Long Read | Mbongeni Buthelezi turns trash into treasure

A lack of finances prompted the artist to use discarded plastic for his final-year exhibition, putting him on the path to international art acclaim and works that resonate deeply as the climate degrades.

“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,” says artist Mbongeni Buthelezi at his studio in Booysens, Johannesburg.

From the street, it is impossible to know the magic that occurs inside these walls as he produces stark reminders of the many injustices still occurring across the country. Buthelezi is an artist, but that description is as nondescript as Lionel Messi saying that his profession is that of footballer. Like the twinkle-toed Argentine, Buthelezi creates magic, confronting one’s senses with his extraordinary range and depth. That he creates his murals, portraits and powerful statements using plastic is even more startling.

Buthelezi is an activist, and his art is his ever louder voice. To say you have a “Buthelezi” in your collection is a badge of honour because the pieces are as rare as they are powerful. “I don’t want to create something that I can recreate tomorrow. I like to go into the studio and then just let the creative side of my brain take over,” he starts, explaining his method.

“I want to evoke some sort of reaction from the viewer, where they challenge themselves as to what they are really looking at.” 

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It is said that the magic of art is that we can all interpret it in different ways. It is a language that transcends geographical boundaries and societal norms. Art is about appreciation and, as emphasised in Buthelezi’s extensive body of work, art is about education and reflection.

The innocent eyes of children are the first thing that catches your eye as you enter his workplace. Children’s faces plastered on gates, reiterating the barriers to opportunity and dignity that still exist for so many in South Africa. The black and bold eyes of children in school uniform, hopeful that the books they carry will one day open the gates that restricted others before them. The beaming eyes of children at play, oblivious to the injustice around them, and their joy so vividly portrayed that you can almost hear the laughter. 

These finished works stand in wait for a public audience, while the floor is littered with plastic. Rubbish to you and I, perhaps. But for Buthelezi, plastic has moulded his career.

“I’ve always said that if we can find another use for plastic, why can’t we do the same for our young people,” he says. 

Wire cars

To understand Buthelezi and his zest for life and finding purpose, one has to go back. Now 55, he came to Johannesburg as a wide-eyed 19-year-old in 1985. He was born and raised in rural Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, where he enjoyed a simple upbringing, herding and milking cows and learning to never be wasteful. Everything had a purpose.

It was in Newcastle that his love affair with art began, sculpting the wire cars that were a staple for children whose families couldn’t afford toys. As Buthelezi experimented with different objects, he found joy and inspiration. His older brother was already working for an engineering firm in Booysens by the time Buthelezi relocated with his parents to the City of Gold.

“I had heard of Funda Centre, and I knew it was close to where my brother worked,” Buthelezi recalls with a smile. “I asked him to get me information about the opportunities there, because I really wanted to learn my craft.”

19 April 2021: A collection of the many heat guns Mbongeni Buthelezi has gone through in creating his artworks.

The challenges started before he even made it to the centre. He needed papers to say that he had relocated to Johannesburg, before he could register to study. The first time his papers came back, his name appeared as Butheledzi. He sent them back, but then his date of birth was wrong. “I decided to let it be, because the next thing that could have happened was me not getting papers at all,” he laughs. And so Buthelezi went to see about enrolling.

The round trip from his parents’ home in Springs to Booysens cost R7 a day, a financial challenge for his family. When he did get to the centre, Buthelezi said he was interested in sculpture. He was told that he couldn’t just say he was a sculptor. Art was a package, and the directors encouraged Buthelezi to go back to drawing first.

“I went to drawing and realised that it was a big part of this game. And it was exciting!”

Along with this fresh energy, Buthelezi found himself surrounded by the cream of the creative crop at Funda Centre. “Yoh! Sibongile Khumalo, Arthur Mafokate, Thabiso Sikwane…” his voice trails away in creative appreciation of that serendipitous time and place. 

