Maverick Citizen

ART OF THE MATTER

Joburg artist drives pollution awareness by turning waste plastic into portraits

Joburg artist drives pollution awareness by turning waste plastic into portraits
Mbongeni Buthelezi’s artwork titled ‘Jozi My Jozi’, for the pop-up exhibition, Trash to Art. The exhibition was co-created by over 500 Standard Bank employees and as part of the Jozi My Jozi initiative — a coalition of business, civil society organisations, and public sector stakeholders who want to see a revitalisation of the Johannesburg inner city. (Photo: Supplied)

Mbongeni Buthelezi, an artist and activist uses waste plastics to create highly textured portraits and hopes his art sparks dialogues on plastic pollution globally. 

Mbongeni Buthelezi hails from rural Kwa-Zulu Natal and recalled his childhood experiences with plastic, with plastic pollution playing a role in the death of many of his father’s cows. Plastic litter was so common in grazing areas that it became an unwelcome part of the cows’ regular diet and they would die.

“It is so fascinating to realise that I have come full circle, instead of allowing these plastics to be everywhere, it can also be utilised somehow,” he said.

Buthelezi was speaking during a walkabout of the Trash to Art Exhibition located at Standard Bank’s 30 Baker Street Atrium.

Buthelezi works with an unusual medium — plastic.

Collected from local rubbish dumps and city streets, he repurposes the synthetic material to make art, helping to raise awareness and combat climate change.

In November 2023, Jozi My Jozi — a non-profit organisation founded by a coalition of business, civil society organisations and public sector stakeholders — who want to see a revitalisation of the inner-city — and Standard Bank Group joined hands.

For four weeks, Jozi My Jozi and over 500 Standard Bank Group volunteers including finance specialists, security personnel, cleaners, and investment practitioners roamed the streets of inner Johannesburg as part of a clean-up project.

The clean-up initiative aimed to help create a city that all residents can be proud of through collaborations and united actions. The material collected is what Buthelezi used for his artworks.

“We were trying to pick up whatever mess or garbage that we could come across, but we were also trying to separate plastic, steel, boxes, and all of that. The volunteers picked up a lot, PickitUp was also part of this initiative and provided some garbage bags and trucks. You can imagine how much we collected and it shows that people are willing to contribute and do something,” said Buthelezi.

Mbongeni Buthelzi, plastic, art

Mbongeni Buthelzi believes that art has the power to create environmental change, and wants to use his medium to raise awareness about this very important issue. “As an artist I am the mirror of my society, I’m supposed to reflect on what is happening on the ground where I live,” he said. (Photo: Supplied)

Born out of necessity, now a deliberate choice

Buthelezi’s use of waste wasn’t always in defence of the environment; he first began using plastic litter for his art because he couldn’t afford more traditional mediums.

“I started working with plastics in September 1991, very few people were involved in recycling plastics at that time, I was sort of one of the first artists to try and experiment using the same material,” he said.

“When I started experimenting with plastic, people thought I was crazy, no one gave me a chance. But I started when I was still a student and I managed to show that there is something that can be done in terms of sustainability, reuse of material, and art”.

He began collecting plastic litter to “paint” with in lieu 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.

“People think that I melt the plastic into liquid, which I don’t, it is more of a collage. You can still see the labels of Lemon Twist, Monster, and Brutal Fruit in the work. It is more of patches, more than me turning plastic into liquid and applying it onto the surface — it is not painting but just bits and pieces of hundreds of plastics that I used,”

The canvas that he uses is also made of plastic and explained that plastic tends not to stick to any other surface except another plastic of the same quality.

“Everything that you see here is made out of plastic, it is 100% plastic. There are almost nine layers of roofing sheeting plastic that I use as a form of canvas, and then start building up using different colours,” he said.

Buthelezi uses his bare hands to make the collage and stick the materials onto the surface.

“I do have a lot of burns, especially when I started. As you can see I have no nails, but now I have a way of manoeuvring and dealing with the challenges I encounter,” he said.

Growing up, Buthelezi used to see his mother making door mats and hats using plastic bags from Checkers and Pick n Pay.

Mbongeni Buthelzi

Mbongeni Buthelzi said he hopes his art sparks dialogues on plastic pollution globally. (Photo: Supplied)

“We didn’t have resources to buy doormats but mom would just do it. I remember jerseys and sweaters that I used to wear — my mom used to crochet them. She would make hats during winter and even socks!” he said.

Buthelezi says growing up in such a household likely contributed to using plastic as a medium.

“I think that somehow led me to realise that perhaps it is not always about resources and money. Sometimes it is about what is possible. Those people were resourceful. I grew up in a family where my mother was a domestic worker and my father was unemployed, so you can imagine in that situation we are trying to save as much money as we possibly can,” he said.

Today, Buthelezi’s use of plastic is no longer out of necessity, but it is an intentional attempt to minimise pollution and find new uses for what would otherwise end up in landfills.  He believes that art has the power to create environmental change, and wants to use his medium to raise awareness about this very important issue.

“What we all see in the city centre, plastics are everywhere at any time […] as an artist I am the mirror of my society, I’m supposed to reflect on what is happening on the ground where I live,” he said. For Buthelezi, what is on the ground is plastic.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Plastic, plastic everywhere – decades of talking moves closer to global action

According to The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), South Africa disproportionately contributes to plastic pollution in sub-Saharan Africa.

Research shows that South Africa contributes around 35% of plastic pollution leaking into waterways and the marine environment in southern and east Africa according to the IUCN study on Regional Results on Plastic Pollution from Eastern and Southern Africa. In addition, per capita plastic waste generation in the country is 28 kg per year which is significantly higher than the average of 16 kg per annum on the continent,” read a statement from WFF.

Art sparking dialogue 

With plastic waste growing worldwide, Buthelezi is using his work to highlight and combat the issue, holding exhibitions, participating in festivals, leading workshops, and taking up artist residencies in Germany, the US, Barbados, Egypt, Australia, and Saudi Arabia.

At COP27, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, a series of his artworks that focus on the destructive impact of single-use plastics on oceans was on display.

Although his art has received widespread acclaim, Buthelezi has also encountered sceptics questioning the sustainability of his medium.

For Buthelezi, the eventual depletion of plastic resources seems unlikely in the near future, but he would welcome it if it happened.

Buthelzi said he hopes his art sparks dialogues on plastic pollution globally.

“We can do something if we collaborate, come together, we volunteer, we just bring our efforts together. Eventually, we will win this war,” he said. DM

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