During November last year, the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg was punctuated with movable walls. It’s a space that has a very well acknowledged reputation in South Africa. The promotional hype that the shows at the Goodman get are never unfounded, so the visitor to Willie Bester’s show knew, from the word go, that this would not be an aesthetic disappointment. But the movable walls were daunting: something was hidden behind them. And from the start, it felt ominous.
Bester is an artist who works with improvised material. He welds and then paints bits and pieces from broken engines and other things that people throw away, creating sculptures and two-dimensional works which transcend their base material. This solo exhibition of his touched on many different levels of how the art experience and the social experience interface to demonstrate who we are, and why we are who we are.
To describe the show empirically is misleading: the quantity of works on show could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. And the approach of the show is not in-your-face tactics at all. There’s a guitar, made largely of wire, but welded to a sculpted drip attachment, which seems to be serving to give life force to the instrument. There are one or two other works mounted onto the maze of moveable walls. These pieces are competent, contesting to Bester’s good reputation in the arena, but they don’t make your eyes water. They’re not what you’ve come for.
And then you reach the curtain which blocks the piece de resistance. Through the curtain you can hear sound bytes from the television footage that inspired the work, “Who Let The Dogs Out”, which bears the same title as the exhibition itself, and instinctively, you know to steel yourself for what waits on the other side of this curtain. There’s a warning posted on the wall that what awaits behind the curtain is neither for young nor sensitive viewers.
The space is darkened. As the heart of the gallery itself, it extends about three meters, and the sculptures fills the simple space with its complicated mass.
As your eyes become acclimatized to the dimness, you can see the victim’s horrified eyes and his exposed teeth as the dog, a victim himself, lets rip. The policeman passively overseeing the horror is like a grotesque neo-Nazi figure. Brought into three dimensions, with a nip and a tuck here and there, as though from a Grosz etching, or a bit of anti-Nazi propaganda, in his cold indifference the policeman appears outrageously cruel and obscenely terrifying. He is, indeed, the type of figure that could stand for the machinations in place that condone issues like baby rape, child molestation, dog baiting and other manifestations of extreme violence that have become part of our local terrain.
The really spine chilling thing about this scenario is that the Grosz analogy is simply that, maybe to make you (or me) feel comfortable that this is a visual culture commentary. But, don’t be fooled. This picture is based on real life.
What is it that prompts a fully grown adult to hurt someone considerably less able to defend themselves in a manner where the parameters for recovery are horribly slim? Indeed, the figure that’s the victim in the sculpture described above is not a child, but the exhibition of this work in Johannesburg coincided with a terrifying spate of baby rape in South Africa.
But, of course, the notion of violence in South Africa is nothing foreign to South Africans. One of the scariest things about this common knowledge is that for considerably more than the fifty-odd years of apartheid legislation, things of a violent nature were legitimised. They were legitimised not only through ratified laws but also by socialized and institutionalized bigotry, propaganda, and other incipient kinds of social violence and discrimination all sanctioned by the government and practised by the broader society. Black people were called names. Black people were compelled to use only special, substandard public facilities. Black people were criminalized, tainted, and considered “dirty” by whites. Everyday, denigrating remarks about black people became so profoundly a part of white South African speak that their harmful, discriminatory nature was invisible to the parents and teachers who could have made a difference about it. For the bulk of apartheid aficionados in South Africa, the blatancy of it all must have been a pretty appalling mess to try to keep in one’s closet, hidden from the rest of the world. But as we know, apartheid had its come-uppance, and today we all exist in a world that seems much more comfortable with the idea of “truth” about apartheid and its legacy, however horrifying the truth may be.
And there are two stories that touched me deeply in this regard.
Some months ago, a nine-month-old baby was gang raped by a group of six men who were blind drunk. There are no images any artist can create to help us make sense of a sexual attack on a baby. The poor little girl was left with inestimable physical damage, to say nothing of the shock her nascent sensibilities must have undergone. This story, at least received enormous press coverage, jam-packed with more gruesome detail than any normal reader could stomach. But who’s to say that the average reader of the South African press is normal? The rape of baby Tshepang, a Setswana name given to her to protect her identity, which means “have hope”, brought about copy cat relays of this abysmal crime. This perverse spate of violence was blamed on AIDS mythology: for some it is believed that intercourse with a virgin takes away the disease. (This belief is a throwback from twentieth century nonsense relating to the spread of syphilis.) Perhaps the copycat crimes have more to do with an obscene and undereducated level of curiosity. Amongst the copy cat rapes, babies as young as five months have been affected, but the age in the perpetrators has diminished terrifyingly, to babies themselves. What do you do to a nine-year old rapist?
