The imperfect perfection of ceramicists Hylton Nel and Nico Masemola



The Sphinx looks at the viewer with a smirk of bewilderment and defiance. It has none of the apathy and impenetrability that we have come to associate with these mythological creatures. On the contrary, ceramic artist Hylton Nel Sphinx (estimate 12,000 – R16,000) is 69 Summer of Love-meets-Mattel more than ancient Greek mythology.

This sculpture – a being with a human head and the body of a lion – is enamelled in a rich pistachio green and adorned with cornflower blue patterns with delicate daisies woven into its impressive mane.

This creature does not guard the temples and harbors of ancient cities, nor does it question weary travelers with cryptic puzzles in exchange for a passage. It is much more likely that he crouched outside the Temple of Aphrodite making dirty jokes with courtesans or inhaling hallucinogenic fumes in Delphi when the Oracle turned his back on him.

that of Nico Masemola Black and white spotted bull (estimate R12,000 – R16,000) looks like an Nguni version of the Cretan bull that the Greek god Poseidon gave to King Minos, but regretted giving it later when his wife Pasiphaë fell in love with it. Masemola’s bull is a manly and generously endowed specimen completed in 2015, the year of the artist’s death.

Sphinx and Spotted bull will be part of Strauss & Co’s next live virtual auction on Tuesday 9 November in Johannesburg. Entitled “Perfectly imperfect”, it is exclusively devoted to the ceramic sculpture of Nel and Masemola. “Strauss & Co is delighted to present this selection of wonderfully original ceramic sculptures by Nel and his protégé, Masemola,” says Wilhelm van Rensburg, Senior Art Specialist at Strauss & Co.

The collection pays homage to the spooky and ironic aesthetic of the two artists. Renowned Calitzdorp-based ceramist Nel is the influential mentor of a new generation of talented young sculptors. Masemola, a former Nel apprentice, has been the most successful so far and was one of the most commented artists in Strauss & Co’s successful ceramics showcase in November 2020.

This uniquely owned collection is a wacky ‘cabinet of curiosities’ stretching back to the sources of art history, literature and popular culture – it’s a mix of wobbly vases, smiling dogs, felines smiling, buff beasts and higgly-piggly houses. “This eclectic fascination can be attributed to the influence of Brian Bradshaw, Nel’s professor of fine arts at Rhodes University in the 1960s, a romantic and extremely passionate person,” says Van Rensburg. Bradshaw received a grant from an American institution which he used to create a cabinet of curiosities filled with Greek and Etruscan figurines and ceramics, and a host of other items of interest to students.

“Nel also has extensive knowledge of Chinese porcelain and ceramics and I think all of these influences fostered his unique experimentation and sense of adventure with ceramic sculpture. They are “perfectly imperfect” works, ”according to Van Rensburg.

After Rhodes University, Nel studied ceramics at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. After graduating he moved to London where he worked as an artist and ran an antique store with his partner. He returned to South Africa in 1974 and settled in Bethulie, in the south of Freestate.

Nico Masemola drifted into Nel’s studio when he was thirteen. He wanted to learn pottery and Nel was keen to teach him the basics – making mugs. But Masemola was interested in more complex and challenging shapes, and the result is the charming menagerie we have come to associate with the artist – rabbits, dogs, bulls, lions and horses. Nel is also fond of animals, her favorite being cats, and they frequently feature in her work in various wacky forms.

In an interview with Michael Stevenson, the representative of the Nel gallery, the artist describes himself as an “artist-potter”, rather than as a ceramicist. He’s not too confused by the terminology or the “average snobbery”. “There is the hierarchy of materials – we know that oil on canvas is serious, or bronze is serious, but I have always been quite happy to work in this field (pottery or ceramics), which is not serious in the sense that the oil on canvas or the bronze is.

Stevenson noted that in the age of industrially produced perfect shapes, Nel’s work still had a roughly hand-hewn quality. “Well, I couldn’t, I couldn’t do perfect things,” Nel insists. When he tried perfect shapes he described it as “a form of torture … I couldn’t make them perfect, but I still wanted to do them, and so I just do them – not deliberately distorted, they just came from. this way.

“My old teacher Brian Bradshaw used to say, ‘Do whatever you want to do. At first, it won’t be very good, but with training, it will get better ”.

Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg Auction Week continues on Tuesday, November 9, 2021 with two sessions devoted to ceramic sculpture by Hylton Nel and Nico Masemola, and owned by Professor Jan K Coetzee, respected scholar, sociologist, collector, writer, amateur of art and artist.

Works for sale can be viewed in Strauss & Co’s dedicated exhibition space at 89 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg. Covid-19 regulations apply. The Johannesburg Auction Week begins at 10 a.m. on Sunday, November 7, and continues on Monday, November 8 and Tuesday, November 9, 2021.

To view the lots up for auction, or to register to bid, visit


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