Our exhibition of contemporary South African artist-potter Hylton Nel (b.1941) looks back on 60 years of practice through the lens of the artist’s iconic plates. Bringing together over 200 examples, including a selection of brand new, never-before-seen works created in response to Charleston, ‘This plate is what I have to say‘ is a ceramic explosion of joy, wit and storytelling.
For Nel, who first began experimenting with ceramics in the 1960s, his plates are a vessel for sharing stories and life experiences — no concept too large, no reference too small. His painterly, idiosyncratic and often humorous illustrations cover everything from global politics and religion to beloved pets, a favourite film or trip to the zoo.
‘I like classical stuff from the past, but I’m fascinated by living traditions which have transcended dynastic change, political change, and that still persist.’
– Hylton Nel in conversation with Michael Stevenson, 2003
The show is a fun and colourful glimpse into the artist’s mind, a snapshot of Nel’s imagination and worldview. Clay is the medium he has chosen to convey his ideas and though the humble plate may be small in size, don’t be deceived. ‘This plate is what I have to say‘ showcases the artist’s ability to convey a lot with a little, combining simple hand-painted elements — patterns, illustrations and writing — to powerful effect.
‘This plate is what I have to say’ marks the continuation of a long history of ceramics at Charleston — artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were avid collectors and Bell’s youngest son, Quentin, became a talented potter whose creations are still displayed throughout the house.