Willie Bester was born in the town of Montagu near Cape Town in 1956 to a Xhosa father who was a migrant labourer and a mother classified coloured. Under the Apartheid laws,Bester was classified ‘other coloured’ because his parents were defined as a mixed race couple. His siblings, were classified as black and registered in the name of their father, Vakele. Under apartheid law, mixed race families were not allowed a home in the “Coloured” areas of Montague. The only lodgings available to migrant workers, in Montague as elsewhere, were single-sex hostels in large compounds behind high fences. Therefore, the only circumstances in which the family could be together during Bester’s childhood was to live in informal accommodation in other people’s back yards.
Bester displayed his talents early in life when as a young boy, he began making toy cars out of recycled wire, which was common enough among children at the time. However, Bester’s wire cars were covered in metal and expressively decorated. He began experimenting with painting by the time he was seven.
Although a promising student, Bester dropped out of school after the ninth grade to help the family economically by making and selling shoes and crafts. However in his late teens, Bester, like many other unemployed youth from the townships and rural areas at the time, were “drafted” to the Eersterivier Cadet Rehabilitation Center for a year, where they were forced to do army-type of training . There however, he was introduced to painting as someone gave him art materials. (Ref)
The racism he experienced in the apartheid army and the real consequences of the war he witnessed, influenced him deeply and was to have a decisive impact on his life. He was forced to confront the racial self-hatred that was engendered by being part of the apartheid army, fighting his own people. (Ref)
After working as a dental technician’s assistant for 15 years in Cape Town, at the age of 30, Bester was drawn to his childhood love for art. In 1982, he held his first solo exhibition. His early work were street scenes and landscapes.
He began to attend part-time classes at the seminal Community Arts Project (CAP) in District Six in 1986. In the context of the heightened political resistance of the mid-1980s, Bester found an intellectual home with the community of socially committed artists he began to associate with. He began to express his developing political conscience through his art. As part of this collective of artists, Bester played an active role in the anti-apartheid movement.
At CAP, Bester honed his technique and developed his characteristic use of mixed media to express his political views by using a combination of photographs, paint and found materials in layered symbolism By the late 1980s, Bester began to achieve a measure of success as an artist and he turned professional in 1991. Bester emerged as one of South Africa’s most important resistance artists. He is recognised internationally for his ground-breaking anti-apartheid work. (Ref)
Since its invention by Picasso and Braque in the period of Synthetic Cubism,the rubbish collages of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters and the early Pop assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg, representation of the real world through the combination of found objects, is a theme that has been explored many times. However, opposite to what used to occur at the time of historical avant-garde, his use of waste material do not belong to the anti-art dimension but it is actually a structural part of the themes that he explores. He uses found objects to form an integral part of the social statements he makes through his art and so forms a personal iconography.
His art works are a combinations of found objects which he gathers from the very townships he depicts. Willie sees rubbish dumps as symbols of the community in which he lives. (Ref) Just as people often regard those living in the townships as rejects of society, his works in themselves symbolises the falseness of that perception. To show people that something unexpected, something valued can come from what is regarded as rubbish, he assembles his art works from it. His works also comment on everyday life in the township of people in the Western Cape.
Before he joined the Community Arts Project in Cape Town, in 1988, he was painting and creating artworks in the Western art styles. He believed that art meant depicting the natural surroundings. He was unaware at that stage that a message could be created through a work, especially a political one. He wanted to further his art studies, since he knew from a young age that he wanted to create art, but he found that most art institutions were reserved for white people only.
At CAP, his fellow students were expressing themselves and their feelings about Apartheid. Like many South African Artists of the time, they were actively involved in the political struggle against Apartheid, creating posters and having discussions on issues beyond the borders, such as the cross border massacres of the SADF. It was within the that environment that Bester realized how he could contribute to anti=apartheid movement through his art. His special focus was on the townships and the lives of the people in it.
Characteristics and Themes
He became known for his signature mixed media creations, using scrap materials – acquired from local dumps – combined with the use of oil paints and photographs, often taken by himself. Over the years, Bester enlarged the scale of his compositions and started using a greater range and variety of discarded material to build up surfaces and increase the sense of spatial extension. These technical developments were accompanied by a growing concern to record the complex experience of township life and his own history within it. His works are all linked, because their subjects, if they are not themselves set in the environment of the Western Cape townships, are invariably represented in that context.
