Born in 1975, Nell is an Australian artist who works across performance, installation, video, painting and sculpture. Nell has a fascination with death rituals, in particular Haniwa, the Japanese tomb ornaments that were arranged around a burial site to protect the dead but also drive away evil.

Nell’s installation The Wake (2014–16) which was on display in the 2016 Adelaide Biennial: Magic Object, included numerous hand-built ceramic forms, some of which emulate Haniwa. Imbued with expressions of humour and sorrow, these objects are adorned with symbols that include lightning bolts, smiley faces and tears – symbols that are not only of personal significance to the artist but are understood across many cultures.

  • Nell’s objects have the ability to suggest double meanings such as ‘life and death’ or ‘happiness and sadness’ or ‘light and dark’. Find another work of art that is both ‘happy and sad’ or ‘light and dark’. Discuss your selection with a partner.
  • Using a piece of fruit as inspiration for your basic shape, create a hollow sculpture from clay. Exaggerate the features and add unique patterns or textures to give your object a personality of its own.
  • Nell’s work is imbued with humour and sorrow. They also reference our mortality. Find other examples where artists have used humour in their representations of mortality. Sketch your favourite work and annotate your drawing to communicate the artist’s approach.
  • In pairs, investigate the death rituals and funerary ornaments of four other cultures. What do these objects have in common?
  • Identify the symbols used in Nell’s work. What do these symbols represent? List where you have seen them before. Design your own symbol to represent the person you are.
  • Traditionally, the Haniwa hollow forms are intended to protect the recently departed in the afterlife. Create your own funerary object from either clay or soft material such as recycled fabric, stockings, foam and buttons. What will be the distinctive features of your sculpture? How might it protect you?

Japan, Kofun period 250-538 CE, Haniwa dog, c. 6th century earthenware, 34.8 x 50.4 x 21.2 cm, The Gwinnett Collection, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide