#24 African Junk Artist Willie Bester’s Apartheid Laboratory

Soldier II

“Soldier II” 1994. Image courtesy of the artist’s site. Click for source.

“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 Bester (source)

Junk art á la Mad Max takes steampunk one step away from Victoriana elegance and optimistic gaslamp cheer and one madcap dive bomb toward the realm of the dystopian. The gritty, industrial sense of steampunk isn’t seen in much art other than the tastefully rusted flash drives or the gentleman hobos with their finger-less gloves and worn-edged bowler hats. But the ideas of using found materials, D.I.Y. and re-structuring trash into art fit easily within the maker and punk tenants that steampunk has acquired.

Willie Bester is a modern-day junk artist, but his work conjures both the intricate horror and beauty that can be expressed by scrap-art sculpture. Born in 1956 during South Africa’s Apartheid era, Bester childhood experiences are marked by personal struggles that his family lived through. When he was ten years old, his family was forced to relocate from their farm under the Group Area’s Act, which divided the country into areas for whites and for non-whites, leaving many non-whites living in rural outskirts and slums.

From these experiences, Bester finds that found materials–metal from junk shops and scrap heaps, found materials in the street, rough-textured items such as sacking and crushed tins–emphasizes the experiences he had growing up and the dark history of his country. The sculptures he makes from these items are towering, intricate, and complex pieces of moving parts, representing the tangled, mechanized system of a corrupted government.

One newspaper reviewer captures the aesthetic of his art form perfectly:

Like a mad scientist’s laboratory, full of preposterous gizmos and gadgets, the fantastic sculptures in Willie Bester’s Apartheid Laboratory at Art Gallery of Windsor reveal the fiendish intentions of evil designers. Rebuking the museum’s sleek surroundings with salvaged chains, padlocks, ropes, hoses, hospital drips, soiled rubber gloves and more, these mute and inoperable machines speak loudly as immoral instruments of apartheid.

Dogs of War

“Dogs of War” 2001. Image courtesy of the artist’s website. Click for source.

“Trojan Horse II,” 1994. From Apartheid Laboratory Exhibit at Art Gallery of Windsor. Click for Source

“The Great Trek,” 1996. From Apartheid Laboratory Exhibit at the Art Gallery of Windsor. Click for source.

“The Great Trek” Detail. 1996. From the Apartheid Library at the Art Gallery of Windsor. Click for source.

Bench for Mr Semikaze

“Bench for Mr Semikaze”. 1994. Image Courtesy of Art Throb.com Click for Source.


“Tank.” 2003. Image courtesy of the artist’s website. Click for Source.


Apartheid Laboratory

Willie Bester Apartheid Laboratory: Art Gallery of Windsor Exhibition Catalog. Click for link on Amazon

Willie Bester’s Official Artist Site.

Willie Bester at the Contemporary African Artists Collection

MetroTimes’s Review of the Apartheid Laboratory

Willie Bester on artknowledgenews.com

Willie Bester on Art Throb



Filed under Essays, History, Linkspams

4 responses to “#24 African Junk Artist Willie Bester’s Apartheid Laboratory

  1. Thanks for sharing this.

    My daughter’s class has been looking at art and other things made from recycled materials. They visited this exhibition earlier this year:

    I doubt that a NYC public school class will ever be able to visit South Africa to see Bester’s home and work in person, but I did forward this post to my daughter’s teacher so that they could look at what people in other countries/cultures are also doing with recycled materials.

  2. really artistic,
    keep i t up

  3. Pingback: #46 Celebrating Our First Birthday! | Beyond Victoriana