Mbongeni Buthelezi: Recycled Plastic Artist

Heating strips of recycled plastic into pieces of art is a pretty innovative way to get your name out there as an artist. But it worked...

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“I collect rubbish and create something beautiful from it. I collect something that has no value and give it new life. That’s what we can do with ourselves and our lives.”

That’s how Mbongeni Buthelezi introduces himself as an artist. By watching any number of interviews with the South African, you can see he is sincere in his passion for art and creating a wholly positive message, for people and the environment. The journey to becoming a recognized ‘recycled plastic’ artist was not easy for Buthelezi, and he started his craft by studying from a local artist called Lucky Moema, in exchange for bread and tea.

He moved on to Johannesburg, studying part-time with the little money and materials he had, with the intention of becoming a sculptor. Buthelezi was encourage to try drawing and painting, but eventually, it was not paint that he found himself applying to the canvas.

“Buthelezi had to look for alternative materials, because he couldn’t afford to buy expensive paints and canvases. In a workshop with a Swiss artist who used plastic as canvas for his artworks Buthelezi got his initial inspiration. His idea was to use plastic not only as a canvas but also to paint with this cheap material one can find everywhere. Soon he found himself experimenting with a heat gun, applying the melted material onto a black plastic background. In that year he received best marks for his plastic works and from then on he continuously improved his technique- making a virtue out of necessity.”

After being recognized for his work and winning awards, he moved into full times study, and began making recycled plastic art as his primary style. It’s now been 25 years, and he is widely recognized as one of South Africa’s most exceptional artists, having been awarded numerous awards and commissions over that time. Knowing how hard it was to receive an art education, Buthelezi even spent time as a part-time art teacher, sharing his love and creativity.

Recycled Plastic Technique

What’s most exceptional about his art is the extraordinary technique involved. By layering and positions pieces of recycled plastic, he is able to create amazing portraits and mosaics, in a style that almost looks like oil paintings! Buthelezi is able to source the recycled plastic from recycling yards in Johannesburg, before taking them to his workshop and applying them to his art.

“I consider color. 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” the artist says about his work. The technique of creating brush strokes can take around 5,000 pieces of plastic for a single canvas piece.

Sometimes, the artist uses as many as 5,000 pieces of recycled plastic to complete a single artwork.


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