Archive: Issue No. 24, August 1999

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A monthly feature on an artist currently in the public eye

Willie Bester

Willie Bester in his studio

Willie Bester

The outside of the artist's house which he built himself at Kuils River near Cape Town

Bench for Mr Semikaze

Bench for Mr Semikaze
mixed media assemblage, 1994

Head North

Head North
painted metal and found objects


mixed media, 1993
84.5 X 126.5cm

The truth & reconciliation

The truth and reconciliation
mixed media collage, 1999
123 X 80cm

Thirty minutes

Installation on "Thirty Minutes" (1997)
and exhibition by nine artists held in the old Visitors Block on Robben Island

Yellow Shoes

Yellow shoes
oil on linen framed in metal box
28 X 38cm

Willie Bester
(August, 1999)

The rise of Willie Bester from unknown artist holding a first exhibition (1988) to one internationally in demand a few years later has been meteoric.

Modus operandi:

Bester paints, often on extremely rough surfaces like sacking or crushed tins, and makes large assemblages, cutting and welding together found materials from the junkshop and the street, and incorporating objects of all kinds in order to make layered comments on aspects of South African history. The titles of some of his pieces reveal his concerns: Apartheid Laboratory, Ox Wagon, Death Machine

Artist's statement:

"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. The Truth Commission seemed to be one of the answers, but now I find that even the Truth Commission is a trap. It has done more damage than good, because the ANC was favoured over the Afrikaners. I want to do a series about it."


At a recent auction at Sotheby's in London of contemporary African art from the Piggozzi collection, (see News) Bester's painting Semikazi (1993) reached the astonishing figure of almost R110,000 - more than twice the pre-sale estimate. Jean Piggozzi is one of the major collectors of Bester's work. In Europe, Bester's piece Death Machine can be seen on the exhibition [[Rewind. Fast Forward. ZA]], at the Van Reekum Museum of Art in Apeldoorn, Holland. In Washington, he is on the exhibition at the National Museum for African Art, "Claiming art/Reclaiming Space: Post-Apartheid Art from South Africa".

Before that:

Earlier this year, an act of generosity turned sour for Bester when he decided to donate Head North, an ox of welded metal and a metaphor for Afrikanerdom, to the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. The piece, recently back in the country from a round of international exhibitions, was attacked by local critic Lloyd Pollak, writing under the name of Fabrizio von Grebner, as being "tritely literal" and "preachy". The controversy was complicated by the fact that because of budget restrictions limiting storage space, the SANG was supposedly not accepting donations of work. Director Marilyn Martin defended the Gallery's acceptance, lauding the work and expressing the gratitude of the Gallery.

Next up:

In September and October of this year, Bester will be showing at Studio Raffaeli in Trento, Italy.

And after that:

Long one of the staple artists of Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery, Bester will be showing on the Linda Givon curated show, "Artery", which will spread across a number of Cape Town galleries in December .

Curriculum Vitae:

1967 Born in Montague, Western Cape
1976 - 1991 Worked as a dental technician's assistant
1986 Studied art part time for one year at the Community Art Project, Cape Town
1991 Became a full time professional artist

Selected Solo Exhibitions

1998 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg (joint exhibition with Zwelethu Mthethwa)
1992 South African Association of Arts (Cape Town)
1993 Goodman Gallery, Jophannesburg
1991 Gallery International, Cape Town

Selected Group Exhibitions

1999 [[Rewind. Fast Forward. ZA]] Van Reekum Museum of Art, Apeldoorn, Holland
1998 The Edge of Awareness - World Health Organisation, Geneva
1998 Emporain, Dakar Biennale, Senegal
1997 Lift Off, Goodman Gallery , Johannesburg
1996 The Other Journey (Africa and the Diaspora) Kunsthalle, Krems, Austria
1996 Otro Pais: Escalas Africanas: Palau de la Virreina, Barcelona
1996 Chicago Art Fair, Basel Art Fair
1994 Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London
1994 5th Havana Biennale, Cuba
1993 Venice Biennale


1993 Prix de l'Aigle at the 4th Grand Prix International d'Arts Plastiques d e la Ville de Nice, France
1991 Merit Prize, Cape Town Triennial

Bester is well represented in most of the major art institutions in the country, and also abroad.



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