While other artists may use watercolors or oil paints, Mbongeni Buthelezi uses waste plastic to create highly decorative portraits in his studio in Booysens, Johannesburg.
The method he uses is the plastic garbage he collects from local landfills and city streets. “Animals are dying and fish in the ocean are dying – because of this substance and because of us as humans,” Buthelezi said. “We have to take responsibility.”
Artist and activist Buthelezi, 56, first found his creative talent as a boy in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. And he carved around his village clay statues: cows, horses and goats.
“Growing up with my parents’ animals, cattle were an important part of my life,” Buthelezi said. But not everything in this rural setting was normal.
He explained that plastic litter was so common in grazing areas that it had become an unwelcome part of the cows’ regular diet. “We were seeing these cows die because they ate the plastic,” Puthelesi said.
With the growth of plastic waste around the world, Buthelize is using his work to highlight and combat this problem.
Botelizzi uses plastic trash to create artwork depicting life in South Africa. attributed to him: Mbongeni Buthelize
Puthelize’s use of waste has not always been in defense of the environment; He first started using plastic trash in his art because he could not tolerate more traditional media.
At the age of twenty-two, when the country was still apartheid, he enrolled in full-time classes at a community art school in Soweto, a town in Johannesburg. He only took two blankets with him, a little money, and a lot of optimism. There he lived in a small room and worked sporadic jobs between classrooms to pay rent and food. He had no money to buy materials.
“It was the ’80s, and South Africa was facing this transitional phase where politics was very volatile,” said Buthelezi.
He added that the political climate did not provide many opportunities for young black South Africans trying to build their careers, especially from the townships. The main problem was the lack of funding.
Buthelezi explained that there was no formal education in the towns, and that communal institutions, such as his college, had received no state support.
“The school introduced us to things like collage — using old magazines to create artwork if you didn’t have the money to buy paints,” said Buthelezi. “Without those wonderful traditional ways of making art, we have expanded our way of looking at art and life.”
“Next to my studio in college there was a dumpster,” he recalls. “I saw all these wonderful colors, these materials… and I thought to myself, What can I do to make sense of these plastics that are everywhere?”
He began collecting plastic trash to “paint” it instead of expensive oil paints. He developed a technique by using an electric heat gun that produces hot air to melt plastic and then applying it to recycled fabric. According to Boothleigh, this is more environmentally friendly than using flame to melt plastic and does not release harmful fumes into the atmosphere.
A pothellies work called “Street Soccer”. attributed to him: Mbongeni Buthelize
After completing his studies at the African Institute of Art and later at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, he went on to obtain an Advanced Diploma in Fine Art from the University of the Witwatersrand.
As his career progressed, he thought back to his childhood experiences with plastic and the role plastic pollution had played in the deaths of several of his father’s cows. By the 1990s, Buthelezi was a professional artist, determined to use innovation in art for the benefit of the planet.
“As an artist, I am a mirror of my community.”
Buthelize still makes the business using the same method of smelting waste plastic. The business is allegorical and mostly explores the experience of growing up in a South African town. Throughout his career, he has used his art to educate and start conversations about global plastic waste. “The world we live in today can give us everything we need to make art without making more,” he said.
Buthelezi has held exhibitions, participated in festivals, led workshops, and held art residencies in countries such as Germany, USA, Barbados, Egypt, Australia, and Saudi Arabia.
“As an artist, I am the mirror of my society,” Puthelesi says. “I’m supposed to think about what happens on the ground where I live.” And for him, what is “on the ground” is plastic.
In March, he spoke at the National Science and Technology Forum in South Africa on plastic innovation, and at the end of the year he will participate in an arts and environment festival in Abu Dhabi.
Although his efforts were widely praised, Buthelezi says not everyone was supportive of them. “Some people say, one day you’re going to run out of plastics, and then you won’t be able to do your job,” he said. “They don’t understand that I would be happy if that happened. That’s what I’m fighting for!”
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