Melvyn Minnaar: KWV, Montagu and artist Willie Bester

By , 3 August 2022

Anti-KWV sentiment, so easy to roll out in wine-political correctness, is not part of my worked-up emotions. The awkward, yet eye-catching, three capital letters used to be the acronym for ‘Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika, Beperkt’, a fraternal name that has a delicious wacko-ness to it if you close-read the Dutch-Afrikaans meaning of the words. (I mean, isn’t ‘wijnbouers’ romantically delightful?)

Anyway, that institution is history, now simply a brand, and luckily makes and puts the best brandy on our shelves. (Well done, KWV, especially with that stunning 15-year-old.)

The old KWV was, of course, locked into the cultural hegemony of the era. This construct also included sponsorship of art and a collection (alas no more). Architecture came into play: the fine historic Laborie in Paarl and, of course, the somewhat grandly papal Cathedral Cellar at its head office.

Less obvious is the lovely rural footprint of buildings in towns that supplied the once powerful producer-protector. In places like Paarl, Worcester, Upington and Montagu the buildings of the old KWV add to the townscape. In Montagu particularly, the old KWV building on the corner of Kohler and Long Streets has a quiet stately presence. Its no-nonsense functional look marks a space where local farmers brought the fruit of their harvest, workers worked at production among barrels of brandy gently aging.

Built in 1907 (thus before the KWV was formally founded in 1918), the unassuming white-walled ordinariness – the large relief letters ‘KWV’ in simple black – also meant that it was never threatened by property speculation. Kept more-or-less intact, the solid building was gifted to the town and now serves as a public cultural-social amenity. A pretty smart one as well, where one senses both history and community.

Today the building is under the auspices of the Montagu Cultural and Educational Trust, a non-governmental organisation with a deep-seated local communal focus. It took control in 2019 and the board of trustees include local luminaries from various and different backgrounds.      

In a week or so the building will house an exhibition of school kids’ artworks in the annual Montagu Youth Arts Festival. More than 14 schools from the area will take part. (The festival also includes music, dance, theatre and writing skills.)

Also opening that weekend of 13 August is an exhibition by the artist Willie Bester. This is very special. Born in Montagu, the 66-year-old artist is bringing a selection of his art for an exhibition in the old KWV building’s gallery.

Bester’s link and commitment to the town runs deep and comes with a particular personal history. It was as a pupil here in Montagu that his art drew attention in a competition. (And why his presence at the upcoming youth show is apt.)

He never had any formal art training but schooled himself in expression and invention at the famous, radically-orientated Community Arts Project in Cape Town during the politically-charged Eighties.  

Already in 2007, he created, in his stand-out style of using old and abandoned metal equipment, a unique staircase between the ground floor and upper level which houses the gallery in the old KWV building in Long Street. Old farm implements were repurposed, welded, painted and assembled by local crafters under his guidance. An appealing set piece from the start, he also held a first exhibition in his hometown that year. It was a tourism booster. He is a very popular artist.

Not only known for his remarkable, sometime funny and odd artworks that have made use of anything from old cars, to spades, to road signs, a deep social awareness permeates the scenes he creates with utter painterly skill.

Portraits of Montagu locals by artist Willie Bester.

The latter shines in a special Montagu project close to his heart, one that has kept him busy for years. It comprises an ongoing series in which he paints portraits of locals. Not the well-known, the leaders, the glamorous, but the workers, people on the town’s streets, the passers-by, and farm hands have been the subjects of this unusual artistic undertaking, a most personal creative mission.

“My aim is to cross the divides in the community, to empower the ordinary, to honour the Montagu people. Bring them together in one space”

The portraits are not for sale and the idea is that they will ultimately find a permanent exhibition space. The old KWV space may well do, but sponsorship will be required.

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.

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