The artist at work: Mbongeni Buthelezi makes beauty out of waste

South African artist Mbongeni Buthelezi recycles plastic litter, adds some heat and melts it all on to his canvas to create some of the most audacious pieces of art. A regular exhibitor on the local and international art scenes for almost 20 years, he has been hailed as one of the country’s most innovative artists.

Mbongeni-Buthelezi-ARTICLE‘Self Portrait’ by South African artist Mbongeni Buthelezi, who creates Pollockesque canvases using recycled plastic. (Image: Mbongeni Buthelezi)


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“I use rubbish to create something beautiful from it. I collect something that has no value and give it new life. That’s what we can do with ourselves and our lives,” is how artist Mbongeni Buthelezi introduces himself on his website portfolio, and for 16 years he’s made a name for himself as one of South Africa’s boldest and most original artists.

He chose to work with plastic during his art school days as a way to draw attention to the medium and as a way to stand out in the often crowded local art scene. The combination of the tangible method of sculpting plastic on to canvas was also a way for him to work through his creative process. He told Euronews recently: “With watercolour and other mediums… that I have experimented with in the past, there was a time where I felt that I’m hitting the ceiling, I’m not growing anymore. I wanted to be noticed and I wanted to catch attention, because I knew also that I’m moving into a career where you have to be really special to be able to even make a living out of it.”

Mbongeni-Buthelezi-Winter-in-Kliptown-ARTICLE‘Winter in Kliptown’ by Mbongeni Buthelezi, exhibited at the Seippel Gallery in Koln, Germany. (Image: Mbongeni Buthelezi)

Buthelezi has been a regular and popular exhibitor on the South African art circuit for years, and has garnered positive attention from international galleries and art schools. Art lovers are intrigued by his use of discarded consumer plastic in crafting vibrant and engrossing African story-portraits. In these works, he makes bold statements about the world as he sees it, addressing social and environmental issues.

In 2010, the Live Out Loud website said Buthelezi’s work “reflects humanity’s often detrimental impact on the environment, but his original use of discarded objects to depict an often forgotten group of people truly sets him apart”.

His artistic process involves melting down strips of coloured plastic on to the canvas surface, itself often also made from plastic. He understates the creation process as simple and haphazard, but the final Pollockesque pieces speak for themselves, enjoyable and provocative on all levels, from all distances. “I’m interested in finding the details in the painting, but also, as you step away from the piece it really comes together,” Buthelezi told BBC News at his latest exhibition in Johannesburg this week.

Mbongeni-Buthelezi-Hula-Hoop-III-ARTICLE‘Hula Hoop III’ by Mbongeni Buthelezi is an example of the artist’s attention to detail. He uses melted recycled plastic to tell engrossing African story-portraits. (Image: Mbongeni Buthelezi)

Buthelezi may be the only artist – that he knows of – who works in this medium, but he appreciates this singularity as it doesn’t give him an outside point of reference that may hinder his originality. Yet he still believes the melted plastic method is a way to make art creation easily available to anyone who wants to experiment, but who may not be able to access or afford traditional art materials. “(Anyone) can gather waste plastic and start painting,” he says, “and construct something out of nothing.”

When it comes to appreciating the role art has played in his life, Buthelezi is philosophical, telling the BBC he sees himself as “a mirror for the society I live in, and I want to make a meaningful impact on that society”.

Mbongeni-Buthelezi-Church-ARTICLE‘Church’ by Mbongeni Buthelezi. Of his art he says he is interested in “(finding) the details close up, but also see the whole story as you view it from afar”. (Image: Mbongeni Buthelezi)

In addition to being recognised with a number of local art awards during his career, including semi-finalist in the 2007 Sasol Wax Art Awards, Buthelezi has also won a Visi Design award and a Mail & Guardian Green Trust award for “commitment and contributions to the environment (with) social conscience and creativity”.

He is artist-in-residence at the Omni International Arts Centre in New York City and for the South African National Arts Festival. He has exhibited in Germany, the US and Holland, and has been commissioned to make exclusive works by companies such as Mercedes Benz South Africa and the Daimler art collection in Stuttgart, Germany.