Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

34Long, Cape Town

“We got sold as a so-called rainbow nation, but we don’t really know what apartheid actually entailed,” remarks the artist Willie Bester. To overlook the small struggles in favour of the grand narratives of nationhood is to forget who and how we belong here. A witness to the battles of his generation, Bester knows what we must never forget.METALized confirms the development of a mature career in which resistance has become a way of life. Growing up as an outsider to the system, never quite black or coloured enough for the apartheid mind, Bester still desires to know what binds people to each other, to a piece of land, what drives them apart, what makes some invisible: the power and dispossession which joins master and slave.This survey of sculpture from the past five years presents the systemic guts of the country, old and new, broken pipelines, farm implements, pistons, expanding in function and dysfunction. A fascination with these metaphors and machines of history is further evident in titles like Social Engineering (2003/5), Poverty Driven (2002) and Staatkundige Ontwikkeling (State Development) (2002). Describing the latter in the official accompanying text, Sandra Klopper and Michael Godby write of “the transformation of human beings into dehumanized cogs” serving the state.The sculpture Teef is an iconic presence in this show, reinforcing a vision of a world in which trespassers are met with a hidden reserve. The female dog (teef is Afrikaans for bitch) has a snout described by welding scars that seem so soft they defy the galvanized steel she is made of. This delicate and descriptive skin, fused in a new technique from small pieces of metal, gives way in her lower body to the exposed muscle now familiar in Bester’s work. Ambiguous narratives snarl beneath her docile surface. Township stray or suburban watchdog, we can’t be certain of her history, only the potential explosion of violence. Cowering in the weight of her swollen teats like Romulus and Remus’ wolf-mother, the playful glint in her eye might just be rehearsing a jump for your postcolonial jugular. Watch out where you’re going, says Bester, and what assumptions you make. You are likely to be met with resistance. Teef is well placed next to Security Guard. The artist recalls the xenophobia and suspicion that followed the post-apartheid boom in urban populations. Cities were overcrowded with people in search of better lives. Jobs were suddenly more difficult to come by. “Some people asked: ‘Where do all these people come from?'” he recounts. “As if there was not a history behind them.”So, for instance, meet Mrs Zembe from Cofimvaba (these details welded into her suitcase) striding forward into the post apartheid city from some rural hell. A new arrival, as the title of Bester’s 2005 sculpture suggests, perhaps she was in exile, or perhaps she fled across the border. Her heavy Ndebele ankle bracelet represents ethnic chic and shackle, a past that both liberates and imprisons her. Easily dismissed as exotic novelty or dangerous foreigner, being at home in a global world does not imply Mrs Zembe will be accepted.Although her newly found economic empowerment is exciting, is she not a potent symbol for what all too often happens abroad to art from Africa? Bester plays with this idea in his more recent assemblages of rubber toys, tourist art and household junk dribbled with paint.Preserved behind squeaky clean transparent panels and boxes, as if recovered from some museum, they are like miniatures of the trash heaps where Bester sources his scrap metal.Although once part of the resistance and now part of the establishment, and although his work has undergone radical transformations, Bester remains constant in his critical interrogation of the relationship between past and present. He poses difficult questions, around nationhood, around issues of displacement and land dispossession, questions that continue to burden the country he is rooted in.Kai Lossgott is a Cape Town-based writer, artist and lecturer

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