Share this article

​Mbongeni Buthelezi is a master when it comes to recycling. Over the years, the artist has developed extraordinary techniques using plastic and a heat gun to create art.
USING plastic and a heat gun may not sound like the perfect recipe for whipping up an artistic masterpiece, but in the hands of Mbongeni Buthelezi it is.

Mbongeni ButheleziMbongeni Buthelezi in his studio“It’s something I have been doing for 20 years, experimenting with something that people think is nothing and turning it into something,” he explains.

Hailing from Soweto, Buthelezi has always harboured an interest in art. He made his way to the Funda community college in Diepkloof, Soweto – formerly known as the African Institute of Art – in 1986, starting as a part-time student with an ambition of becoming a painter.

His career-defining love affair with plastic, therefore, came as a surprise. “It started in 1991 as a student; art is expensive so I looked at working with alternative materials.”

Working with plastic, in particular, became an idea when he attended an exhibition by Willie Bester, an artist renowned for incorporating recycled material into his work. The concept excited the young artist, and he began experimenting with his new medium.

He even spoke to the Plastics Federation of South Africa about the technical and health implications of working with plastic.

After completing his studies at Funda, he studied a teacher training programme at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, finishing the course in 1998. Buthelezi then obtained an advanced diploma in fine arts from the University of the Witwatersrand.

ManyauzaMbongeni Buthelezi, Self portrait, 2008, Plastic on plastic, 250 x 185 cmInternational acclaim for his work followed, and over the years he has exhibited in locations such as the Museum of African Art in New York, the Goch Museum in Germany and the Prague Biennale. He has been involved in festivals such as the Standard Bank Arts Festival as a guest artist, and has been invited to take up residencies overseas, including at the Vermont Studio Centre in New York and the Barbados Community College.

Buthelezi can boast a variety of techniques and an ability to manufacture his own colours too. “I have between 15 and 20 techniques, as I like to play around and experiment,” he says. “I can draw and paint with plastics and I manufacture my own colours because then I have influence over the work by determining the exact colour I want.”

He has been making his own colours for about five years through a company in Germiston. “It is more fun than anything else, and not about work,” he adds.

There is also something of a sense of irony in the fact that his initial career ambition has fallen by the wayside and he has no interest in resurrecting it: “I know I can afford paints now, but there is nothing there for me anymore.”

Environmental impact
That his work has a positive social and environmental impact further drives him. “I am trying hard to make a small contribution,” he says. In this way, it is particularly rewarding for the artist to share what he does with children who visit his studio on End Street in the inner city on school trips. “I enjoy showing my work to children, as they are the future decision-makers,” he says.

ArtworkWorking with children is Mbongeni Buthelezi's passionPassion for his work is evenly matched with passion for his city. “I don’t see myself spending my life in any other city than Joburg,” he says. “I always have to come back to Joburg because my creative inspiration is here.”

The inner city, especially, feeds his creativity. “My first studio was in Newtown, and then I moved to Auckland Park. It was too quiet and I wanted to get back to the city.”

In looking to the future, Buthelezi has big plans. He has been working non-stop on exhibitions for the past few years and would like to slow down; in 2011, for instance, he had four shows – three in Europe and one at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

“Over the last five to six years, I have had lots of shows. I want to calm down and focus on other projects, to recharge a bit,” he says. “I tend to work in a block, doing a series of about 10 or 15 pieces around the same theme or technique, so now I want to focus on starting anew.”

His long-term goals include having his own space where his works are not crowded around him – the pieces will also have their own space and will all be hanging up on the walls. “I want to bring people in to see what I do and show them what can be done with recycling.”

Buthelezi’s last exhibition was a mid-career retrospective titled MaNyauza, Silent Messages to my Mother and was on show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery from 4 September 2011 to 31 January 2012.

Related stories:

Messages to a mother at JAG
Exhibition examines SA's past
Artists explore liberation
Discover your city
Tracing Gandhi in Joburg
Exhibition looks at healing
Beijing on show
Related links:

Joburg: art, culture and heritage