Bester’s conscious use of these materials is a homage to his past, and the many compatriots who find creative ways to house themselves and to survive. With these, he expresses the textured themes of his work, which include forced removals, township life, gender oppression and the brutalisation of South African society. (Ref)
He uses the leftovers of the society he depicts in order to retrace the political history of South Africa. Like an archaeologist, Bester reconstructs the fabric of this history to reveal the hidden faces of the South African township. His works are vivid collages, juxtapositions of odds and ends, of rubbish found in the townships: shoes, bones, tin cans, newspaper clippings, pages of books, scrap metal. (Ref)
“People have built up a resistance to anything that addresses the psyche of mankind or people or themselves. I believe that we must protest against that which is wrong. There is no form of escape; remaining apolitical is a luxury that South Africans simply cannot afford.”(Ref)
In more recent years, Bester has explored contemporary themes arising from the challenges of post-apartheid South Africa such as crime, greed, poverty and corruption. For him, resistance to apartheid was fundamentally about humanity and human rights, which he continues to be vigilant about.
“What I try to get behind is why it is so difficult for people to change from their old ways. It hasn’t worked out the way I imagined. People who thought they were superior before haven’t really changed. I try to find out through studying history what gives people the right to think that way. I try to find a solution, not to be disappointed, to reach an understanding. The Truth Commission seemed to be one of the answers, but now I find that even the Truth Commission is a trap. It has done more damage than good, because the ANC was favoured over the Afrikaners. I want to do a series about it.”
Over the last decade Bester’s focus has shifted to combine fresh conceptual directions with familiar themes and materials. His latest works consists mainly of waste metal and other debris of industrial, agricultural and domestic activity. His art fuses new ideas into works that comment powerfully, occasionally humourously, on diverse socio-political issues, some global, some uniquely South African.
Bester for example uses a technique of creating see-through constructions in order to magnify inner worlds which is exemplified by Bly uit Oortreders sal geskiet word. A galvanized petrol can is flayed open like an anatomical model. An intricately wired interior world suggestive of an electrical station, a computer or a petrol pump is contained and exposed by a glass barrier. This inner world is guarded by a doll dressed as a watchman, obviously Caucasian, probably made in China for consumption by children in the so-called West. It stares at the viewer through an ominous threat in Afrikaans, as a comment on the global oil-based technology and its social impact. Through this work and other works in his ‘Metalized’ (2005) exhibition, Bester examines some of the power dynamics that are currently at play in the new South Africa. He questions the state’s concern with maintaining a balance between freedom and security in works that are conceptually dense, while presenting us with intimate depictions of people struggling to be free. (Ref)
Small metal tiles and objects are fused into a remodelled and reshaped “skin .” Utilitarian objects are re-contextualised into relief works or monumental freestanding figures with forceful messages, for example, the Security Guard so familiar to anyone accustomed to the South African urban life. While the figure’s uneasy stance, sideways glance and partially exposed skeletal frame of cogs and bolts convey an underlying tension, indicative of profound and complex paradoxes in capitalist society.
Bester is a strongly intuitive colourist whose painting remains as clear and incisive as ever. He still works in a grass roots environment where, in many ways, little has changed. This is why his comments on society’s ongoing injustices, like abuse of women and children, continue unabated. Metal is a powerful medium conveying a powerful message. His painted panels, contrasting so strikingly with the galvanized metalwork, combine almost seamlessly in the constructions, adding a world of socio-political inquiry. His unique way of combining painting with sculpture acts as a silent metaphor for the unique ways in which Willie Bester straddles the worlds of high art and every day life, never losing sight of socially sensitive concerns.
