December 29 2011
“This is the everyday shelf,” says Moira Benigson, managing partner of global executive recruitment firm The MBS Group, in the kitchen of her north London home, pointing to a portion of her extensive art collection. “We use them every day.” For the pieces in question are plates – more specifically, plates by South African ceramicist Hylton Nel.
And this daily use of Nel’s ceramics is a habit shared by Cape Town gallerist Michael Stevenson. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years,” he says. “I don’t eat off anything else. It makes washing dishes a pleasure. It makes preparing food a pleasure. Your relationship with an object somehow transmutes all those other things.”
Nel’s ceramic objects span plates and vessels to sculptural pieces, mixing figurative illustrations with text, humour, colour and joie de vivre, and they are at the core of both Benigson’s art collection and her relationship with art adviser Michael Stevenson, who she first met in the mid-1990s.
“At the time, Michael had this beautiful gallery in an old Victorian church, selling really interesting things – paintings and African artefacts.” But, for some reason, her interest was piqued by a cupboard: “I opened it, and it was full of Hylton Nels.”
Both were already independently involved with the Karoo-based potter, and their mutual passion sparked a conversation. Then, in 2003, Stevenson opened a new gallery focusing on contemporary art and showing Nel’s work, and the conversation become closer, continuing today, largely via email, across continents. In one of their less-frequent physical meetings, the shared enthusiasm and respect for the artist and his work is palpable.
“I remember going to visit Hylton in the late 1980s,” says Stevenson, “and buying a plate from him for R30, which was the equivalent of £9. I used it until recently, when it literally fell apart. It was a beautiful plain green simple plate with incisions, and that’s where it started.”
Benigson, on the other hand, first met Nel in 1979, when he was a lecturer in her home town of Port Elizabeth, and soon made her first purchase – a vase she still uses. She bought her first plate shortly after. “I’ve collected them ever since at a rate of about 12 a year,” she says. And as a result, Hylton Nel plates (now worth around £300-£700 each) spread off the “everyday shelf” onto walls in the kitchen, living room and study (“This is where all the rude ones are,” she says, referring to the pieces adorned with playful phallic imagery), while vases and figurative pieces grace tables and mantelpieces all over. “This one weighs a ton,” she says picking up a green ceramic dog. “And it’s got lovely eyes.”
Three particularly treasured sculptural pieces are positioned high up on a shelf in the hall. She considers these works – a Madonna and child, a cat and a man holding a figure of Christ – to be his best, the Madonna above all. “I bought it in 1987 for R500 (then about £150), and my mother nearly went berserk,” she recalls. But Stevenson estimates it’s now worth around £12,000. “Michael and I beg Hylton for figures, as he doesn’t make them very often.”
If this doesn’t seem like your typical collector-adviser relationship, that’s because it isn’t. “Moira has such a strong connection to Hylton and the work,” explains Stevenson, “that I assist the process, but I’m not guiding it.” And the artist himself plays an unusually integral part too. Illustrating this, Benigson points to a landscape by South African painter Walter Meyer. “I told Hylton that I wanted a Walter Meyer,” she says, “and he turned up with this painting.” She shows me a photograph of Nel’s house, and it bears a striking resemblance to her own in the softly ramshackle décor.
“My house also has elements of Hylton,” says Stevenson, who also collects Nel’s work. “I always have reservations about dealers that collect, as it creates a conflict of interest,” he says. “But I can never resist Hylton. Generally, if no one else wants them, then I can buy them for myself. However, I went to Hylton about a month ago and he had created a new trial vase with wonderful notes written in the glaze... I just said, ‘No, I have to buy this. It will never get to the gallery for anyone else to buy, including Moira!’ But that very seldom happens.”
“But then,” says Benigson, laughing, “I’ve also bought lots of other things from Michael. There’s the African neck rests...” she says, referring to the collection of artefacts that line other walls in the study. “You bought a David Goldblatt photograph,” prompts Stevenson. “And a Pieter Hugo.”
There are some Louise Bourgeois monoprints in the hall and a text-based work by Brett Murray – a raised script that says, “I must learn to speak Xhosa” – nestled above the door to the dining room, but it’s a large, nine-panel photographic work by Yto Barrada in the living room that really stands out. Its direct, journalistic portrayal of an elderly woman who smuggles fabrics from Spain to Morocco is in stark contrast to the other more tactile pieces. “Yes, that’s the schizophrenic side of my collection,” she says. “I could get rid of all this here and start from scratch with works like this.”
And it’s in these pieces that Stevenson’s influence can be seen. “Here my role is more akin to the one a dealer usually plays in these things,” he says, “and Moira is curious to hear my thoughts.” Indeed, for Stevenson, Nel’s work seems at odds with the other artists he represents in his modern space. How does Hylton Nel fit? “It doesn’t,” he says.
Yet, although ceramics are often bracketed with the decorative arts, for Stevenson Nel’s work transcends this classification. “I see it as fine art,” he asserts, “because it’s about ideas over form and function. Even the simplest yellow bowl is a conceptual work; it’s an argument and a conversation.”
And it’s a conversation that continues and grows, back and forth from South Africa to London, veering from ceramics to artefacts to photography but, says Stevenson, “It all starts with Hylton.”