pots, politics and the wisdom of cats

  • "for one thing, the act of making is an act of defiance and life" - tamar garb

  • professor TAMAR GARB On a table in the offices of his Cape Town gallery sits a selection of Hylton Nel’s...
    professor TAMAR GARB 

    On a table in the offices of his Cape Town gallery sits a selection of Hylton Nel’s ceramics. They have been arranged, casually, by Mark Barben, so that I can view them before they are packed and sent to The Fine Art Society. The arrangement is fortuitous: placed in a circle is a council of cats, presiding over a colourful array of plates and bowls, each inscribed with words and images that read as quotations and citations from a dizzying array of sources. Not all of these will end up in London. Nor will they be arranged like this when they sit on the walls of the Fine Art Society. But something about their unceremonious placement and disregard for the protocols of gallery display brings the curious conjunction of cats and pots into vivid and unlikely conversation.


    The cats appear imperious and grand. Bearing sundry expressions, they look down on the pots beneath with varied and distinctive expressions. Some seem grumpy and rude, others benevolent and kind. With their mottled surfaces, brightly painted and glazed to indicate if not mimic the variegated patterns of fur, they defy all expectations of verisimilitude. Instead, they seem like story-book animals: pointy-eared, round eyed, whiskered and weird, they bring an array of precedents to mind. Supreme amongst these are the cat-deities of Ancient Egypt, where the animals were so revered that they were often mummified and preserved, even appearing as cat-heads placed on human bodies to represent female gods. For Nel, the reverence for Dynastic Egypt goes back to his early reading of historical fiction like the novels of Joan Grant, published in the 1930 and 40s, with their romantic tales set amongst Pharoahs and ‘priests’. In these books, assorted felines, from lionesses to African wild-cats populate the narrative, testing and taunting the human characters in knowing and often manipulative ways. But there is nothing solemn or sententious about Nel’s cats. If they are wise, it’s in the manner of T.S. Elliot’s cats with their ability to both embody and reflect upon human affectation and pride [1]. Practical and resourceful, the cats in Eliot’s panoply seem invariably aloof and savvy, looking on at human foibles with a degree of scorn and indulgence.

  • For Nel, like Elliot, cats are both surrogates and soothsayers. He has spoken of their role as human substitutes, 'as... For Nel, like Elliot, cats are both surrogates and soothsayers. He has spoken of their role as human substitutes, 'as... For Nel, like Elliot, cats are both surrogates and soothsayers. He has spoken of their role as human substitutes, 'as... For Nel, like Elliot, cats are both surrogates and soothsayers. He has spoken of their role as human substitutes, 'as...

    For Nel, like Elliot, cats are both surrogates and soothsayers. He has spoken of their role as human substitutes, 'as both portraits and self-portraits', which allows him to avoid ‘being blatant’ or literal in his suggestion or satirisation of people [2]. Instead the cats provide a form (moulded, glazed and decorated) through which multiple personalities are performed. They sit, paws propped on miniature books or decorated platforms, so that they cannot be safely identified or named. And yet collectively they appear to watch over an imperfect world, with a knowing and curious stance, much like the artist/potter himself.


    The cat functions as both a curiosity and an ornament. Long used as a form for decorative sculpture and ceramic figurines, cats serve, for Nel, as ‘regular things’, objects that enable him to squeeze his queer sensibility into a tradition that has a recognisable genealogy and lineage [3]. At the same time they allow for a certain pointed  and irreverent humour. This is not only to be found in the expressions and quirks of the cats. Sometimes it is worn as a slogan or text that cuts against the cuteness and kitsch (Nel revels in the dangerous flirtation with the sentimentality and sweetness that the cat bibelot inevitably invokes) and provides the space for a political or polemical assertion.


    Consider for example Prayer Cat (2013) an elegant pink creature, seated on a floral encrusted plinth, emblazoned with an unlikely refrain . Written across its neck and chest are the words ‘Prayer for Good Governance’, followed by the epigram ‘A fish stinks from the head’. The first is a cry from the heart that Nell has used repeatedly since the mid-1990s when, in the heady days of the transition from Apartheid to Democracy, he inscribed it on the bases of a number of multi-hued male figures [4]. The second is a piece of folk wisdom that seems to speak directly to the rot of contemporary corruption and the failure of political leadership, whether at home or abroad. Now, the prayer seems like an innocent, somewhat futile hope given what the cat seems to know: that a great stink has been emitted and it stems from the very top. Inscribed on the stoneware tabby, with its comic book features and compact body, the words, scrawled in Nel’s familiar hand, appear to balance faith with failure, but never to resort to despair.