A major part of all Bester’s works to date are the found objects he gathers from townships near his house and includes in his collages. The discarded materials are rich in symbolic meaning, and Bester creates an original iconography from the most varied and unlikely sources. He uses a motley array of objects such as machine parts, old sacking, sticks, various tin cans, sheep bones and wire netting. These objects are chosen not only for the way they convey the texture of the townships, but also for their symbolic significance which he discovers within them
The materials themselves are very significant. Bester often includes newspaper photographs and text to illustrate a work. However, because the photographs and text are from a newspaper, they also illustrate that what is depicted is a newsworthy event. Bester also often includes photographs that he has taken himself. The meaning of these pictures is more representational, but they show that the artist was present in the environment, and shows his personal identification with the events photographed.
Bester pays minute attention in equal measure to conceptual visualization, selection of parts, physical construction and final finishing of his works. Current political or social incidents provide the impetus for him to visit his “art shop “, a local scrap yard, where he spends days selecting every detail for the “anatomy ” of his planned subject. Back in his studio in Kuilsrivier the pieces are carefully laid out on the floor before building begins, usually from the feet up, ensuring a strong substructure. As the work proceeds, balancing metal forces, dictated by the laws of gravity, unite into form and idea. (Ref)
When a sculpture is complete, it is transported to an industrial galvanizing plant where it is galvanized to prevent future deterioration. Having worked in the international art world and dealt with major museums and collectors around the world, Willie is aware of conservation concerns for artworks in collections and therefore expends much time and care on the final finishing of his works.
Analysis of His Works
As a part-time student at the Community Arts Project in Cape Town in 1988, the blatant attacks on the Apartheid system in the work of his fellow students, was an eye opener to him. The critical environment of the art school inspired him to produce two works, Forced Removals and Don’t Vote, that protested the injustices of the Group Areas Act and the racial composition of the apartheid voters’ roll. The medium that Bester chose to express these themes of protest was a collage of waste material and conventional artistic forms that has since become his hallmark. The success of these first explorations with “mixed-media collage” and in the physical and symbolic use of township waste, encouraged Bester to pursue his career as an artist.
In Forced Removals, Bester depicts a scene common to many township and squatter camp residents during the Apartheid era: the forced removal of people from their makeshift or permanent homes at the hands of the government. The removals were usually sudden and violent, with police and soldiers entering the townships. This was often a very painful and emotional time for those families forced to leave their homes with only the possessions they could carry. Townships such as Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six in Cape Town are two examples of flourishing communities that were completely destroyed by the Apartheid government. (Ref)
The focus of the composition is the bright yellow bulldozer in the process of destroying District Six, with callous disregard to the inhabitants feelings. The bulldozer in itself becomes a symbol of the brutality involved in the destruction of a once thriving community. Bester uses photographic cut-outs for the two people standing behind the bulldozer, which brings the reality of the situation home to the viewer. They appear to be in a state of shocked numbness. By using photographs of actual people Bester effectively brings home the message that forced removals wasn’t just some distant event in history that affected anonymous people, and personalize the suffering the inhabitants experienced. To the left, a man appears to attempting to salvage some possessions, and one gets the feeling that that the bulldozers did not even wait for the the people to remove their possessions.
Bester treated the rest of the painting as a realistic painting of township life and in doing so, the viewer feels even more poignantly that soon the bulldozer will destroy the colourful scene forever. The bulldozer becomes not just the focal point of the painting, but also a disturbing element in what would otherwise just be a depiction of a street scene.
At the bottom right hand corner Bester enigmatically stenciled the words “Made in England,” giving a visual impression that it could be part of an old packing crate found on a rubbish dump. This use of stenciling is both reflective of the reality that the scene will soon just be rubble, a rubbish dump and perhaps also a comment on the economic system itself. Like Bester’s other works, Forced Removals may be read both across and below the surface, and he successfully combines the subject matter with a richly textured whole within the resonance of its symbolic content.
Four of Bester’s works from 1993 are dedicated to victims: two record the sufferings and privations of ordinary South Africans, and two commemorate assassinated political leaders. Bester wants all of these subjects to be understood as casualties of a morally bankrupt system. Institutionalized poverty and systematic degradation created an entire population of oppressed people.
These paintings, and the series of which they are part, reflect a change in the direction of Willie Bester’s art, from his early work, and may be said to represent scenes of life in the townships as illustrations of the effect of a generation of apartheid laws. While these works appear to draw on this experience in order to celebrate the indomitable spirit of the oppressed people of South Africa, his early paintings consist of individual scenes of township life represented realistically with the several techniques at his disposal, these are symbolic in content and in pictorial structure.
