/ 6 August 2004

A taste for waste

There is a tar-like twist of plastic at the entrance to Mbongeni Richmond Buthelezi’s studio. Its bends and turns have contorted into a shape resembling the mother continent. A solidified pulse of gunge at its base ripples and blobs into a form akin to a human heart — thick and black — that envelopes the southern part of the “landmass”.

“I like that everything is concentrated at the bottom [where we are],” says Buthelezi. He found the piece of Africa abandoned on the floor of a plastics factory when he went rummaging for raw material for his art work. It was, he says, the remnants squeezed from machinery that was cleaned after the production process.

By chance he picked it up that day and recognised beauty in its happenstance design. It is unlikely that anybody working at the factory would have noticed.

But Buthelezi has an eye for the intrinsic aesthetic in other people’s rubbish. The stuff we discard in our mindless consumption is the fabric and substance of his work.

“I like to give life to something that other people think is finished, discarded, has no value in it,” he says. “We create the waste, we consume, but seem not to care about the plastic, we only worry about the product. I see my work as [the ultimate] form of recycling, making something aesthetic out of waste.”

His studio is heaped with the crisp crackle of plastic wrappings, bags, patterned tablecloths, sheets of PVC — all as inviting as a pile of autumn leaves. To get inside you have to step around a work about three metres in length that takes up a large part of the floor space not piled with raw material.

This piece, together with works that line two of the walls, makes up the selection for his solo exhibition at the Goch gallery in Germany, which runs from September 19 to November 7. Gleeful children, stern-faced mothers, brightly dressed young women and thick-jowled men shout, phone, play piano. They are the characters we would meet, greet or disregard in our daily interactions. Even his colourful intersections of abstract shapes are somehow familiar. Familiar and plastic.

The fact that Buthelezi chooses the by-products of an urban lifestyle to reflect that lifestyle makes perfect sense when you meet him.

His enthusiasm for his environment is catching and he tries to engage with children as often as possible about the importance of looking beyond litter and hardship to find ways of making something positive out of what is already there.

“We are living in a plastic world, everything is artificial, people wear a mask. We will always have plastic but we need to realise it can be a beautiful thing,” he says. The process behind Buthelezi’s work is part planned and part organic. He often starts off with sketches taken from his surrounds, but once he begins melting and molding the work takes on a life of its own. “I want to be surprised by what I create,” he says. “[Art] is organic, it changes — the idea is to just keep making those images.

‘Plastic is a fantastic material. I haven’t finished experimenting with it. I have managed to create the illusion of paint, but I want to take my work further. This is a wonderful medium, different plastics react differently to heat and create different effects.”

Although his art is characteristically South African in subject, Buthelezi mostly sells overseas — a fact he attributes to the lack of support that local artists have been afforded by the government and to the relatively small market in South Africa.

“There is a different culture of art in Europe. In Germany it is possible for me [a young artist] to have a solo exhibition with a catalogue.

“But things are changing in South Africa. Maybe now that we have our own minister of arts and culture, artists will get more attention. There are also more middle-class, black buyers now. More people hear about me and come to my studio to see my work,” he shrugs and smiles optimistically.

He is, however, emphatic that exhibiting overseas isn’t just about making money.

“Young South Africans are looking at things differently, we are more future-focused. There is an expectation out there that is positive, that is taking everyone forward.

“I am a South African and I want to see things happening here. [By exhibiting their work overseas] artists are ambassadors. It is also about meeting people and sharing ideas.”