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New chief aims to breathe new life into Jozi's historic Windybrow Arts Centre

The Windybrow heritage home in Hillbrow has weathered its share of Jozi storms, but with a new man at the helm it looks to new horizons

10 April 2022 - 00:00 By Ufrieda Ho
There are about 40 children registered in programmes run by the Windybrow Arts Centre, which include drama, dance, singing, drumming and art.
There are about 40 children registered in  programmes run by the Windybrow Arts Centre, which include drama, dance, singing, drumming and art.
Image: Alon Skuy

Some things don’t scare Gerard Bester — not misfits or clowns, not even Hillbrow on a bad day. It’s a special kind of fearlessness that makes the newly appointed head of the Windybrow Arts Centre the right person, right now,  to plot the next chapter for the centre.

To be sure, Bester steps into a Windybrow that’s as bruised and overlooked as it’s been for decades — not unlike the rest of the inner-city suburb. While an active arts programme has run here for the past six years, the theatre remains shut and the historic mansion, built in the mid-1890s by architect William Leck, is clearly aching for a sustained maintenance budget. It needs finessing beyond faded murals of an African sunset scene in the car park, and maybe just a bit more TLC to claw back from invisibility.

But what’s is certain is that right here is exactly where Bester wants to be. 

“I applied for the job because I wanted to have an opportunity to continue working in the arts in Hillbrow,” says Bester, who took up the post that forms part of the Market Theatre Foundation's four key programmes this January.

For 14 years he worked for the Outreach Foundation and for 12 of those years he was based at the Hillbrow Theatre further up the hill. In Windybrow’s heyday in the early 1990s, Bester, who is an acclaimed actor, dancer, choreographer and teacher, also taught at the Ishashalazi Drama School based at Windybrow. He adds that he was born in Hillbrow at the Queen Victoria maternity home.

Just as Bester has an umbilical link to Hillbrow, Windybrow is entwined with the Hillbrow story. The arts centre is an icon rising up on the slope of Nugget Hill and remains a significant anchor to support the arts; to embrace pan-Africanism  or, as Bester prefers,  “cosmopolitanism”, and for society-building in a tough part of the inner city.

The suburb includes children who need safe spaces to play ...  as well as places where they feel welcome - and to maybe find a home in the arts

“It’s a dated idea that we should be a ‘united states of Africa’. For me ‘cosmopolitan’ speaks to diversity and to place, and attempting to find connection in that diversity that doesn’t rely on an authority or a power structure but from what comes from the ground up.

“I'm interested in engaging the complexities around public place. It intrigues me how public space transforms, and how art is at the heart of social change. Art also sometimes just means a way for people to belong, to be a family, and that’s what we get to do here,” says Bester.

Hillbrow is also about flux. There is a large population of migrants and foreign nationals. It makes Hillbrow a target for xenophobic violence, casual othering, prejudices and stereotypes. Then there are those who just fall  through the cracks.

Bester  points out that those looking in from the outside can miss the nuances and therefore also the realities of a place like Hillbrow. Entropy, lawlessness, urban decay and neglect are obvious truths of the Hillbrow story. But this suburb of high-rises, hijacked buildings and life spilt in organised chaos onto the streets is also home, as Bester says, to families trying to make do, or transients moved off from one squat to the next, and those in society who don’t fit easily into categories.

The high-density suburb includes children who need safe spaces to play, to be safe walking home from school, as well as places where they feel welcome — and to maybe find a home in the arts.

As he speaks, a group of children lug djembe drums up the wooden staircase of the double-storey mock-Tudor heritage home to start an afternoon lesson and drum circle. On the astro turf in the car park another group of children are dressing up and role playing. Under adult supervision, they kick off school shoes to put on grown-up heels and play at being shopkeepers and customers.

There are about 40 children registered in  programmes run by Windybrow that include drama, dance, singing, drumming and art. A drama group has been formed organically for teenagers this year. Most of these teens are children Bester worked with at the Outreach Foundation who have followed him to Windybrow.