This series from 1993 are composed through the combination of many different scenes and events which may or may not be realistic representations in themselves, but focus around the principal theme. This pictorial language allows Bester a more direct voice in the work, through which he express fragments of his own biography and his strong feelings about the issues he is addressing.
Beyond thematic coherence, surface unity is assured by the use of distinct color combinations and the related techniques of scattering anonymous stencil marks and dribbling pure colors throughout the length and breadth of the painting. An exploration of the depth of Willie Bester’s works involves the literal re-creation of perspective distances through the media of photography and illusionist painting, and the forward extension of these fictive spaces through the incorporation of three-dimensional objects on the surface.
Another strategy that Bester employs is to translate imagery from photographic sources – his own or newspaper reproductions – into the medium of paint. The people he represents in this manner, who are usually the principal forms of the painting, appear to gain significance in the process: shifting from an anecdotal reality that is defined in terms of time and space, they acquire a kind of symbolic status.
These paintings celebrate the lives and achievements of their principal subjects. But the artist makes clear that these lives have been led under the most dehumanizing circumstances: apartheid South Africa systematically degraded its oppressed people and eliminated their leaders. Bester makes these points not simply by illustrating in his unique way the appalling conditions in which huge sections of the population are obliged to live, but also through the use of symbols.
The system of racial classification is referred to by images of both Pass books and, metaphorically, machine parts that spew out the rigid identities into which South Africa divided its population. The scattering of stencil numbers and lettering throughout the works suggests the arbitrary methods of classification and the reduction of human individuality to ciphers. Similarly, the tin cups that form such a consistent feature of Willie Bester’s iconography relate through their numbering to this sense of reduced humanity, but they extend this idea by evoking the Cup of Gethsemane. The necessary acceptance of suffering that is suggested by this reference is communicated in a slightly different way by the many musical instruments that Bester uses in his work. Beyond their several suggestions of social harmony and vitality, the guitars and other instruments are intended to illustrate the Afrikaans expression “Jy sal moet dans soos die musiek speel,” which translates roughly as “You have to dance as the music dictates.“
In Migrant Worker, Bester shows his concern for the conditions in which migrant labourers were forced to live in Apartheid South Africa, and that after years of work for a company, they received no pension and no prospects for a secure retirement, reflective of his personal experiences in a family whose father was a migrant labourer.
Analysis by Michael Godby and Sandra Klopper
Semekazi, the subject of Migrant Labourer, had retired from construction work but continued to live in the township of Crossroads in order to support his wife and four children in the Transkei. He had no house or even room of his own in Crossroads but simply rented a bed in a hostel for R6 a month. When he applied for a pension from the construction firm for which he had worked for many years, he was told that he was listed as dead and therefore was not eligible. To supplement his monthly state pension of R60.74 for himself and his family, Semekazi collected and sold scrap materials in the township. He was murdered by gangsters six months after Bester completed this commemoration of his life.
Migrant Labourer is primarily about the life of Semekazi, but it also records the life experiences of all migrant laborers. The central motif of the painting is Semekazi’s bed, which doubles as a prison for the man looking out from behind it. A lock and chain connect the bed to a Bible at the bottom right, a reference both to Semekazi’s religious convictions – he used to give R5 to his church every month – and to the fact that South Africa claimed to be run on Christian principles. The irony in this reference is underlined by the Bible’s proximity to a second book seen to the right of the bed: a replica of Semekazi’s Pass book. Fearing prosecution and police harassment, Semekazi continued to carry his Pass book even after the Pass laws were repealed in the late 1980s.
To the left of the bed and above the Pass book are two panels representing Semekazi’s wife and four children, whom Semekazi would dearly have loved to have with him in Crossroads. The indications of rural life at the top of the composition are separated from these portrait figures by an undulating row of numbered cups. These cups refer both to the Agony in the Garden and to the fact that people are rendered anonymous through the systems of discrimination and abuse entrenched in apartheid. The roller and ink pad for fingerprinting serve to reinforce this idea.
