Mbongeni Buthelezi was born in 1965 in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa. He showed an early interest in art when he was a child, by molding animals from clay. Also in childhood he saw cattle die from eating plastic that was caught in the grass where they grazed.
Even though there were limited opportunities for education under apartheid, and although he had no money for supplies, he went to Johannesburg to study art. Scrounging paints and supplies thrown away by other students, he managed to remain in school. Nearing graduation, he was seeking a final project. Looking at colorful scraps of plastic in a waste bin, he gathered a bunch and piled them in his work-area, where they sat for weeks while his fellow students wondered what he was up to. One day he watched the school handyman installing electricity pipes, using a heat gun. He thought of a workshop he’d attended, where a Swiss student used plastic as his canvas. All the fragments fell into place, and Buthelezi began to create art work no one had ever seen before.
It was a tricky skill to learn. He had painful burns on his hands from touching melted plastic. After graduation, he was still sleeping on the floor and living on mielie-meal porridge, but he had 30 canvasses. The Plastics Foundation of South Africa heard about his work, and bought all 30 pieces.
Shortly after, he won an art competition in Pretoria. Then in 1998 he was chosen to represent South Africa at an exhibition hosted by the Museum of African Art in New York. He remembers the irony of flying to New York with 7 cents in his pocket – all the money he had, yet he was flying across the world. His work was a success in New York, and he was immediately sought as artist in residence first in Vermont, then in Barbados. He’d been unable to interest galleries in South Africa in his unusual art process, but now found himself in international demand.
Since those early days, he has shown his work in Africa, Europe and the US. He has pieces in many public, private and corporate collections. He’s sought after for workshops and residencies, and has won recognition around the world.
“All these plastics around me serve a purpose. We call them rubbish, but they are not the problem. We are the ones with the problem because of where and how we discard them,”Mbongeni Buthelezi
He gathers plastic himself from the streets of Booysens in Johannesburg, where he has his studio. He used to ask friends to bring plastic to him, but as he’s since discovered which kinds work well for his process, he finds it better to select it himself. A single work can use up to 5000 pieces of plastic trash to complete.
“I use rubbish to 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.”Mbongeni Buthelezi
I ask myself ‘What’s not to love about this guy?’ His works inspire awe and delight. Also the pure grit it took for him to overcome so many obstacles; the originality of his vision; his skill; the way he elevates this humble medium and makes it beautiful; his social and ecological responsibility; his optimism and the hopeful example he sets for all artists and crafters everywhere. We don’t know where our vision might take us.