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South African Artist Paints With Fire

By Udemma Chukwuma
One of his works
His name is Mbongeni Buthelezi, a South African artist and he paints with fire. Discarded pieces of plastic, including bags and drinks wrappers, are the medium he works with it. He crafts unique, colourful portraits and other appealing artworks out of waste.

I collect rubbish and create something beautiful from it. I collect something that has no value and give it new life. That's what we can do with ourselves and our lives,” says the artist.

Buthelezi working in his studio 
Buthelezi began working with plastic in his final year at art school. He says he chose to create artworks using discarded plastic to draw attention and stand out from the crowd. “There was a time where I felt that I’m hitting the ceiling, I’m not growing anymore. I wanted to be noticed and I wanted to catch attention, because I knew also that I’m moving into a career where you have to be really special to be able to even make a living out of it,” he narrates.

Buthelezi working in his studio 
The plastic bubbles and pops under Buthelezi’s fingertips, which are calloused from manipulating the hot, molten material he uses to create his large-scale abstract pieces.

In the sort space of years Buthelezi has made a name for himself as a professional artist of note. He has emerged as a powerful force in the Visual Arts in South Africa and Internationally in the 21st century.

His work no doubt reflects humanity’s often detrimental impact on the environment, but his original use of discarded objects to depict an often forgotten group of people truly sets him apart.

Before coming to Funda Community College in 1986 Buthelezi lived in his hometown of Springs, studying art privately with artist Lucky Moema. Buthelezi received lessons in perspective and drawing from Moema in exchange for bread and tea. Eventually he made his way to Johannesburg, where he began studying art.

He started as a part-time student who wanted to be a sculptor. At the centre, however, he met Charles Nkosi, who convinced Buthelezi to try out other media, including drawing and painting. In 1989 Buthelezi won his first prize, the top honour in a drawing and design competition hosted by South African Breweries. With burning desire to be an artist, he enrolled at Funda full-time.

Buthelezi had to look for alternative materials, because he couldn’t afford to buy expensive paints and canvases. In a workshop with a Swiss artist who used plastic as canvas for his artworks Buthelezi got his initial inspiration.

His idea was to use plastic not only as a canvas but also to paint with this cheap material one can find everywhere. Soon he found himself experimenting with a heat gun, applying the melted material onto a black plastic background. In that year he received best marks for his plastic works and from then on he continuously improved his technique- making a virtue out of necessity.

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