Throughout the composition, Bester makes reference to the two worlds that Semekazi used to inhabit: the rural and the urban. The rural world from which he came is symbolized through the inclusion of buck horns and sheep bones, among other things. The urban world in which he lived at the end of his life is represented in crowd scenes, the industrial landscape of chimneys and guns, and mechanical clamps. The clamps double as handcuffs. In motifs like these, Bester conflates images of industry with the idea of imprisonment. In his view, Semekazi was a captive of the industrial landscape because he never had the prospect of a secure retirement with his family in the Transkei.
Footnote: migrant labourer: a migrant labourer is a term given to people who live in another nearby country to the one they are employed in. They receive no financial benefits and have to live in hostels (usually single-sex) while they work. This prevents them from seeing their families for long periods of time. When the government created the homelands within South Africa, such as Swaziland and Bophuthatswana, they were legally living in another country. These homelands generally had no resources of their own, so the black men would have to cross the borders of the homelands and work in South Africa to earn money, as migrant labourers. Their benefits by law were thus reduced to a minimum.
The focus of this work is anti-apartheid activist and hero Steve Biko, who since his death in police custody (12 September 1977), has been a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement. His death shortly after the Soweto uprisings served as a rallying point both internationally and locally for the anti-apartheid movement. Throughout the Tribute to Steve Biko Bester placed images relating to his death.
On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock ( featured to the left of Biko) under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 .
He was interrogated by officers of the Port Elizabeth security police including Harold Snyman and Gideon Nieuwoudt. This interrogation took place in the Police Room 619 The interrogation lasted twenty-two hours and included torture and beatings resulting in a coma. He suffered a major head injury while in police custody, and was chained to a window grille for a day.
On 11 September 1977, police loaded him in the back of a Land Rover, naked and restrained in manacles, and began the 1100 km drive to Pretoria to take him to a prison with hospital facilities.
He was nearly dead owing to the previous injuries. He died shortly after arrival at the Pretoria prison, on 12 September.
The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head, which many saw as strong evidence that he had been brutally clubbed by his captors.
Then Donald Woods, a journalist, editor and close friend of Biko’s, along with Helen Zille, later leader of the Democratic Alliance political party, exposed the truth behind Biko’s death
The target with scattered numbers found in both Tribute to Steve Biko and Tribute to Chris Hani represents the Apartheid system’s propaganda that portrayed the people’s leaders as villains; individual human beings, with all their complex experience and history, reduced to statistics for exploitation and disposal.
Tribute to Chris Hani (1993)
The central image in this work is an animated portrait of Chris Hani, the Secretary-General of the South African Communist Party, who was assassinated on Easter Saturday, 1993. Bester used photographs from newspapers to depict the circumstances of his death – on the left his murderer is shown, the Polish immigrant Janus Walusz, and on the right comrades grieving over his stricken body. Other media images in the top right hand corner show the six day mourning period that was declared in Hani’s honour, and the outbreak of violence and anger that Hani’s death unleashed. Bester has included his own feelings regarding Hani’s death by the burnt state of the wood of the central panel. However, the focus of the work is on commemorating Hani’s achievements in the battle for peace in South Africa.
The bicycle tire around the portrait of Hani represents a laurel wreath. Bester has successfully managed to bring the original meaning of the tire that has become debased through political abuse. By using the tire, Bester knew the form might very well evoke images of the fearful “necklacing” practice (see “necklacing”). However, he was determined to restore it to its original connotations of transport, labour, progress and union activity. The tire is inscribed with the valediction “Hamba Kahle” (Go Gently), and the fateful words that Hani uttered in a television broadcast a few days before he was killed: “I’ve lived with death for most of my life. Nobody wants to die. I want to live in a free South Africa and I’m prepared to lay down my life for it.” Because the wheel can have industrial connotations, it could also suggest Hani’s socialist beliefs, which are further indicated by the red colour of the sky behind his portrait and in the hammer-and-sickle emblems.