Two years prior, a horrendous story of police brutality also received enormous press coverage. A direct carry-over from an apartheid mindset, baiting dogs to bite men with pigment in their skins, was something that, maybe twenty years ago, might have gone under deep cover and profoundly yet secretly been condoned by the powers that were. But this time the story leaked to the media. A videotape was screened on a local actuality programme. The perpetrators were the North Rand Police Dog Unit, an arm of the South African Defence Force responsible for the training of police dogs: a bunch of white cops. These men were of the generation of South Africans (like me, to an extent), who lived through many of the worst atrocities in this country but were completely oblivious to it all. In their schooling and their family lives they were brainwashed by the complex euphemisms which were common white parlance of the day. The victims in this story were illegal aliens from Moçambique men desperate enough to brave the dangers of illegally crossing a border in the hope of finding a better existence in South Africa.
What distinguishes these stories from countless others is that they were made accessible to the local guy in the street. Although the realities of these crimes are as abysmal as they are terrifying, their presence in the general forum, where they are “free” now, to be discussed by the white South African public, is a positive thing. Or so we are told by the media, the Commissions of Inquiry, and other legalizing bodies that have been in place since the demise of apartheid. Their functions in this new era are to sort through the lies and expose the underhanded dealings that have allowed the violence to flourish, to bring to light the naked and often terrible truth about apartheid.
The image that I look at when I recall these two stories, or when I try to understand them, is an afterimage in my head. Their true copy is the sculpture which was part of Bester’s installation. It was first on public display at our local cultural and arts festival in Grahamstown, during July 2001.
I am over thirty. At least fifteen of my years have been immersed in the mechanics of art. By this process I believed myself to be hardened to the most shocking of things. Indeed, I considered myself almost jaded by the different manifestations of this odd beast called “visual culture”. Right? Er, no. I saw the footage of the trained dogs attacking the Moçambiques. Bester’s sculpture behind the curtain left me in tears of disgust for the culture in which I was unwittingly raised.
Art which conveys a terrible event seems somehow stronger than the event itself because it gives us something to rest our passions upon something the average girl can get her head around whereas the reality captured by film can be just too hard to comprehend. In “Who Let the Dogs Out”, there’s something here that’s so much more than the average theoretical or aesthetic wanking.
During the 1980s, South Africa was under a State of Emergency and any critical level of interaction with that state was punishable. Art was the one medium that operated outside of those restrictions. Consequently, it was overtly political. In your face. Quite a few years into a new democracy, the demise of apartheid brought about a level of apathy amongst many creative practitioners: it stopped being cool or meaningful to hitch your work to a political star.
Enter Willie Bester. He is an artist who is very highly thought of in South Africa’s current art world. Being one of “pigment” he was not privy to an expensive education, but he became an artist anyway, and his passion for making things with relevance rather than simply for aesthetic charm led him along a scary path. He held his first solo exhibition in 1982 (sustaining himself as a lackey to a dental technician) and hasn’t really looked back since. He took a part time course in art in the late 1980s, but given the confidence, exposure and success he’d garnered even before then, the course seemed like mere formality.
Bester’s work fits almost too comfortably into the jargon of improvisation; reusing given concepts that characterise postmodern approaches. And his political agenda may make him passé in this new South Africa. But he is a man who doesn’t work according to expectation. He says, “People have built up a resistance to anything that addresses the psyche of mankind or people themselves. I believe that we must protest against that which is wrong. There is no form of escape; remaining apolitical is a luxury that South Africans simply cannot afford.” In the new, brighter South Africa, Bester continues to hold up an illuminating candle.
And that, in my understanding, is the job of the artist. The artist must serve as the eyes for those of us who may turn away from the media broadcast. Then, it is our job to step behind the curtain and look. Bester is one of the few practitioners who has confronted the violence of apartheid in such an explicit manner. Now and again, there are people who aim to confront rape or persecution or political terror in their art, but sadly the articulation and representation of the violence can be found more in the newspaper than in cultural edifices. South Africa’s violence is still more of a real life issue than one to be theorized or thought about in the aftermath.
The base question stands before us: who, indeed let the dogs out? Bester helps us to see that the answer lies with us, we who watch and consume the terrible things that these dogs are made to do. Ultimately, the dogs are ours. We can no longer hide them behind a dark curtain of ignorance.