World · June 23, 2022

Mbongeni Buthelezi: The South African artist who transforms plastic into portraits

Written by Nadia Leigh-Hewitson, CNN

While other artists might use watercolors or oil paints, Mbongeni Buthelezi uses scrap plastic to create highly structured portraits in his studio in Booysens, Johannesburg.

Its medium is the plastic waste it collects from local landfills and city streets. “The animals are dying, the fish in the ocean are dying, because of this material and because of us as humans,” Buthelezi said. “We are the ones who have to take responsibility.”

An artist and activist, Buthelezi, 56, first discovered his talent for creativity as a boy in rural South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal. He carved clay figurines of the cattle around his village: cows, horses and goats.

“I grew up with my father’s animals, livestock was an important part of my life,” said Buthelezi. But not everything in this rural setting was natural.

He explained that plastic waste was so common in grazing areas that it became an unwanted part of the cows’ regular diet. “We would see these cows die from eating plastic,” Buthelezi said.

Five decades later, South Africa still has a serious plastic pollution problem. In 2018, 107,000 tons of plastic waste from South Africa ended up in the marine environment. A 2015 study found that the country was one of the world’s top 20 contributors to marine plastic pollution.

With plastic waste growing around the world, Buthelezi is using his work to highlight and combat the problem.

Buthelezi uses plastic waste to create works of art depicting life in South Africa.

Buthelezi uses plastic waste to create works of art depicting life in South Africa. Credit: Mbongeni Buthelezi

Plastic practices

Buthelezi’s use of waste has not always been in defense of the environment; he started using plastic waste for his art because he couldn’t afford more traditional means.

At 22, when the country was still under apartheid, he enrolled in full-time classes at a community art school in Soweto, a Johannesburg town. He only brought two blankets with him, very little money and a lot of optimism. There he lived in a small room and did odd jobs between classes to afford rent and food. He had no money for materials.

“It was the 1980s and South Africa was facing this transition phase where politics was very unstable,” said Buthelezi.

He added that the political climate did not offer many opportunities for young black South Africans trying to build their careers, especially those in the townships. The main problem was the lack of funds.

Buthelezi explained that there was no formal education in the townships and community institutions, such as his college, did not receive any support from the state.

“The school introduced us to things like collage: using old magazines to create a work of art if you don’t have the money for colors,” said Buthelezi. “Without those traditional and imaginative ways of making art, we have broadened our way of looking at art and life”.

“There was a landfill next to my study in college,” he recalled. “I’ve seen all these bright colors, these materials … and I said to myself, what can I do to make sense of these plastics that are everywhere?”

He began to collect plastic waste to “paint” instead of expensive oil paints. He developed a technique of using an electric heat gun that produced hot air to melt the plastic and then apply it to a recycled canvas. According to Buthelezi this is more environmentally friendly than using flames to melt plastic and does not release harmful fumes into the atmosphere.

A work by Buthelezi called "street football"

A work by Buthelezi entitled “Street Soccer”. Credit: Mbongeni Buthelezi

After completing his studies at the African Institute of Art and later the Johannesburg Art Foundation, he earned an Advanced Diploma in Fine Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand.

As her career progressed, she rethought her childhood experiences with plastics and the role plastic pollution played in the deaths of many of her father’s cows. In the 1990s, Buthelezi was a professional artist and was determined to use innovation in art for the good of the planet.

“As an artist, I am the mirror of my society”

Buthelezi still makes work using the same melting method as waste plastic. The works are figurative and primarily explore the experience of growing up in a South African township. Throughout his career she has used his art to educate and initiate conversations about global plastic waste. “The world we live in today can offer us everything we need to make art without producing anything else,” she said.

Buthelezi has held exhibitions, participated in festivals, conducted workshops and took artist residencies in countries including Germany, the United States, Barbados, Egypt, Australia and Saudi Arabia.

“As an artist I am the mirror of my society,” says Buthelezi. “I should reflect on what is happening on the ground where I live.” And for him, what is “on the ground” is plastic.

In March, he spoke at a discussion at the South African National Science and Technology Forum on Plastics Innovation and will be attending an art and environment festival in Abu Dhabi later this year.

Although his efforts have garnered widespread praise, Buthelezi says not everyone has been so supportive. “Some people say, ‘One day you will run out of plastic and then you won’t be able to do your job,'” he said. “They don’t understand that I’d be happy if that happened. That’s what I’m fighting for!”