Born in the small town of Montagu, South Africa in 1956, Willie Bester’s creative genius was apparent from a young age. Making toy cars from recycled wire just like the other kids, Willie’s draadkars would stand out from the rest with elaborate decoration and metal work. Willie’s passion for political and social issues was ignited when he had to leave school at 10 to help the family financially due to the forced removal from their home under the Group Areas Act. With a Xhosa father and coloured mother, Willie was classified ‘other coloured’ under the Apartheid laws, which meant their mixed race family was not allowed to live in a “coloured” area. As a migrant worker, the only lodgings available to his father were single-sex hostels in large fenced-off compounds. The only option for the family to live together was in informal housing in other people’s backyards.
“Drafted” into the Eersterivier Cadet Rehabilitation Centre for a year, like many other unemployed township and rural youth at the time, Willie was compelled to do army-type training in a racially prejudiced environment. Fortunately he was given some art supplies around this time and he was re-introduced to his childhood love of painting. At the age of 26, after working as a dental technician’s assistant for many years in Cape Town, Willie finally re-immersed himself in his art and opened his first solo exhibition in 1982 which consisted of street scenes and landscapes.
During adulthood his art became a vehicle to express the inequalities that he was witness and subject to. He began to attend part-time classes at the Community Arts Project (CAP) in District Six in 1986, where he found himself surrounded by a community of socially committed artists. He quickly became an active player in the anti-Apartheid movement, expressing his political observations and ideals through an assortment of the mixed media arts. He became known for his signature mixed media creations, combining oil and watercolour paints with his photographs, newspaper clippings and scrap materials acquired from local dumps. Tins, bones, car parts, road signs, military paraphernalia, musical instruments, recycled objects, toys, farm implements, junkyard detritus, scavenged items of significance…. they all found a way into his vividly coloured artworks, building a story of his observed realities behind broadcast media and newspaper articles. By the late 1980s, Willie began to achieve a measure of success as an artist and, in 1991, he turned professional.
His role as a struggle artist naturally turned to one of charting the dramatic social and political developments in post-Apartheid South Africa. Addressing issues of crime, greed, poverty, corruption and government accountability in the new South Africa, his exposure of the complexities of this new society lends a much needed voice to social awareness, touching on uncomfortable subjects to fuel discussion.
"We were naïve about the state of things in South Africa; we thought things would be different. We wanted to believe that our culture had changed, because we so badly wanted things to be different so that we could move forward. But it’s impossible to forget the past because it influences our future. This is why I document these events, so that we do not forget."
Willie’s firm belief in upholding human dignity is a driving concept throughout his artwork as he artfully documents South African history, heritage and identity.
"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."
Willie’s attention to detail is spread equally from conceptual visualisation to selection of parts, physical construction and final finishing touches. His daily habit of reading the local English and Afrikaans newspapers provides ample opportunity for inspiration. A political or social incident motivates him to visit his art shops - the local scrapyards! - where he spends days meticulously selecting every detail for his subject’s anatomy. Carefully laying out the pieces on the floor of his Kuilsriver studio before building, he usually constructs from the feet up to ensure a strong base. Once complete, a sculpture is then galvanised at an industrial plant to prevent future deterioration, an essential consideration in the international art world of major museums and collectors.
Scouring the scrapheaps and dumping grounds around Cape town for discarded objects, Willie’s creative obsession has evolved into recycling the waste of society into a powerful and thought-provoking platform for social injustice, poverty and political oppression.
"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."
Willie sees rubbish dumps as symbols of the community in which he lives: those living in the townships are often regarded as rejects of society, yet his works prove time and again that unexpected value can be created from that which is regarded as rubbish.
"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 tasting medicine for awakening consciences."
Willie's family home and artist studio is situated in Kuilsrivier, a quiet inland suburb of Cape Town. Looking more like an art sculpture than a house, this unique blue and purple building represents Willie’s uncensored artistic expression. A strong water motif is present throughout the property: from a windmill and fountain, to all shades of blue and swirling mosaics, to various taps installed in and around the house and pillars of pipes and valves. Just as in nature where water evaporates and returns as rain, the concept of recycling materials was the driving force when conceptualising the house. The fine art of repurpose, re-use and recycle is everywhere: a lonely parking metre stands guard on the pavement outside while in the garden a colourful windmill with Ndebele designs towers above a huge welded sculpture of an armed canon. A section of roof fashioned from an airplane wing, the swimming pool built from the surrounding rocks, a birdhouse made from recycled steel objects and horns and around the corner, a “Whites Only” sign, a harsh reminder of a not-so-long-ago time. Inside an old geyser houses the liquor cabinet, a repurposed petrol pump functions as a hi-fi cabinet and the bathrooms are a dizzying array of recycled colourful tiles.
Designed by Carin Smuts of CS Studio Architects, the house had to reflect Willie’s intricate style of collage and layering. The task of creating a balance between a spatially interesting house and the needs of the family became a collaborative process between Carin and the Besters, who had a very good idea of what they wanted. Not being a solitary artist, Willie wanted his studio to form the centre of attraction and creativity in the house, allowing him to integrate with family life even whilst working. Thus, looking up from the living room at the bottom of the main double-volume circular space at the epicentre of the house, one can see Willie’s studio on the second floor …. and a delicately suspended 1962 Fiat 500! For Evelyn, Willie’s wife, an open plan kitchen that flowed into the entertainment area was an absolute must. With her passion for old railway sleepers, as many fittings and furnishings were created with this durable hard wood, from kitchen countertops and cabinets to the heavy front door.
Since completion of the basic infrastructure of the house, Willie has continued to add on smaller artistic features over the years. Like his art, the house grows and changes with time.
According to Carin,