Hani’s desire to abandon the armed struggle and to fight the system through the organisation of labour is shown by the AK-47 overlaid by the dove, and by the industrial forms among military apparatus on the right side of the painting. In the bottom right-hand corner there is a figure of a miner, who symbolises this struggle. His torchlight in his helmet illuminates a bank note that represents gains in wage negotiations. The crosses in his goggles refer to the appalling accident record of South African mines. The guitar in the bottom centre of the work stands for a number of things: it shows social harmony and the regimentation of life under Apartheid. The yoke symbolises the continued state of subjugation experienced by the majority of South Africans.
In this work Bester is both celebrating Hani’s achievements and criticising the violence in South African society. The target on the left of the central image shows how this leader was created into an enemy of the state by government propaganda. The balaclava-clad killer and the “Top Secret Hit List” on the right represent the culmination of the campaign of vilification. The numbers scattered across the target indicates the process of dehumanising a person in this way. Individual human beings, with all their complex experience and history, are reduced by the system to statistics for exploitation and disposal. The central image of Chris Hani shows that he resisted this process through the powers of conviction and courage. This portrait shows Hani at the head of a march – one that was actually protesting his death – and appearing to represent the demands of the people to the viewer.
The event that occurred on October 15th 1985, which came to be known as the “Trojan Horse” incident, took place in the coloured residential suburb of Athlone near Cape Town. Police forays into black areas were being met with strong resistance such as barricades of burning tires, stone-throwing and ‘traps’ dug into the road. The people simultaneously demanded “Troops out of the townships.” In an effort to punish stone-throwers, police hid in crates on a truck and had the truck driven up and down a busy thoroughfare in Athlone. Eventually people began throwing stones, and immediately the police burst out of their crates and opened fire. Moments later three boys lay dead by the side of the road. The youngest was Michael Miranda who was 11 years old, on his way to the shop when it happened. Bester also had a strong response to the “Trojan Horse” incident. He felt that the situation was “as low as you could get” since the tactics the police were using were ancient (as is the Trojan Horse story) and showed desperation on their part to convict the stone-throwers involved.
Bester created a series of three sculptures about the Trojan Horse Massacre with Trojan Horse III being the last in the series. Unlike Trojan Horse 1 and 2, which evoke the feel of African scrap metal toys as a reminder of the child victims, Trojan Horse III is made from parts of cars and motorcycles that Bester has transformed from scrap metal into a naturalistic animal. Characteristic of Bester’s works, the materials he uses are significant in themselves. The parts used to create the horses are in itself symbolic of the symbolism of the Theme. His particular visual vocabulary of forms, focus the attention on the transformation of flesh and blood into dehumanised cogs.
The ‘Trojan Horse 3’ is made of ‘violent’ material, including bombshells and machine guns, all related to the ‘Trojan Horse Incident’. The use of metal gives this sculpture an aggressive, industrial look. The choice of material emphasizes the horrible rationality in which those policemen, in cold blood, performed this crime. First danger hides, but then it appears surprisingly and causes an explosion of loss. (Ref)
Bester originally asked permission from the South African police to use decommissioned Kalashnikov rifles; to signify the smuggling of arms on the African Continent, but he was politely and firmly told that they were all to be melted down.
The life-size horse consists of a motorbike motor for its belly, to give it its general structure. There is a machine gun protruding from the top of the back, symbolising the guns that came out of the truck containing the police.
The drips refer to the people who were injured by this exercise. They also represent the dying mentality of Apartheid, with many of the white Afrikaners at the top of the country trying desperately to keep the system alive, as if they were drips to a dying person. A Bible is chained to the horse, and the tail is made of strips of rubber, which police used to whip people.
The horse appears aggressive and naked, revealing all its bones and raw muscle, as the Apartheid system is now being exposed for what it was.
Bester’s work charts the dramatic social and political developments in South Africa over the past 25 years. His account of social change is not idealistic. Instead, he continues to address issues of corruption and Government accountability in the new South Africa.
Contemporary Art Collection , Jean Pigozzi
Donvé Lee, Willie Bester: Art as a Weapon
Michael Godby and Sandra Klopper, Art of Willie Bester, African Arts, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Winter, 1996), pp. 42-49+104
South African History Online
South African Resistance Art
The South African Cape Corps in Defence of – DISA
Willie Bester in die Eikestad