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Sculptor extraordinaire recognised for life's work

One of SA's most important resistance artists, Dr Willie Bester, was awarded an honorary doctorate in literature by the University of KwaZulu-Natal in recognition of his groundbreaking work and the active role he played in the anti-apartheid movement.

Speaking during the graduation ceremony, held at the university's Westville campus on 1 April, Bester looked back on the role his parents had played in fighting apartheid and how his work over the years has confronted issues of injustice and exclusion, during the apartheid era as well as in post-apartheid SA.

Bester's past and present work also looks at the experiences of ordinary people, showing the many ways in which they have been dispossessed, while at the same time celebrating their lives and achievements. Furthermore, it focuses on women and children who have struggled to survive poverty in rural areas and in SA's under-resourced townships.

"My fascination with being creative began when I was very young, making wire cars for myself and my friends and painting murals for people in the impoverished community in Montagu in the Little Karoo, where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s." Bester recalled.

"I visited local artists like Francois Krige and Adriaan Braaf, taught myself how to work in oil paints and, while still employed as a dental mechanic, was inspired by the example of the politically challenging subject matters I encountered in the work of my peers at the Community Art Centre in Cape Town."

Over the years, Bester has also produced important studies commemorating some of the heroes of the struggle against apartheid, such as Chris Hani, Jack Simons and Nelson Mandela.

"I have produced this body of work despite the fact that I did not have the privilege of a tertiary education or the opportunity to study art in the formal way."

Bester was the first-born child of a coloured mother and a migrant, Xhosa-speaking father. As a result, his early life was shaped by the indignities his parents suffered under the apartheid system, which discriminated against people who dared to cross social and cultural divides.

"I have often wondered what my parents would say if they saw me now: a successful artist who has just been awarded an honorary doctorate," Bester said with pride.

He added: "When I was young, I was not always able to appreciate the example they set for me. But I thank them today for who they were and what they taught me about life, and for helping me to understand the importance of standing up for, and believing in, myself."

Bester also thanked the artists that he had collaborated with over the years for the many productive interactions, and expressed the hope that they would continue to learn from one another.

"I thank the University of KwaZulu-Natal for its vote of confidence in me and my life's work as an artist committed to celebrating the dignity of others, regardless of whether they were exploited by colonial masters, victimised under apartheid or brutalised by other forms of injustice," he said.

Bester has received numerous awards during the course of his career, including an honorary medal for the promotion of fine arts from Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, and the Order of Ikhamanga in silver from the South African government.

Words: Xoliswa Zulu