An alternative family is how Bester describes finding a home in the arts — it’s where eccentricity and nonconformity are celebrated as creative sparks, not oddities.

Gerard Bester at the Windybrow. The heritage home was built in 1896.
Gerard Bester at the Windybrow. The heritage home was built in 1896.
Image: Alon Skuy

Bester tells the story of a teen who, as part of his drama programme,  was twice voted best actor in his five years with the group. Though he went on to study biological sciences — a path seemingly far from his drama group days — he wrote to thank Bester, pointing out that the skills from the group allowed him to engage in lectures and be an excellent presenter, communicator and listener. He’s open to inclusivity, to understanding group dynamics, and acknowledging that everyone has a role to play if a performance (or university assignment) is to be pulled off successfully.

“That is one of the best testimonials I have ever received because it shows the value of the arts, not for someone who might want to be an artist of some kind but for everybody,” he says.

Bester is looking for these kinds of triumphs in his new role; not to restore Windybrow to some kind of nostalgic former glory. It means working for big impact in small ways and already in place are plans to advance work that combines art with therapy and shoring up methods to combat child abuse, gender-based violence and the crisis of teen pregnancies.

There's now a walking tour through Hillbrow that attempts  to undo the idea of no-go zones and insiders and outsiders in certain spaces

There’s also building relationships with other local initiatives, NGOs and social entrepreneurship programmes in Hillbrow and the inner city. Plus matching the right tenants for the Windybrow space and courting corporate partners. This starts with a walking tour through Hillbrow to undo the idea of no-go zones and insiders and outsiders in certain spaces. There’s a budding vegetable garden growing on the car-park verges from which Bester shows off plump tomatoes and bulging butternuts. It’s urban food security and makes more sense than roses and manicured landscaping, he says.

This is a moment too for Bester himself. Just like his former student he’s acknowledging that his long and diverse career in the arts has primed him perfectly for leadership, senior management and even understanding the spreadsheets and bureaucracies that come with a government-funded role.

“I realised early on that as an actor I could respond to an audience and shift my performance to that response. Then  I became interested in the techniques of clowning in my second year at Wits. I was especially interested in the naive clown who is childlike, immersed in wonderment and awe and therefore has a certain way of seeing the world and responding to the world.  I’ve explored that as an actor and also in management and leadership,” he says.

It’s a clown not on a mission to save the world, but a clown of empathy and intimacy — more things that don’t scare Bester. It makes the naive clown a symbolic totem for Bester and also his superpower — and that’s exactly what Windybrow needs right now.

Gerard Bester inside the Windybrow. He believes strongly in the power of the arts to transform children's lives.
Gerard Bester inside the Windybrow. He believes strongly in the power of the arts to transform children's lives.
Image: Alon Skuy

The Windybrow heritage home rose up in double-storey majesty on the edge of Hillbrow in 1896. It was designed and built by architect William Leck to be the grand family home of Theodore Reunert.

Reunert arrived in SA from his West Yorkshire home in the UK in 1879. Together with Otto Lenz, he founded the Reunert and Lenz engineering business that is Reunert Limited today.

The family named the house Windybrow, borrowed from the name of the poet Robert Southey’s home in the Lake District, according to a 1979 piece written by BL Grant and republished on the Heritage Portal’s website. Grant writes: “The fittings and furnishings were brought from England and the décor was Anglo-Moorish with ingle fireplaces, lustre tiles, oriental carpets, saddlebag chairs and canopied beds.”  The family lived in the house for 25 years.

Since then it’s changed hands numerous times. It's been a boarding house and  part of a nursing college before it became a theatre and arts complex under Performing Arts Council of Transvaal (PACT) in the mid-'80s till 1994. After a steady decline that led to its closure, it came back to under  Market Theatre Foundation custodianship in 2016.

It has weathered its share of storms and taken a beating over the past 126 years,  but Windybrow stands firm and is ready to welcome whatever  comes next.