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The 10 best living artists in South Africa. 2

By Andries Loots 20 February 2000

This week  artist Willie Bester is featured.

Willie Bester  ( 1956-  )

"I do not mean to say that peoples taste is bad, and that everything discarded by bad taste is good; what I mean is rather that scrap is probably a bad thing, but if you manage to work on it in such a way to make them look good, or at least interesting, you get less waste" - Andy Warhol 

'Willie Bester is one of the many artists who occupy an intermediate position between the verily stereotype polarities of the white, formally schooled artists with literary-philosophical learning's and the black, informally trained artist who depicts the reality of life under an apartheid regime. Designated " coloured " in South African official parlance,  he grew up in Montague,  a section of Cape Town, but was removed under the group areas act that segregated residential areas. His formal instruction was minimal - he spent a year at CAP ( Community Arts Project ), the major training centre for non-white artists in Cape Town. Although his subject is township life, he is far less literal and more inclined towards layers of interpretation than either the earlier " township artists" of the 60's or CAP poster artists working in the "straight resistance mode". Bester employ's the detritus of the street along with oil and watercolour in a collage-like format augmented by minute calligraphic figures and symbols.'

Contemporary African Art, Sidney Littlefield Kasfir,  Thames & Hudson, p.159

'Born in Montague in 1956,  this South-African artist works on the society debris digging into the history dump, with the same method applied by those who bring to light past civilizations. To Bester, archeologist of the present time, the most important thing is to reconstruct the connective tissue of history, taking again possession of the hidden sides of the township, where black people are mostly marginalized. From a closer view,  Bester belongs to that category of African artists who, as Achille Bonito Oliva noticed, "are looking over the huge dump of objects and forms in order to reconvert them into paintings, sculptures and installations. Without regressing to trivialization or claiming the copyright of an attitude of usage towards objects, but also without slipping into a cultural globalization."(1)

In Bester's artwork, debris, old pictures, scraps of papers, metal objects, as well as fragments of dishes, books, graffiti or cords from old suitcases are ground, with no claim of experimentation, as tangible signs of place and space within an authentic pictorial research.
Opposite to what used to occur at the time of historical avant-garde, the use of waste do not belong to the anti-art dimension but it is actually a structural part of an investigation, which acquires a vital energy through the use of material.

As far as Bester is concerned, life in its development directly enters the circulation, confirming that the township represents the physical place, but also the projection of our bad conscience, the marginalization place which the artist describes in a clear-headed way.

Taking possession of waste and scrap is, on the other hand, a rule of life for the South-African artist who lives in a house, which would be to the liking of Marcel Duchamp, and where the objects and furniture recycling becomes an independent style with its own precise persuasive strength. In such a way a BP petrol pump becomes a record holder and the chairs are made with boards from toilet bowls.

In the heart of the home environment we can see a continuous metamorphosis, a prospective distortion, which culminate in a meeting-contrast between different cultural worlds. All this takes up a particular meaning if we consider that Bester is a coloured artist, who is both politically and socially committed, always on the front line against apartheid, convinced that his work should be read not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also as a document of social character. 
"I am sometimes tempted to go to the seaside and to paint beautiful things from nature. But I do not do it because my art has to be taken as a nasty taste medicine for awakening consciences, "explains Bester, who refuses any reference to an easy decorativism, favoring an autonomous and authentically original expressive form. This is demonstrated by one of his most famous works, Tribute to Steve Bike of 1992, devoted to a black combatant killed by the police. This work could be read as a real programmatic document, where the political and ideological vein conciliate with a very effective stylistic research, which is characterized by broken images and which claims the spectator's attention because of its immediate and strong impact. Under this circumstance, the story develops through the ongoing overlapping of elements enlivening a dramatic and chaotic scenario with bloodstained target as its fulcrum, which has a clear symbolic value. 

Bester, therefore, creates a personal iconography, which imposes itself onto the spectator with the same intensity of a renaissance polypatch. He does not give in under the temptation of a generic international style and he does not fear to make use of art from a social viewpoint. In the exhibition The Edge of Awareness organized in 1998, for the 50th anniversary of the World Health Organization, the South-African artist had created another emblematic artwork, Poverty and racism, where the images of children groups are under thousands of objects, whereby broken toys, bullets, souvenirs for tourists or hospital products are part of a single, huge rubbish tip as a heavy accusation towards the western society, which bases its wealth by throwing away waste on the poorest part of the population.
Therefore, the use of waste or recycled material fulfils a specific aesthetic need and it is carried out through a committed art, which does not play the sublimation of death, or the embellishment of the ugly and bad, as it actually occurs amongst many fashionable artists in Great Britain or USA.
If the West aims at a make-up operation, which tranquillizes the conventional audience, Bester pushes the red button for alert and creates, in his works, an authentically dramatic anguish mixed with bitter irony. This procedure is applied on the great works of political significance, as in the township descriptions shown in Studio Raffaeili in Trento, where wooden and metal shacks are painted in artificial way, almost as to evoke an ideal destination for tourists in search of exotic places.

The make-up is, however, only an apparent one, and behind gaudy colours, openly advertising, the poverty of a mankind living at the world edge is hiding, which interests neither the media nor people but only for plunging into a sugary rhetoric.

The new artworks cycle now shown for the first time is of particular interest; it is dominated by a heavy iron frame becoming an instigating part of the painting. In this case, the procedure is reversed and the external structure completely modifies the perception by creating a continuous interference with the represented subject. Once again, the spectator is emotionally involved by Bester's works and experiences a sense of bewilderment and confusion, thus losing his typical points of reference. The hand of a soldier holding an aiming gun, a machine gun on a chair, three children on a wooden cart, a pair of spectacles on a chair.

These are some of the subjects described by Bester in his personal reportage about the township universe. However, these broken images, these details sometimes dramatic are exalted, I would say almost magnified, by big bolted iron structures, which could appear as hypothetical modern Stations of the Cross.'

1) Achille Bonito Oliva, Niente inciuci, siamo africani (No fiddling, we are Africans), L'Espresso, 30th April 1998,pag. 128.

Taken from Willie Bester, opere recenti " by Testo di Alberto Fiz, Studio d'Arte Raffaelli, Catalogue to the exhibition.


Willie is seen as one of the best achievers in South Africa at the moment with huge demand for his work Internationally and back to back exhibitions  planned for 2000 and thereafter in Italy,  Barcelona and the USA . His work is fetching high prices at International Auction Houses Sotheby's and Christies.