“Funda Centre was so unique. You could find music, dance, fine art, poetry… all in the same studio.  So many of the people currently running the creative arts industry in South Africa started there.” 

‘Great times’

Charles Nkosi was his lecturer, while Mbongeni Ngema ran workshops there, fresh off his Sarafina! smash hit. Africans couldn’t study at the University of the Witwatersrand under apartheid laws and a tidal wave of talent came through the centre, which was affiliated with the university. 

“While in art, you would suddenly hear Sibongile Khumalo singing opera, or there would be drums going from the African music side. Those were great times,” Buthelezi chuckles.

But they also emphasised the challenge he faced. “I didn’t have the money to afford studies there. It was R1 500 for fees, which was for a three-month course. Charles Nkosi was a huge help, and the Goodman Gallery helped to pay my fees. My parents could only afford to give me R30 a week for transport, which meant I could only come three days a week to class. I had to choose them carefully,” he says.

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Those financial struggles put into sharp perspective the odyssey many an artist has to take. To paint is not cheap, even then. Sourcing the materials he needed was the next hurdle. “I had nothing. Absolutely nothing. I would scavenge for leftover paints in the other students’ bins, and would be horrified at what they thought.”

Better-off students would throw away what they felt they couldn’t use, like nearly used-up toothpaste. Buthelezi would take those leftovers and stretch them out. He was repurposing even before plastic became his friend. The lessons from preserving hens for eggs and cows for milk in rural Newcastle were proving useful in the bright lights of Jozi.

“I would always feel bad for stealing from someone without them knowing. But I had to, because I couldn’t afford it.”

The pain of plastic

At the Funda Centre, the students had a chill-out balcony that looked out to Soweto. Below was a tuck shop. Like other students, Buthelezi spent a lot of time on that balcony, imagining a better tomorrow. But more and more often, something below caught his eye. He was in third year and needed to produce a body of work with a theme for his final assessment.

“Whenever I stood and looked down at the tuck shop, I always saw the plastics and their vivid colours in the rubbish bin. One day, I collected that trash and put it in my little corner. My fellow students asked what was going on. Of course, they knew my struggle.”

While other students visited mines and drew on the lived experiences and dangers for workers, Buthelezi pondered how to turn his trash into treasure. The pile sat for about a month, Buthelezi the novice not knowing what to do with it. One day, he took an interest in the centre’s handyman and his heat gun. He watched as he reinstalled electricity pipes, heating them to bend around walls.

19 April 2021: Mbongeni Buthelezi surrounded by plastic yet to be used at his studio.

“I asked him to try his gun. All he said was not to get caught, because students would lend extension cords and never return them,” Buthelezi says. This was his lightbulb moment. He found that the plastic reacted to the heat. It came to life, bending to his creative whims.

But there was a premium to be paid for his early enthusiasm. All his fingernails were ripped off during the early stages of trial and painful error. Plastic hurts.

“I didn’t stop. I was under pressure with time for the assignment, and I was still experimenting. Charles Nkosi warned me to make sure that I wasn’t wasting time. He said I had to be committed to this new path.”

That scared Buthelezi, but also emboldened him to follow through and make the experiment work. “What if this is the way? I asked myself. I didn’t look back.”

Radio Metro

Away from the centre, Buthelezi had already committed to this path. By his third year, he was renting a single room in Jabulani to be closer to the centre. It was R60 a week for rent, R30 from home and he received help from others sensitive to his challenges. While other students did what students do on weekends, he would take solace in his room, his small radio keeping him company.

“I didn’t have money for friends and fun. I ate so much mielie-meal pap at that time that my body would sometimes reject it. There was nothing else,” he says. He had left his parents’ place with two blankets, one bag of belongings and a small gas stove to cook on and use as a source of heat.

“The one blanket was like a mattress, and then I would use the other one for warmth. My bag of belongings was my pillow, and then I had Radio Metro for company. It was tough, brother. It was tough and lonely. But I believed in this dream.”

