Ever heard of Mbongeni Buthelezi? The man who takes discarded plastic and miraculously melts it into molten masterpieces on canvas.
Believe it when you see it, and when you see it, you won’t.
One of South Africa’s most respected avant-garde artists, Mbongeni’s twenty-year journey from humble beginnings has placed him on the priority list of discerning collectors lists both locally and internationally.
Once a cattle herder from Kwazulu-Natal, the talented master reflects humanity’s detrimental impact on the environment and society through his use of upcycled objects. In his paintings, Mbongeni depicts a variety of everyday scenes from African history to human portraits.
Experimenting with watercolour and other mediums from a school-going age, Mbongeni soon realised that to transform his passion into a viable income, he would need to stand out from the creative crowds as it were. “Studying at the Funda Centre in Soweto, there wasn’t enough money for transport and food let alone expensive paints and canvases,” he recalls. “I collected plastic on my way to and from college and experimented with it.”
As a young man, Mbongeni assisted his father with brick making, which he believes set the foundation for his work ethic, later leading him to his tertiary achievements.
“I see myself as a mirror for the society I live in.”
His unusual technique involves melting down strips of plastic onto a canvas surface, applying heat with a heat gun, and manipulating the molten into rough textured portraits that evoke the gritty reality of life in South African townships. As easy as it may sound, it is, on the contrary, a process that requires years of experience to perfect the intricacies therein. The tenacious creator has taught himself to understand different kinds of plastic and their behaviour, melt flow, liquidation, change of colour and colour failures.
He draws, paints, and creates images in colour, sepia, and monochrome, much like the gigantic piece he created for the DaVinci Hotel in Sandton for which he has earned enormous respect.
Unsurprisingly, the master has won a series of art awards including a Visi Design Award, and a Mail & Guardian Green Trust Award for “commitment and contributions to the environment (with) social conscience and creativity”; and his art is resident at the Omni International Arts Centre in New York City, among other exhibitions throughout Europe and in the U.S. In addition, he’s been commissioned to produce exclusive works by companies such as Mercedes-Benz South Africa and the Daimler art collection in Stuttgart, Germany.
When speaking about the role art has played in his life, Mbongeni says “I see myself as a mirror for the society I live in, and I want to make a meaningful impact on society. My inspiration comes from my everyday experiences based on what I see, touch and smell, as well as from the people I meet.”
I’m no muse, but in my opinion, this guise stands equal to classical painting and is an apt expression of our time.
Mbongeni’s works are currently being exhibited at The Boutique Gallery in Franschhoek.
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