Mbongeni Buthelezi

How can Mbongeni Buthelezi’s art in its various levels be put into words, be described or communicated? Many of the classical art history terms, such as painting, collage or assemblage are misleading; they do not really grasp what his work is when describing it. They merely illustrate different aspects or parts of his work.

For his artworks Buthelezi exclusively uses industrially produced plastic materials with various imprinting. Thick plastic foils and plastic canvas covers, like the ones used for protection and outer coverage of transportable palettes, as well as plastic bags or the cling-foil which is used as printed wrapping for beverage cans or bottles. Buthelezi selects these various plastic sheets, besides their strength, according to the imbued, dyed or multicoloured printing of the foils.

Buthelezi does not use randomly collected rubbish, but specifically found materials. The first step of this process was arguably the most important one, because at the beginning of the 90s, when looking at the mountains of plastic, bags and wrappings, he didn’t see rubbish, which had to be thrown away, but saw colours and shapes, which one had to keep or even re-create. He saw something positive, colourful, which one could use in a new and different way.

In this sense Buthelezi stands for the traditions of African art, using and rededicating second hand material and at the same time through the recycling of everyday material he is in a European sense at the core of his time. So in a way Buthelezi is part of the modern recycling process – however in an exquisite form, as he transforms rubbish into art.

Buthelezi achieved the next crucial step toward his work of today by having the unbelievably experimental idea of melting the plastic foils together by means of a customary heat gun. Hence his pictures cannot be compared to the known “Objet trouvé”, the “Assemblages” or the “Ready-made”. Deserting these traditional trails he creates something new, which has never been made before. Consequently the wrappings are not just combined, but are melted together in a process of painting. The movement, the artist’s flow in this melting process, reminding of brushstrokes, is an essential part of the picturesque effect of Mbongeni Buthelezi’s pictures.



Buthelezi’s pictures do in fact consist in their entirety of plastic sheets. No other material is used. He replaces the canvas with layers of thicker sheets, the oil paint he replaces through colourful sheets, wrappings and bags. The picture is constructed, as in classic painting, from the depth, the background of the “plastic wall”. Depending on the aspired picture the backgrounds are black, white or coloured. Layers of monochrome in turn follow these from white, black, or diverse colours. Not until this “visual enhancement” does the actual picture emerge, sometimes entirely free, sometimes by means of a black outline. Thus up to 40 plastic (colour) layers can succeed one after the other and some pictures consist of tens of thousands of plastic fragments. He transforms, fragments and de-fragments the material.

As easy as it is described here, however, it is not, as years of experience are necessary to perfect this process of melting such as Buthelezi achieves it. He knows all the kinds of plastic and their behaviour, their melt flow, their liquidation, change of colour, differences of the front and backside, possibilities of combination, layers and colour failures. He achieves his effects not only by adding more layers but also by fusing down the already existing layers. Buthelezi is a magician of his heat gun, the melting, the fusing, and the connecting of his creation.

Today his experience enables him to adequately realise all kinds of fine art expressions, such as drawing, watercolour, woodcarving or painting with his technique. In painting his possibilities range from disordered two-dimensionality to relief raised plasticity. He is able to work black and white, monochrome, grisaille, coloured, figuratively or abstract. He alludes to impressionism, expressionism, the abstraction of figures, and European and African art – but at the same time always stays authentic. Furthermore the material unfolds to the special feature of a relief raised surface design. His pictures appear completely different from near and afar.  Close-up the abstract relief impression of the material overwhelms one, from afar the picturesque figures.

Mbongeni Buthelezi always surprises and pleases the observer which is seldom, in the arts. In a sense Buthelezi is changing the most used material of our times –plastic, in an absolutely unique way. He has developed a new form of art and perfected it. This new form stands equal to the classical painting and is the perfect expression of our time.