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He wasn’t always alone, though. He recalls a knock on the door one day, one that still evokes emotion in his voice. “S’khumbuzo came and knocked on my door. I wondered who this was, because I didn’t have any visitors. I had nothing to give them.”

His friend, on the instruction of his mother, had come with a plastic bag. Of course, it had to be plastic. “Six tomatoes, a cabbage, some potatoes and eggs. And some oil to cook it with,” Buthelezi recalls. “Those gestures, those small reminders that you are not alone, they truly lift you. He’s still a friend. And when I can, I give him what I can.

“You know, I’ve felt pain. Struggle. I have no second option. I’ve invested all my time in this. Not knowing that the world didn’t know about this,” he says, pointing to the plastic and the purpose it gave him.

Still a student

By the time he graduated, Buthelezi had a mini gallery filling up his room in Jabulani. He might not have had furniture, but he had 30 pieces of art that were gaining value by the day. He was also starting to attract attention. The Plastics Federation of South Africa heard of his work and were excited to see their product used for good. When they heard of Buthelezi’s plight, they came in for all 30 artworks to adorn their walls.

“I think they paid something like R130 000, which was a lot at the time. I was extremely grateful, because that helped me buy my first house in Dobsonville. It had no furniture for a while. Nothing in there. But it was a house. And it was mine,” he says.

All the patience and humiliation had not been for nothing. Here was evidence that his fascination with trash was not for naught. So obsessed was Buthelezi that he would sometimes stop on the highway to pick up a particular shade of plastic that he knew he needed. He laughs now at those days when people thought he was crazy.

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“It’s a calling. It came to me, and I gave myself time to learn. After all these experiences, I’m still a student of this technique. I’m still learning. All I want to say is, let’s look at the world we live in, but in a slightly different way. In 2021, how do we still have schools and communities without toilets and running water?”

He says this as he points to one of his latest works, where he has created a woman squatting over a long drop, with a blanket covering her face and head to maintain a modicum of modesty. It is a searing critique of the lack of municipal services that plagues this country and infringes on the dignity of too many. And in the middle of a pandemic, how are kids supposed to practise safe hygiene? 

Car or cash

A spiritual man, Buthelezi recalls how he got his first car. “My late sister called me urgently, saying she had seen an advert for an art competition in YOU magazine. The only problem was that the competition was closing the next day,” he laughs.

He stayed up all night, creating something unique with plastic. He then had to take three minibus taxis to get from Dobsobville to the Pretoria offices of the South African Bureau of Standards, which was running the competition, before 3pm. By the time he got there, the staff had left early for the day, but the security guards assured him they would submit his work for him.

“I made my way home and passed out, exhausted. Two weeks later, I got a call saying I had to get to Pretoria for the winners’ announcement. I had won, and was given the option of a brand new Ford Fiesta or R65 000 cash.”

To a struggling artist, that cash injection was tempting. But Buthelezi had long prayed for wheels of his own, to get around easier. “I had been asking the Buthelezi ancestors for a car, and now here it was. And it was a great blessing, too, because it took my mom from Springs to Johannesburg General Hospital for years. And when she passed, it also helped take my sister to and fro. It was a blessing, and my mother often said we were lucky to have it when we did.”

Buthelezi’s mother died from cancer but he takes comfort in the fact that she started to see the fruits of his considerable labour. “I wish that my mother was still here, so she could see that the R30 she used to give me got me to this point. The R30 she didn’t really have to give.” 

A plane to New York

For Buthelezi, 1998 was a seismic year. After the 1994 elections, he was chosen to represent South Africa in an exhibition based on artists’ interpretations of liberation. He was the youngest of a cluster of creatives from Africa.

The exhibition was scheduled for 1998, hosted by the Museum for African Art in New York. The opening night was postponed because of a tornado, but when it did open, it was to rave international reviews.

