Willie Bester
Interrogating the gap between us

Text by Ruzy Rusike

Dog of War, 2020, Mixed media, 235 x 178cm

For Willie Bester, the personal is political, and being apolitical in South Africa is a dangerous luxury that should be avoided. Utilising a cross-section of artist mediums such as mixed media, sculpture, painting and installation art, his art forms much of his protest. His anti-Apartheid activism is evident in his work, as is his more contemporary focus on decolonising the South African collective mind. Therefore for him mixed-media acts as the line between reality and imagination, in the sense of bringing an idea or a narrative that was repressed back to life. Abruptly this interchange between the two ‘worlds’ becomes the relationship that is very much dependent on each other. Resulting in the gap between the unconscious and conscious mind becoming blurred. Making Willie Bester no stranger to political, psychological and personal commentary – it has been an intrinsically personal aspect of his very existence, dating back to his childhood where he was classified as ‘other coloured’ by the Apartheid state.

Barometer for Poverty, 2020, Mixed Media, 167 x 120cm

For something to be frightening, it need not to be frightening in and of it self, it needs to be frightening in the sense that one is able to familiarize with it as a case of concealment. By the unconcealment of the self. For Bester the ‘self’ determines the location of the works and those perceptions therefore become the unconcealment of self. Translating “himself into that state of feeling (uncanny), and to awaken in himself the possibility of it” (Sigmund, F. 1919:369). The possibility of going beyond who he is, that is why the uncanny is both an aesthetic and psychoanalysis of the self. So when we look at Bester and his illustrious career where he has made the personal political by taking the gap between the unconscious and conscious mind. Bester’s use of a cross-section of artist mediums such as mixed media, sculpture, painting and installation art to convey his protest and resistance, with much of his recent work considering the dangers of colonisation’s permanent legacy.

Holy Bible, 2020, Mixed media, 87 x 62 x 10cm

Our humanity is shared, and thus to consider oneself apolitical is inherently perilous to society. Bester stimulates that which inspires by giving us an awareness of our own dignity and limitations as that which is humanity shared. Holy Bible, 2020 is like most of Bester’s works that integrates our human fragility. He incorporates the two childhood shoes and juxtaposes it with the broken typewriter. By doing this he uses the fragility of nostalgia and uses it as a signifier of the fragility of the mind of a child and how we are able to absorb that which is already broken without questioning it. The glass that seals this is a glass that is fastened by that which he defines as the Holy Bible, 2020. By using nostalgia as a tool when dealing with an object and its historical significance he opens us up to the possibility to see ourselves but to simultaneously better ourselves as we find ourself or our idea I without limitations. Simultaneously the shoes of missing children, the Swastika, symbols and representations of Apartheid South Africa and scenes of informal settlements that speak to poverty present themselves in Bester’s artworks to bear witness to the ills in our society.

His artworks are hard hitting and demand the full attention of the viewer. These range from larger than life sized steel sculptures that weigh several tons to realistic oil and acrylic paintings framed in hand beaten and painted iron.

Social Engineering, Metal, canvas, found objects and paint, 174 x 132 x 20cm

Although Bester is renowned as one of South Africa’s most crucial resistance artists, with his work exhibited and studied worldwide, his view on contemporary issues still is unwaverly significant of a man who uses everyday objects degraded and regarded to integrate the human experience. His art is featured in collections around South Africa as well as abroad in notorious collections such as the De Beers Collection, the Contemporary African Art Collection in Geneva and the David Bowie Collection, Pretoria Art Museum, University of Cape Town, University of the Witwatersrand, UNISA, Department of National Education, Smithsonian Institute, Jean Pigozzi – Contemporary African Art Collection, David Bowie Collection and many others. Bester’s art speaks to our history, our present and begs the question of our future.

(Detail) Dog of War, 2020, Mixed media, 235 x 178cm