Willie Bester works with mixed-media collages using a vast range of materials which portray layers of meaning. He combines the use of oil paints with photographs he has taken himself and from the media. He then combines these elements with discarded objects he has found in and around the townships of Cape Town, South Africa.
Willie Bester's main choice of subject matter is commonly the South African township scene. He lived in this setting himself as a child and young adult, and therefore has a deep, rich understanding of the hardships and joys that run coherently in these cramped settings. The reports that the newspapers have previously provided about township life are predominantly negative and depict only the violence and crime in these areas. Images of dilapidated shacks, half-clad children and landscapes of rubbish are what the majority of the world associates with South African townships and squatter camps. Bester tries to depict the other side of township life. The survivors and the positive aspects of township life are his focus: the vibrance of colour on walls and signs, the humour, the innovative and industrious spirit, the camaraderie among kin and neighbours.
His common themes include forced removals, township life, migrant labour and the destructive impact of Apartheid on both those who stayed and those who fled, on those who resisted and those who accepted their fate. These themes are closely linked to the materials he uses to depict 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 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.
Another strategy Bester employs is to transfer a photographic image - his own photograph or from a newspaper reproduction - into the medium of paint. He often uses this technique on the people in his works who form the principal focus of the work. As a result, the people appear to gain in significance and their characters are no longer defined by time and space - they become symbolic.
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.
Through his works Bester has a quietly stated but insistent desire to restore the quality of human dignity to the population that institutionalised racism had worked to degrade. He does this by making his figure subjects alive, active and expressive, in contrast to the reduced level of existence given to them by Apartheid statistics.
[Footage courtesy SABC]
Bester1.avi - Willie on the aftermath of Apartheid - 3.1 MB
Bester2.avi - Willie collecting materials - 3.7 MB
Bester3.avi - Willie at work (contains some interesting imagery) - 1.3 MB