The art of plastic

ARTIST. Alchemist. Activist. Internationally acclaimed fine artist Mbongeni Buthelezi is all of these. His unique self-developed art genre is the product of enormous creativity and initiative. At the heart of his art-alchemy is plastic. His activism has both an environmental and social focus.

Johannesburg-based Buthelezi was in Durban this week, invited by the Point Yacht Club as part of their environmental outreach Turn the Tide on Plastics project. The goal? Beating pollution. The project includes regular harbor clean-ups and awareness campaigns, including a focus on recycling.

Between demonstrating the art form he developed, using plastic and a heat gun, Buthelezi—who was quick to tell me he is a “KZN boy, born and bred”—shared the story of his journey, which gave new meaning to necessity being the mother of invention.

Buthelezi, now 53, was born in rural Newcastle, where his role was to tend his father’s cattle. When he was 18 the family moved to Springs. It was an awakening. He says he quickly learned that life does not wait for you.

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A constant was always that he loved to draw. “At school the other kids would ask me to draw things for them.” He got encouragement from teachers. So the natural thing was to enroll at an art school in Soweto.

“I quickly realized—what any artist will tell you—that art materials are expensive. Good paints and canvas.” So he looked for alternative material. Paper collage, using magazines, wasn’t satisfying and the results weren’t robust.

Then one day, near the little tuck shop on the campus, he saw a pile of packaging. Plastic from six-packs of Fanta, Coca-Cola, Sprite… He noticed the brilliant colours. “The idea came to me to collect them, bring them back to my studio, and get inspiration.”

Not all that much later, he saw someone using a heat gun. He asked about it and was told it was used for stripping paint. It gave him an idea. He borrowed one from the college—“and never gave it back,” he says, laughing. “I still have it in my studio.”

Buthelezi was one of the top painting students in his class. (He is still an excellent painter, drawer and watercolor artist, when he gives them the time.) “But I was experimenting more and more with the heat gun. I was risking.”

Mbongeni Buthelezi with the work he created from plastic for the Point Yacht Club, inspired by the sail boats. He works with a heat gun and plastic, much of it recycled. The work is textured, layered, and adventure in plastic. He specialises in portraits. PHOTO: Wanda Hennig

Instead of painting for his final exams, he continued with the new genre he was developing, having no idea what the possibilities were or where the experimentation would take him. Unbelievably, he says, he came first in class. “The lecturers saw I was really trying, experimenting, and appreciated it.”

The big stepping stone came in 1994 when he was approached to join a group of South African artists invited to show their work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was a scary time. He was in the company of people like Willie Bester and David Koloane he had grown up admiring. They were to be in New York for one week. Two days before he was scheduled to fly back, “a woman from Vermont came and said: you’re not going back to South Africa. You’re coming to my residency for four months. Your studio is waiting. There will be 60 artists from 33 countries.”

He was nervous. Concerned for his family back home.

“But I reminded myself, this was what I had chosen.” He went. It was a long four months. Lonely. But he produced a good body of work.

Longing for home, at the eleventh hour he was approached by the same Vermont woman as before. She said he’d been invited by the National Council of Barbados to go there for four months to run workshops.

He returned to South Africa for one weekend then headed to Barbados, where, among other things, he initiated a prisoner art program that is still running. Why prisoners? He says he saw a parallel between plastic—what society disposes of and doesn’t want—and hard-core prisoners, “dumped with no effort to resuscitate them”.

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His story since then has been one of residencies and exhibitions and travel and creating art. His work is textured, layered, emotionally intense—and painterly. And there is a huge body of it, much inspired by family members, especially children.

The biggest single piece is a 35mt by 4mt mural in the Da Vinci Hotel in Johannesburg.

Buthelezi loves to inspire young people to be aware of their environment. To teach them littering is not necessary. And to be aware that limitations can be self-imposed. “Don’t think ‘out the box’,” he says. “Remove the box. So long as you have in mind that you’re thinking out the box, you’re still attached to the box.”


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