Watch “Painting with Plastics: A Conversation with Artist Mbongeni Buthelezi”

As this year’s featured artist at COP27, the UN Conference on Climate Change, and other international environmental conferences worldwide – South African artist Mbongeni Buthelezi has been, whether he likes it or not, thrust into the world of environmental activism. Through his unique technique of painting with plastics, his works draw attention to climate change and the hazards of environmental waste, especially plastics.

Wednesday, March 29th, 2023, 12-1pm EDT

Please note: minutes 4:00 to 9:00 (approximately) are silent, as participants watched a video profile of Mbongeni Buthelezi at this time. Scroll below to watch that video.

Growing up on a small farm in KwaZulu Natal, Buthelezi developed early on a concern for nature, witnessing even then the harmful effects pollution had on the livestock who died unknowingly consuming the piles of plastic waste that infiltrated their grazing areas. And the situation has only gotten worse. Half of global plastic production is for single use plastics. South Africa has one of the highest rates of plastics waste. Much of the waste ends up in rivers and oceans. Every year, between 90,000 and 250,000 tonnes of trash enter the oceans that surround the country.

Yet, in the mid-1980s, with the country still under apartheid, Buthelezi just wanted to make art. He began his studies at FUNDA Centre in Soweto, but without money to purchase traditional art materials, such as paint and canvas, the brilliant colors gleaming from the mountain of discarded plastics in the dump adjacent to his school attracted his attention. He gathered it up, and with a borrowed heat gun, he developed a unique technique to melt the plastics onto discarded boards.  The results were astonishingly beautiful, and he could draw and layer them like watercolors.

As interest in South Africa increased after the election of Nelson Mandela, curators noticed the artist’s work and started including him in international exhibitions. With this increased attention came opportunities to experience the world outside South Africa and even outside the artworld. The connections between art and science and politics blurred as Buthelezi developed a deeper understanding of the discarded plastics medium with which he works.  One of the people he got to know was marine biologist Richard Thompson, who coined the term “microplastics.”

Over the years the artist has explored themes related to ocean pollution; the legacy of economic and social divisions and access to clean drinking water; the fences that divide and thus deny access to resources; and even the devastating loss of young lives who have fallen into unattended open latrines in the South African townships. 

But can making art really make a difference, especially on the ground in local communities in places like South Africa?  What impact do international conferences have on defining and reaching goals to reduce waste and contribute to a more sustainable future? How can artists serve as a bridge between various stakeholders? We ask these questions and more with our invited guest, in an interactive conversation on his life, his career, and his perspective on the environmental movement in South Africa.

Artist Mbongeni Buthelezi was born in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. He attended FUNDA Center in Soweto and completed his studies at the African Institute of Art. He participated in a teacher training programme at the Johannesburg Art Foundation and later graduated with an advanced Diploma in Fine Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand.  He has had residencies at the Standard Bank Arts Festival, Artelierhaus Hoherweg E.V in Düsseldorf, the Vermont Studio Center, OMI International Artists Center in New York, Barbados Community College, Kunist Rain Stylt-Quelle Tantrum (Stylt island) and Wiesbaden, Germany.

Buthelezi has exhibited widely and conducted workshops across South Africa including – the Lizamore Gallery, Everard Read, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Spark Gallery and the first and second Johannesburg Bienales – and internationally at the Cairo Biennale, the Second International Biennale for Contemporary Art in Prague, the Museum of Art in Houston, the Museum for African Art in New York, Boston University, the Royal States Theatre in London and elsewhere in Canada, Australia, Belgium, the Maldives, and the University of Bayreuth in Germany among others. In 2017 Buthelezi was recognized as a “pioneer” in the Enrichment Program in Saudi Arabia at KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology). In 2022 he was invited by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the United Nations as the featured artist at COP27 in Sherm El Sheikh in Egypt.

Moderator Kristine Roome is an Applied Anthropologist with a PhD from Columbia University Teachers College with a certificate from Columbia University’s Institute for African Studies, where her thesis advisor, anthropologist George Bond, was the Director.  After his passing she was an advisor to the George Clement Bond Center for African Education.  She was the former Associate Provost and Associate Professor of Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she was representative to the Earth Institute, served on the Institutional Board of Black Rock Forest an environmental research center in upstate NY, and helped support the establishment of the Center for Sustainable Futures.  She has taught art, anthropology, education and museum studies at Teachers College, The New School, MICA, Howard County CC and the University of the Witswatersrand and has advised, curated, and researched a number of exhibitions including “Liberated Voices” at the Museum for African Art in NY which featured Buthelezi and the works of nine other South African contemporary artists. She is currently living and working in Maryland as independent writer and researcher and has a forthcoming book on Art & Science entitled “In the Line of Flight.”

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