South African Artist Mbongeni Buthelezi has carved a lane for himself through his unorthodox use of plastic as paint.
The abundance of art around us tends to trick us into thinking it is easily accessible to all. The truth is that art is often one of the most exclusionary forms of expression. Over the years, many artists have fought for their right to be included, breaking down barriers and gatekeepers that upheld discriminatory provisions. South African artist Mbongeni Buthelezi is an example of how artistic expression can transcend the norm and create the extraordinary out of the ordinary. He was born when the government purposely withheld opportunities from black people. Therefore, thinking outside the box wasn’t just a ‘buzz term,’ but a way of life because finding creative ways of manoeuvring through obstacles meant surviving a system designed to oppress.
Mbongeni discovered his talent at a very young age, using clay to sculpt figurines in his rural hometown of Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, where he learned how to herd cattle and lead a simple and minimal lifestyle. He also made wire cars, a popular toy for children whose families could not afford to buy any from shops. Made from scraps of wire, tins, string, and plastics, these creations would foreshadow Mbongeni’s future.
He was born in 1966, which means he has experienced South Africa in all her struggle and splendour. Enrolling at a community art school in Soweto when he was just 22, funding was tough to come by. Furthermore, with South Africa’s tumultuous politics as a backdrop, Mbongeni’s greatest inspiration came from his environment. His unorthodox approach to art helped him create work that set him apart.
“The school introduced us to things like collage — using old magazines to create an artwork if you don’t have money for paints. Without those fancy traditional ways of making art, we expanded our way of looking at art and life.” He told CNN Style. Finances were a significant obstacle in young Buthelezi’s life. Struggling to afford everything, he’d have to scavenge for leftover paints to get by. Tuition was a problem, too, and he’d resort to missing some classes because transport money would dry up. “I didn’t have the money to afford studies there. It was R1 500 for fees, which was for a three-month course. Charles Nkosi was a huge help, and the Goodman Gallery helped to pay my fees. My parents could only afford to give me R30 a week for transport, which meant I could only come three days a week to class. I had to choose them carefully,” he told New Frame.
One day in his third year of study, the dumping site next to Funda Centre caught Mbongeni’s eye. “Whenever I stood and looked down at the tuck shop, I always saw the plastics and their vivid colours in the rubbish bin. One day, I collected that trash and put it in my little corner.” Mbongeni’s teachings from his childhood of making do with what he had came in handy. A new world of art was opened for him when he began using plastics as ‘paint’ to create remarkable portraits that depict South African life.
Mbongeni’s dedication to recycling waste and repurposing it aligns with his activism. The world, along with South Africa, has a worrying problem. Plastic pollution is one of the top causes of death among animals, and sea life is also highly endangered. Litter is so common and widely accepted, yet it eats away at our environments. Mbongeni’s work highlights this problem and brings awareness to it.
He believes that “The world we live in today can offer us everything we need to make art without manufacturing more,” This is undeniably true. According to the Daily Maverick, “Almost 80,000 tonnes of plastic leak into the oceans and rivers of South Africa each year, making up 3% of the plastic waste generated in the country every year. About 2,371 thousand tonnes of plastic waste is generated in South Africa per annum.”
Unfortunately, only 14% of the 70% of waste that is collected is recycled.
There is still a long way to go before pollution is eradicated. Will it happen in our lifetime? Probably not. However, with artists like Mbongeni who have found a way to create something beautiful out of something so ugly and destructive, it instils a sense of hope that there is still a possibility that the earth may heal one day.