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Best Before: Artist Margaret Nel explores complexities of female identity, age and abuse of power in challenging exhibition
Posted on April 6, 2018.

Margaret Nel, Best Before II, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 150 cm x 75cm (diptych)

An exhibition of South African artist Margaret Nel's latest body of work, entitled Best Before, will be shown at the Oliewenhuis Art Museum from 19 April 2018 - 27 May 2018.

Comprising 27 paintings completed between 2009 and 2018, Best Before confronts the viewer with three investigations of the same theme: cuts of meat, baked goods and fresh produce, all depicted on an oversized, visceral scale. While these representations of packaged consumer goods may certainly be interpreted as contemporary still life, their scale and candidness encourage the viewer to assess the works on a number of additional levels.

Throughout the series, Nel chooses to depict her subject matter in relation to a thin membrane of plastic wrap, a now-ubiquitous material that has been associated with the packaging of edible items since the mid-twentieth century. Represented as either intact (and therefore sterile) or breached (and thereby rendering its contents vulnerable to decay), this film becomes an interface between an outer and inner reality, and a means for Nel to explore how sexualisation, abjection and the abuse of power inform the female identity.

Margaret Nel, Two Buns I (detail), 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 75 cm x 75 cm

In her studies of baked goods, Nel uses processed confectionery – and the packaging that encases it – as a representation of the paradoxical power and vulnerability of female sexuality. Here, glazed frosting and piped cream immediately call to mind female genitalia or breasts, as in Cream Bun (2014) and Two Buns I (2014) respectively. The plastic wrap, while ostensibly serving to preserve its contents, in actuality offers minimal protection against eventual violation.

For Nel, this tension speaks to the notion of paradisus amissus, where innocence – particularly that of the girl child, is irrevocably lost. When considered from the perspective of recent revelations of sexual abuse and harassment within the American political and entertainment arenas, these works take on even greater topical significance.

In the process of exploring baked goods as a metaphor for female sexual objectification, degradation and assault, Nel also began investigating how this theme might relate to the aging female in particular. By documenting confectionery before and after the effects of decay set in, Nel not only touches on the modern preoccupation with artificially prolonging and enhancing female sexual desirability, but also the inevitable process of ageing and ultimate rejection of the aged female from society. "Best Before I and II are the result of my investigations. Here, the baked goods are encased in plastic wrap, which serves only as a temporary shield against eventual decomposition. So too the body continues with the process of decay and death,” Nel says.

Similarly, Nel's explorations of raw meat serve to extract complex and contradictory responses from the viewer. The most visceral and challenging of the series, the still-bloodied cuts speaks of an earlier, unseen emotional or physical brutality, while the plastic and styrofoam serves to sanitise, commodify and even ritualise this violence.

Margaret Nel, Slab II, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 200 cm x 75cm (diptych)

Nel asserts that “many of these works use meat as a metaphor – in particular the juxtaposition of flesh before and after its protective sheath has been torn open. Slab I and II suggest physical violence that has led to death, the “slab” alluding to the mortuary table and post-death examination. They negotiate the nature of domestic abuse, which is a private type of an assault yet one which occurs universally, irrespective of class, age, race and even gender.”

This neatness of presentation also infers the ritualisation and mythologisation of flesh, especially on the African continent, and in particular, of the female body. As with her works depicting baked goods, many of the meat paintings are titled in reference to terminology used to infantilise, sexualise, undermine or objectify women.

The relationship between innocence and corruption is further demonstrated in Nel’s explorations of fresh produce, which perhaps represent the most subtle notes within the exhibition. Here too, bags of fruit are subjected to softening and eventual decomposition – often, within the very medium intended to prevent such processes. While works such as Bruised I may certainly be interpreted as contemporary renditions of Dutch vanitas paintings, they also powerfully express Nel’s concern with the covert nature of the abuse of power, whether sexual, emotional, physical or political.

Margaret Nel was born in 1945 in Johannesburg, and has been a practicing artist since 1970. She has held a number of solo exhibitions as well as participated in numerous group shows. Her work is represented in both corporate and public collections, including SASOL, ABSA, Rand Merchant Bank, the Universities of Stellenbosch, Pretoria and the Free State, as well as the Oliewenhuis Art Museum and Pretoria Art Museum, where she also recently presented a major retrospective.

For more information, visit Margaret Nel's website and Oliewenhuis Art Museum.

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