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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.
Known more colorfully as “junk art,” the improvisatory art of assemblage was pioneered in the 1950s and ’60s by, among others, Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Bruce Conner, Richard Stankiewicz, Robert Rauschenberg and George Herms. They, too, scavenged and recycled a wide range discards for their offbeat aggregates, and some, especially the Kienholzes, like the latter-day Bester, addressed sociopolitical issues.
Born in South Africa in 1956, Bester, who is largely self-taught, grew up under apartheid, a system of racial segregation strictly and often violently enforced from 1948 until 1994. In the late 1980s, Bester had already racked up 15 years working as a dental technician and part-time artist, painting picturesque tourist scenes. After attending a few classes at Cape Town’s Community Art Project, an organization known for its disruptive tactics, producing graphics, posters and banners calling for the abolition of apartheid, Bester turned to political art. Twenty-some years later, he’s considered one of South Africa’s leading contemporary artists.
In the Apartheid Laboratory installation, two of Bester’s “armed guards,” fabricated from tools and metal machine parts, hold their posts, maintaining order as they would in a totalitarian state. Their sinister, skull-like visages, their bodies without flesh or blood, and their dark, lurid, spray-painted surfaces are evil incarnate.
As frightening as they appear, however, the figures are horror-flick trite compared to three large-scale, tour-de-force agglomerations that steal the show: demonic-looking machines housed separately in windowless spaces like medical exam rooms. These freestanding contraptions, made from basins, vials, needles, disposable gloves and hospital drips (lingering evidence of Bester’s diligent life as a dental technician), are installed in discrete spaces, as if behind closed doors. Encountering each is like visiting the cabinet where Dr. Caligari performs lobotomies or where some sinister genius implants mind-control devices. Though these appliances do not literally whir, thrum, clink or clank, and no operator is visibly present, they embody the spirit of the monstrous system that controlled and attempted to indoctrinate South Africa’s indigenous peoples.
In “Bantu Education,” from 1996-97, for example, a teacher’s desk — complete with computer keyboard, monitor and rifle at the ready — faces off against a graffitied student desk, under which stacks of documents are rolled in or out on a track bed. Above, two hospital drips suggest the infusion of some mind-numbing liquid; below, a duct disgorges tiny, identical black figures into a large bowl. It’s an ugly interpretation of the 1953 Bantu Education Act, which mandated that black South Africans would receive an inferior education in order to sustain the apartheid economy’s reliance on unskilled labor.
In the namesake work of the show, “Apartheid Laboratory,” the absent but certainly malevolent controller sits in front of a basin, disposable gloves at the ready, as people are sorted by color. At eye level, a display of small wood figures numbered 00 to 06 modulates from lighter to darker hues. On the other side of the laboratory’s control panel, white tile and toweling symbolize a free, privileged existence for whites only.
The largest assemblage (at least 8 feet tall and 12 feet long), “The Great Trek,” from 1996, is an ostensibly mobile, five-wheeled vehicle resembling a wagon used by 19th century Afrikaner settlers. Along with a lantern, bedroll and an oversized Bible laid out on a white pillow, the assemblage is outfitted with 20th century thingamajigs, including gauges, antenna, the ubiquitous hospital drips, a faux satellite dish and even a vacuum cleaner attachment at the front, for the machine to ingest all in its path. Embedded in a glass box (a transparent stomach?) are small wood figures, imprisoned between rows of barbed wire. Then as now, Bester implies, a ravenous, controlling mindset was fully operational.
All of this is how Bester suggests the power — the infernal machinery of states and governments, educational and religious think tanks, to implement and maintain totalitarian regimes. Moreover, in this installation, he recognizes the unflagging existence of racism. Apartheid has, at least legally, been outlawed since 1994, yet Bester continues to create artifacts reminding us that deeply entrenched hatred seldom withers spontaneously (or by legislative fiat).
Certainly, in our own nation, the recent spate of homophobic, anti-Semitic and racist remarks by well-known, high-profile individuals attest to prejudices plaguing the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. As Bester pointedly explains in a 2000 exhibition catalog essay:
“I am sometimes tempted to go to the seaside and to paint beautiful things from nature. But I do not do it, because my art has to be taken as a nasty taste medicine for awakening consciences.” Wherever those benighted consciences are, one might add.
Apartheid Laboratory runs through June 17 at Art Gallery of Windsor, 401 Riverside Drive W., Windsor; 519-977-0013.
Dennis Alan Nawrocki is currently working on a revised edition of Art in Detroit Public Places. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.