#FantasticPlastic - Mbongeni Buthelezi creates art from waste plastic
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FOR many years, Mbongeni Buthelezi spent most of his time sifting through piles of garbage at his local dump site: to make art. The poverty-stricken teenager would spend hours rummaging through the enormous heaps of garbage scattered over the Springs dump in the hope of stumbling across material he could use to create his novel artwork.
“I grew up in a very poor home, and so I couldn’t afford any art materials,” Buthelezi remembers. “I knew that I couldn’t give up my dream just because of my circumstances.“If anything, it pushed me towards thinking differently.” Each time Buthelezi visited the dump, he would be immediately attracted to the bright colours of plastic that shone in the piles of garbage. And so, he decided to take a handful of plastic with him home to see if it was something he could work with. “The elasticity of plastic intrigued me,” he says. “I had nothing to lose and so I thought why not try and create art with the waste plastic I’ve collected?” This would be the start of a fulfilling journey for Buthelezi, a former herder from KwaZulu-Natal. Over the next 26 years, the local artist would create hundreds of unique pieces of artwork made from plastic waste. His artwork has been exhibited extensively locally and internationally and his works grace numerous important private and public collections around the globe.
Most recently, Buthelezi was in Saudi Arabia to receive an award from the prestigious King Abdullah University of Science in Technology as a pioneer in his medium. Buthelezi is now in Joburg to show off his latest solo collection at the Melrose Gallery, Sugar Tax, which takes on the ubiquitous branding of soft drinks as a theme. But his latest collection isn’t a debate about the sugar tax. “I’m not trying to correct anything regarding tax or no tax. My idea was to display these beautiful materials that have become very much part of us as human beings daily. “We see these brands being advertised everywhere. These brands are part of us. I’ve used the labels and barcodes of popular soft drinks to build up images, and that’s basically it.” Looking back at his journey into an art technique that has never been explored before, Buthelezi describes it as long and rewarding.
“I started this in 1991 when I was still a student. The whole idea was for me to try and move away from the traditional ways of making art, because I couldn’t afford the materials. “It was pure struggle that pushed me towards this. I was poor. I thought to myself, what can I do with these colours and the material I have at hand? “I couldn’t come up with the answer immediately. It took me a long time. “It’s a process that was very daunting and painful and still is.” Because Buthelezi is the only artist in the world that uses plastic waste to create artwork, learning about the technique was a challenge, he says. “I had no point of reference. I couldn’t go to a library and access material that would allow me to move forward in this art technique. “So I had to learn from each and every plastic that I put on canvas. “It’s been interesting but challenging at the same time.” Once the plastic is heated, he manipulates the hot molten material to create large abstract pieces and portraits. To complete his portraits, he attaches hot pieces of plastic waste to one another and the canvas – creating the illusion of brush strokes or carvings.
Sometimes, the artist uses as many as 5 000 pieces of plastic to complete a single piece. “I consider colour. I consider the text sometimes that I get from these materials, because in a sense it brings a very interesting design element into my work. “I play around with it to come up with whatever message that I want to bring forward.” Initially, his technique was questioned by many people. “I kept on getting asked by my colleagues whether I thought there was any future in the technique I was using. “I never doubted myself though. I insisted on pushing it and making sure whatever challenges I get faced with, I will manoeuvre my way around. “My family also kept asking me how I plan on making a living with an art technique that was non-existent. “Today I look back and I’m really glad I stuck to my guns.” Not only is Buthelezi’s art one of a kind, but his artwork helps protect the environment. “At first, I didn’t even think that by using waste plastic I would be contributing in helping the environment. “People kept telling me that you are doing so much of good for the environment by putting good use to waste plastic. I’m thrilled.” These days, Buthelezi no longer needs to sift through garbage at his local dump site for materials. “Companies like Coca-Cola set aside plastic for me to use. I go there once a week and fill an entire van with plastic. “I’m very grateful to these companies for allowing me to put the plastic to good use.” Buthelezi hopes his artwork will serve as inspiration. “I want people to respect this form. In a way, my artwork is like a message that I’m trying to convey to my fellow human beings to say I’m trying to give hope to those that seem hopeless. “Even if you have nothing in your pocket, you can still try and fiddle around and see how you can possibly hit the right buttons, stand up and move forward as a human being.”