
Image: Supplied

While the artists have been inspired by Nel, there is no doubt a unique approach apparent in each of their work. “Some artists tend to keep within a certain theme — for example, Melvin is fond of rabbits who are often absorbed reading books, Hannes creates celadon-glazed animals who always seem cheerful and alert, while Jacobus’ works all include little lizards,’ notes Chandler.

Nel and Chandler hope that this will be an ongoing and sustainable initiative, with Chandler House hosting the works in Cape Town. 

 From the February edition of Wanted, 2021.

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