Turning to the Landfill to Make Fine Art

Mbongeni Buthelezi “paints” with plastic—and the results are stunning.

Courtesy of Mbongeni Buthelezi

You can find plastic anywhere and everywhere these days—tangled in trees, swirling in the ocean, smothering desert islands—but seeing it in a painting on the wall of an art gallery is a surprise. This ubiquitous material is the medium of choice for artist Mbongeni Buthelezi, who uses it to “paint” stunningly vibrant portraits of life in his native South Africa.

Plastic has been at the center of Buthelezi’s craft for more than 25 years, ever since his days as a student at the African Institute of Art in Soweto, a township of Johannesburg. Lacking the resources to access traditional supplies like oil paint and canvas, Buthelezi began crafting recycled plastic into art out of necessity. “It makes it possible to create a successful work of art without purchasing expensive materials,” he says.

Courtesy of Mbongeni Buthelezi

Now Buthelezi chooses to work with would-be waste for other reasons. Transforming a major source of environmental degradation into something beautiful is a moving call to action to change our polluting ways. And by demonstrating that great art doesn’t always require deep pockets, he says, “it brings hope to the hopeless.”

Buthelezi says his process begins by collecting plastic from shops, garages, dumps, and “everywhere I can possibly find it.” He then creates a synthetic canvas by stretching several layers of thick white roofing plastic over a wooden frame. Next, he builds the image by using a heat gun to melt colorful strips of plastic and adhere them to the stretched plastic surface. Some of Buthelezi’s works comprise as many as 5,000 pieces of plastic. The artist describes his collages as “almost biographical” as they often depict scenes from his personal journey of growing up in rural South Africa.

Courtesy of Mbongeni Buthelezi

Buthelezi’s work has been exhibited all around the world, including New York, Boston, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Europe. His latest series, “Sugar Tax,” shown in Johannesburg at the Melrose Gallery earlier this summer, uses melted-down soda bottles to explore the effects of the South African government’s recent tax on sugar.

In a field that thrives on creativity, Buthelezi has developed a unique approach to drawing awareness to pressing social and environmental issues. But for the artist, “above all, plastic is a fantastic material to work with.” 

Courtesy of Mbongeni Buthelezi


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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