Bester Background

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  • Biography
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Portrait of Willie Bester by Enzo Dal Verme

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.

The draadkar, a well-known toy on the African continent, is a wire car crafted from found items rejected as scraps.

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.

Township Scene, 1994

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.

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