I had no point of
public collections around the globe.
Most recently, Buthelezi was in Saudi Arabia to receive an award from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as a pioneer in his medium.
Buthelezi is now in Joburg to show off his latest solo collection at the Melrose Gallery, Sugar Tax, which takes on the ubiquitous branding of soft drinks as a theme.
But his latest collection isn’t a debate about the sugar tax. “I’m not trying to correct anything regarding tax or no tax. My idea was to display these beautiful materials that have become very much part of us as human beings daily.
“We see these brands being advertised everywhere. These brands are part of us. I’ve used the labels and barcodes of popular soft drinks to build up images and that’s basically it.”
Buthelezi described his adoption of an art technique that had rarely been explored before as long and rewarding.
“I started this in 1991, when I was still a student. The whole idea was for me to try and move away from the traditional ways of making art, because I couldn’t afford the materials.
“It was pure struggle that pushed me towards this. I was poor. I thought to myself, what can I do with these colours and the material I have at hand?
“I couldn’t come up with the answer immediately. It took me a long time. It’s a process that was very daunting and painful and still is.”
Because Buthelezi is the one of a few artists in the world who use plastic waste to create artwork, learning about the technique was a challenge, he said.
“I had no point of reference. I couldn’t go to a library and access material that would allow me to move forward in this art technique.
“So I had to learn from each and every plastic that I put on canvas. It’s been interesting but challenging at the same time.”
Once the plastic is heated, he manipulates the hot molten material to create large abstract pieces and portraits.
To complete his portraits, he attaches hot pieces of plastic waste to each other and the canvas, creating the illusion of brush strokes or carvings.
Sometimes he uses as many as 5 000 pieces of plastic to complete a single work.
“I consider colour. I consider the text sometimes that I get from these materials, because in a sense it brings a very interesting design element into my work. I play around with it to come up with whatever message I want to bring forward.”
Initially, his technique was questioned by many. “I kept on getting asked by my colleagues whether I thought there was any future in the technique I was using.
“I never doubted myself, though. I insisted on pushing it and making sure whatever challenges I get faced with, I will manoeuvre my way around.
“My family also kept asking me how I planned on making a living with an art technique that was non-existent. Today I look back and I’m really glad I stuck to my guns.”
Not only is Buthelezi’s art novel, but it also helps protect the environment. “At first, I didn’t even think that by using waste plastic I would be contributing in helping the environment.
“People kept telling me that you are doing so much of good for the environment by putting good use to waste plastic. I’m thrilled.”
These days he no longer needs to sift through rubbish.
“Companies like Coca-Cola set aside plastic for me to use. I go there once a week and fill an entire van with plastic. I’m very grateful to these companies for allowing me to put the plastic to good use.”
Buthelezi hopes his artwork will serve as inspiration.
“I want people to respect this form. In a way, my artwork is like a message that I’m trying to convey to my fellow human beings,to say I’m trying to give hope to those that are hopeless.
Buthelezi is exhibiting 19 pieces of his latest artwork at the gallery in Melrose Arch, open to the public until May 21.
Artist Mbongeni Buthelezi, whose preferred medium is waste plastic with one of his works. His exhibition titled Sugar Tax is at the Melrose Gallery in Joburg.