A real thing for plastic
Acclaimed artist creates extraordinary work from bits and pieces that most of us see only as rubbish
INTERNATIONALLY-acclaimed “green” artist Mbongeni Buthelezi sees his work as a message of hope. Like the dirty plastic he picks up and turns into art, he believes that anyone can change their situation and turn it into something they admire. Weekend Argus caught up with the Johannesburg-based artist who is busy with a national travelling exhibition in a bid to promote his unique “green” art.
When did you start doing art?
I’ve been an artist for 20 years. I started doing the ordinary stuff, which is painting and drawing.
What inspired your “green” art?
In 1991, after the painting and drawing, I wanted to experiment with something different. I also realised that in this industry one needs to be extraordinary to stand out. I decided to try and develop something that has never been seen as a form of art, but something that’s seen as rubbish, problematic and dirty. I was regarded as a rubbish collector. However, plastic is a very serious form of art and I see myself as a person who contributes towards the environment; I do not look at myself as an environmentalist but I make a difference.
How do you collect your material?
Someone collects it for me and I also work with a recycling company. But if I see some beautiful purple plastic I stop and pick it up. However, I’m not a rubbish collector; I am an artist.
Have you used other materials before?
Yes. My background is formal drawing. However, I felt bored. Every Tom, Dick and Harry does that. I wanted to do art that is different. I wanted to use something different to express myself. It is a fascinating process.
I discover new things all the time. I find a new language every day. The paintings respond differently all the time – that leads me to take it further. The medium tells me to try new ways. At some stage I look at my work and ask the question, “how did I come to this?” Every corner of my art is different from another. I’ve got 20 techniques that I use. It goes beyond the plastic – it’s fun.
Where do you get your ideas?
I am a human being; I stay with other human beings and I pick up so many things from them and I translate that in my work.
I like doing portraits – they’re interesting because you capture fas-
cinating expressions. People have different masks. The human body needs to be explored. A woman’s body is such a beautiful art work on its own.
How do you feel about the state of art in South Africa?
I’m from the old school of artists, but I believe it has changed for the better. There are better opportunities for artists now.
There are galleries that showcase black artists. Artists now travel and share experiences with other artists. It is really improving.
Do you think more artists should follow your example in terms of using recyclable material in their art?
I wouldn’t say they should follow what I do; they can learn from what I do, learn, appreciate and be able to use it differently.
In Bloemfontein I did workshops with young people – that was a way of saying, “look at what you can achieve as an artist”.
You can break away from this and grow from it. You do not lose anything if you share your knowl-
edge with young people.
How do you feel about the World Cup?
It is a good thing. It has given people jobs, roads have been improved and we now have the Gautrain – all that is positive. As an artist I don’t think it is going to benefit me, but I’ve been invited to take part in exhibitions . But we need to look beyond June and July – people are so obsessed about this one month. I’m not really crazy about it. I’ll still be an artist even after the World Cup. The struggle continues.
DIFFERENT: Mbongeni Buthelezi, 45, with one of his works of art, made of recyclable materials.