Buthelezi had been quietly crafting his pieces for a couple of years, aware of what he was representing. But still, New York was an experience he will never forget. “It was the first time I had ever been on a plane. I remember going to the toilet and feeling in my pocket for something. I had 7c in there. At that time, that’s all the money I had to my name, but I was on a plane across the world,” he chuckles.

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When he went back to his seat, he closed his eyes and thanked his ancestors. The Shenge people, who had kept the metaphorical torch burning on his plastic-coated dreams.

He was a hit in New York and his exhibition sold out. When the organisers sought to pay him, they realised he didn’t even have a wallet. “They seemed quite surprised, but I realised that I had never had the need for one. As an upcoming artist, money was spent as it came in, and it seemed silly for me to buy something to hold money I never had.”

And so it was that he went with one of the organising staff, on to the streets of New York, to buy his first wallet. He needed it, too, because the full sum of the proceeds was $18 000. “I had no idea how much it was, and I was just grateful that the exhibition had gone well. I was ready to go home, but someone had other ideas.”

The language of creativity

Buthelezi was supposed to be in America for two weeks, but the Vermont gallery in New York put in a request for him to take up a four-month residency. “They told me to call home and explain. But there was no phone and my family was expecting me. So, I had to phone someone, who then relayed the message until it reached my family.”

It was an exciting time, and an exhilarating one. Buthelezi was garnering international acclaim, even as his craft was seen as a quirk at home. At Vermont, he was regarded with a dignity he had not known to this point. He recalls how often he was turned away by galleries at home and advised to focus on canvas paintings, rather than his “plastic gimmicks”. Here, he was given an allowance. An apartment. His own studio. Funds for materials and all the trimmings.

He was at one of the biggest art residences in the world, interacting with 60 artists from 33 countries. He was the only South African, and often had to use mime to communicate to those who didn’t speak English. It was strange, but the international language of creativity found a way. 

19 April 2021: Mbongeni Buthelezi in his studio, where he uses heated plastic in lieu of paint.

His American adventure didn’t end there. Before he finished at Vermont, another call came. The National Cultural Foundation of Barbados was desperate to have him in residence for four months, too. “I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe what was happening, but I also missed home desperately. I insisted on going for at least a little bit, to assure my family that all was well.”

He flew back and was home for just two days. In that time, though, he pulled out his wallet and shared the spoils with his family. “My mother was at a loss for words. She couldn’t understand how all this money had come about.”

There is a glint in his eye as he reflects on the confused pride on her face. As they say, a mother always knows. Now, as a parent himself, Buthelezi understands that parents only want their children to be happy. To be safe. And there, sitting at her table in Springs, his mother knew that her youngest son was well on the way to making his long-held dreams come true.

There was barely time to celebrate before he was back on a plane, heading for Barbados. Beyond that, Germany came calling. Over the years, he’s gone over there for so much work, it’s like a second home. He has travelled extensively, and the requests and offers for collaborations still stream in now, especially as his work touches strongly on environmental sustainability and education.

Rubbing shoulders

At home, he realised he had finally gained recognition ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. “I was commissioned to do a mural for the Nelson Mandela Square Hotel, and Argentina were staying there. Suddenly, Lionel Messi and his teammates were posing for pictures in front of my work,” he beams.

It was a giant thing, 35m by 4m. As the artist, Buthelezi was suddenly rubbing shoulders with some of the best players in the world, as well as coach Diego Armando Maradona. 

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“It was a crazy time. An amazing time. At some point, the owner of the hotel, Bart Dorrestein, visited my studio to see me at work. When people saw him, they asked me what on earth this huge businessman was doing there,” says Buthelezi with a chuckle.

With the straightest face he could muster, Buthelezi responded: “Don’t you know, that’s my bra.”

He had finally arrived, and his work was now no longer “the plastic stuff”. It was a “Buthelezi”, and quickly becoming a collector’s item.

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