  • For one thing, the act of making is an act of defiance and life. Nel has been making things in clay since at least the 1960s, and with an increasing sharpness of wit and satirical slant so that his figures and pots have become vehicles for observation and critical commentary. In their very form and shape they testify to a hand-made attachment to histories and traditions of making. The cats, for example, are pressed in slabs into concave moulds, joined together to make their characteristic shapes, and then adapted with individuated appendages as well as add-on bits and bobs. Once fired, they are painted and glazed so that each has its unique if contiguous character. The plates and bowls use convex moulds which provide a basic shape that is then inscribed, pinched, pulled and textured, so as to form the base for images and texts. The processes are tactile and labour-intesive. And it is in the act of building and baking, painting and glazing that a connection to the world (and its multiple pasts/technologies) is felt. The connection is palpable and real. As Nel says, making things with a recognizable lineage is a way of ‘fitting in’ and being a participant in the shared cultures and histories of the world.

  • And yet these pots and plates, fit for a king or a cat, provide platforms for more than their ornamental...

    And yet these pots and plates, fit for a king or a cat, provide platforms for more than their ornamental antecedents might suggest. They are both functional and decorative (like much pottery), offering hospitality to food and suggesting the rituals of conviviality and company. They love to be used, held and shared. Often sexualized in reference and shape, they speak to human appetites and pleasures. But each bowl and plate, once shaped and set, like the Prayer Cat, acts too as a surface for poetic or polemical inscription. Sometimes it’s a matter of birds or insects, flowers or figures, usually extracted from a traceable source: a newspaper, a painting, a print, a pattern. At other times, it’s a matter of words, whether in the form of private salutations and epistles or quotations drawn from literature and popular culture. Headlines, aphorisms, slogans and sayings are carefully chosen and applied, regularly referencing contemporary events and political controversies. Nel is attracted to pithy phrases and punchy lines. It’s often the poetry of placards and posters that appears: ‘Three Unforgettable Weeks in Gaza’, ‘Don the Con is Gone’, ‘Commission of Enquiry into State Capture’. It’s the phrases as much as their popular resonances that appeal. No ordinary commemorative plates, these vessels play ironically with the reverence and deference of such historical objects, with their official insignia and memorial messages. But here the plate is no official piece of memorabilia or propaganda. Instead it becomes a personalized platform for protest and exposé, drawing from the language of the street and the ‘news’.


    Veering from the high-minded to the vulgar, from the celestial to the everyday, Nel populates his world in a radically democratic and unhierarchical way. There is no creature or word too trivial or banal to make its appearance on a plate or a pot. Figural referents range from Renaissance prototypes to lewd graffiti. Both seem equally rich and true. And the cats, curious, knowing and aloof, appear to look on, cyphers of wisdom and witness, themselves culled from history and clay. Not quite deities or fetishes – they are too funny and iconoclastic for that – they nevertheless appear quite separate from the world they survey. At once ornaments and oracles, pieces of high culture and kitsch, they scramble and destabilise our categories. And there’s certainly a politics in that.  


    I am deeply indebted to many years of conversation with Hylton Nel, to his generosity and hospitality, as well as his willingness to explain and engage.


    [1] Nel acknowledged his affection for T.S. Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) in a conversation with the author, 15th April 2021.

    [2] See Michael Stevenson, ‘Introduction’ Hylton Nel: For Use and Display. The Fine Art Society, 2017, np.

    [3] Nel makes this point to Stevenson: "They are also a kind of shape that has been used as an ornament for a long time. From another perspective, being gay is a sort of minority position and at some levels one is not quite what one should be, and so another reason why I make cats is to try and fit into the world because such ornaments seem like regular things." ibid.

    [4]Prayer for Good Governance was the name given to Nel’s show at the Fine Art Society in 1996.