While other artists might use watercolors or oil paints, Mbongeni Buthelezi uses waste plastics to create highly textured portraits at his studio in Booysens, Johannesburg.
His medium is the plastic litter he collects from local rubbish dumps and city streets. “Animals are dying, fish in the ocean are dying – because of this material and because of us as human beings,” Buthelezi said. “It is us that need to take responsibility.”
An artist and activist, Buthelezi, 56, first found his talent for the creative as a boy in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He sculpted clay figurines of the livestock around his village: cows, horses and goats.
“I grew up with my father’s animals, the cattle were an important part of my life,” said Buthelezi. But not everything in this rural setting was natural.
He explained that plastic litter was so common in grazing areas that it became an unwelcome part of the cows’ regular diet. “We would see these cows die because they had eaten plastics,” Buthelezi said.
Five decades on, South Africa still has a serious plastic pollution problem. In 2018, 107,000 metric tons of plastic waste from South Africa ended up in the marine environment. A 2015 study found that the country was one of the world’s top 20 contributors to marine plastic pollution.
With plastic waste growing around the world, Buthelezi is using his work to both highlight and combat the issue.