Thursday, April 30, 2009

Images from a scrapyard

I met Willie Bester when he was still a young, developing artist. At the time he used to take me along to the townships to meet his friends and to take some photos, which he used in some of his amazing collages. These collages, which he carefully constructed by shaping together different elements, mostly small pieces of metal, cardboard or paper, always against the backdrop of some gripping photos and newspaper headings, became Willie’s very special hallmark. They brought him international fame. Through them he documented the history, colour and liveliness of township life of the 1980s and 1990s. In these collages you could see and touch the bumpers of old lorries, double storied shacks, buzzing shops, corrugated roofs, rusted bicycles and moving trains.

Later when the painting and putting together of collages became almost second nature and less challenging, Willie switched to making smaller paintings. Through them he depicted at close range people of different walks in the township - an innocent child playing, an old man smoking a pipe, a woman toiling away at her daily tasks. Alongside these collages and paintings he also portrayed the dehumanizing effects of the political system of the day by building majestic structures, even whole laboratories, layered with guns, wheels, clocks and pipes and always a bible somewhere to remind us of how religion was often used to justify an intricate and oppressive ideology.

During the past few years Willie has been focussing more on creating life size sculptures, mostly from pieces of waste iron and car parts that he collects in scrap yards. People watching these rough but true to life images, are suddenly confronted by a rare talent - the ability to recognise in the jungle of scrap yard rubble the image of a growling dog, a gallant horse, a smiling harp player, a child carrying a gun, or a dignified old woman. This is Willie Bester’s rare achievement: to give new life to cast aside and forgotten waste by transforming it into lively images which, when closely observed, stir the heart and imagination, and leave you in awe and wonder.

Looking again at some of Willie’s startling images of child soldiers and missing children at a recent exhibition, I was reminded of the way God deals with us humans. In many ways our lives, though they do also carry reflections of God, so easily become skewed, depressed, out of hand, inhuman - to the extent that we suffer, lose our confidence, feel miserable, unworthy, dumped, almost like rubble on a scrap yard. How well do we all know this feeling, especially when we find that we repeatedly make the wrong choices, lose our discipline, give in to temptations and allow ourselves to be swept away by our darker and destructive impulses. Often only our belief in God’s constant grace, in God’s resurrecting and all renewing power, can save us. In the words of Paul: “You used to be in the darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (Ephes 5:8).

Today we may count again on this amazing fact that God can transform what seems to be a mere piece of scrap into an image of beauty and wonder. Also, that bewildering piece of my life that I am experiencing and looking at right now.

Carel Anthonissen

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