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Artist Margaret Nel exhibits over four decades of work in major retrospective
Posted on August 10, 2017.

Margaret Nel | Mrs. A | Acrylic on canvas (91.5 x 61.5cm)

A major retrospective exhibition by South African artist Margaret Nel will be shown at the Pretoria Art Museum from 15 October 2017 until 28 January 2018, featuring a selection of over 70 paintings, spanning a career of over four decades. The exhibition will be opened by renowned art historian, consultant and curator Warren Siebrits on Sunday 15 October 2017 at 11:00 for 11:30.

The exhibition has been designed as a narrative across five inter-related themes, loosely corresponding to different chronological periods of Nel's output, dated between 1970 and 2017. The themes demonstrate progression in technique, subject matter and influences within Nel's career, while simultaneously tracing common conceptual motifs running through her entire body of work.

Margaret Nel | Failed Flight from the Stricken Land (1993) | Diptych | Acrylic on canvas (200 x 150cm)

Nel's early professional output was primarily shaped by two sources of influence, both of which were current at the time of her student training - Francis Bacon's figurative response to post-war existentialism, and the emergence in the 1960s of Nouvelle Figuration as a reaction to American Pop Art, abstraction and Nouveau Réalisme.

These early works, completed between 1970 and 1976, are characterised by the use of the abstracted figure as a means to suggest the effects of societal isolation, emotional withdrawal and mental debilitation. These silent, nameless players are forever caught at the margins of relevance, in a no-man’s land of their own - and others' - construction. In certain works, such as Two cups (1974) and Mrs A (1974), there is the inference of a social invitation, the terms of which are unclear or perhaps even threatening. With the 1970 New Signatures Prize for painting being awarded for Tea time I, and again in 1973 for Mr S, it became evident that figurative work would remain a primary vehicle for Nel to express themes of psychological distress and isolation.

Having won critical acclaim with selected early work, Nel's output lapsed for nearly a decade - a hiatus that only ended in 1988 after viewing the work of Penny Siopis and Keith Dietrich at the Cape Town Triennial of that year. A period of great productivity followed, shaped by Postmodern tendencies towards compositional complexity, eclecticism and socio-politically charged commentary, with much of Nel's work addressing marginalised feminist and environmental identities.

Margaret Nel | Exposed: Willem 28 (detail) | Acrylic on canvas (60 x 80cm)

In works such as Regina of the famished land (1992), To you shall be given (1992) and Waiting for the Renaissance (1998), the barren landscape acts as the common stage upon which a recurring cast of players make bids at self-preservation: a makeshift shelter, a crudely demarcated claim to privacy, a futile attempt at escape. While these works can be read as a response to issues of displacement and power pertinent to the time, including South Africa's uncertain democratic transition, the Burundian and Rwandan genocides of 1993 and 1994, and the first wave of global warming awareness, they bear equal relevance to current global concerns around statelessness and immigration.

Post-2000, Nel turned to the use of crockery as a still-life motif stereotypically associated with domesticity and feminine identity. While Nel's early and Postmodern work frequently features the tea cup as a recurring symbolic device, these later renditions present these vessels as fractured, fragmented, overturned - suggestive of some earlier violence, either physically or psychologically inflicted. In Spill (2009) and Stain (2009), the spillage and subsequent stains resulting from this disturbance seem to imply a loss of control or perhaps, even that of blood. This inference is especially relevant in light of the national increase in, and normalisation of violent crime, especially that of sexual assault, since South Africa's political transition in 1994.

Returning once more to figurative subject matter in the mid-2000s, Nel specifically focused on skin laid bare to the elements, as a metaphor for psycho-emotional or physical vulnerability. Exposed skin, and the trauma inflicted upon it by the effects of the sun or the cold, alludes to a lack of preparedness for existing, or perhaps forthcoming, adverse conditions. These inadequate attempts at self-preservation possibly point to a premature transition from an Arcadian age of innocence to a state of worldliness and disenchantment - whether sexual, political or emotional. In Exposed: Willem, 28 (2006), Nel presents a charged figurative study, the subject's sunburnt skin echoing a sense of anxiety and unease.

Margaret Nel | Slab II | Diptych | Acrylic on canvas (200 cm x 75 cm)

Nel's latest body of work is distinguished by three investigations of the same theme: cuts of meat, baked goods and fresh produce, all rendered on an oversized, visceral scale. Either encased (and therefore preserved) or breached (and thereby vulnerable to decay), these works represent a conflict between an outer and inner reality that immediately forces the subject matter out of the mould of "still life".

In works such as Bleed I (2014) and Slab II (2015), her explorations of meat call to mind the carcasses of Rembrandt and Bacon; only here, blunt-force brutality is sanitised and commodified with plastic and polystyrene - alluding, perhaps, to the mythologisation of flesh and ritual apportioning of spoils. Her representations of processed confectionary, heavy with glazing and piped cream, such as Two buns I (2014) and Custard buns 6s (2015), inherently call to mind female sexual organs, either preserved from, or poised for, the processes of decay. This tension between the cleanliness and corruption of flesh is also demonstrated in Nel's explorations of fresh produce, which too succumb to softening and eventual decomposition.

Nel's work is housed in numerous public, private and corporate collections, including the Universities of Stellenbosch, Free State and Pretoria, and the collections of SASOL, Telkom, ABSA and Rand Merchant Bank.

Attendance of the opening event is free of charge, and RSVP confirmation should be sent to by 1 October 2017. The Pretoria Art Museum is located on the corner of Francis Baard and Wessels Streets, Arcadia, Pretoria, and is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday between 10:00 and 17:00.

More information is available at

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