#MyJoburg with Mbongeni Buthelezi, artist

12 Apr 2024
In our #MyJoburg series, we speak to people who add something unique to Joburg's creative mix and get the lowdown on what enthrals them about this city.

Mbongeni Buthelezi
is a talented artist and activist who has found a unique way of creating art. While some artists use watercolour or charcoal, Buthelezi turns trash into treasure, burning plastic to create remarkable artworks. Buthelezi's ingenuity has led him from rural KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg, and the world (read this article about him via CNN's website). His most recent work is a large-scale commission borne from a series of inner-city clean-ups initiated by Standard Bank as part of the Jozi My Jozi initiative, a movement to regenerate the City Centre. We visited his Joburg studio and were awed by what we saw, from how he works to the range of his medium.

A student at Soweto's Funda Centre (now sadly closed), Buthelezi was challenged to find material for an art assignment and turned to discarded plastic because he didn't have the money to use any other materials. He tried several ways to burn the plastic and shape it into his art, not without damaging his skin and nails which still bear the burn marks today. He pleaded with the centre's janitor to use a glue gun he had seen in the workshop, and the man finally relented. Little did the cleaner know that act would set Buthelezi on a path across the globe. Thank you to him, wherever he is. 
Mbongeni Buthelezi artist in his studio. Johannesburg In Your Pocket
Mbongeni Buthelezi with his materials in his Joburg studio. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket. 

"What I saw from Joburg was a space with limitless boundaries and opportunities."

Tell us about your unique style of using melted plastic in your art. How and why did you start doing this?
I started using plastics in 1991 due to a lack of resources. This challenge prompted me to experiment with different materials, including magazine collages, paper mache, and more.

In a way, your chosen medium has turned you into an environmental activist. Was this what you intended?
To be honest, at first, it was not what I intended, but with a bit of travelling, people are saying a lot about recycling and appreciating my contribution. When I started receiving invitations from other continents like North America and Europe, I started embracing the idea of being an environmental activist because of the amount of plastic I consumed in my art. It took many years for my fellow countrymen to realise my mission and support me. It was only after several exhibitions, art residencies, and workshops overseas that a few of my fellow South Africans started to support my art, gradually.

"What I saw from Joburg was a space with limitless boundaries and opportunities."

In what unique way does Joburg shape your work?
Joburg made me who I am today. I was born in rural KZN and moved to Kwa-Thema, Springs when I was a teenager. Life was different, but the real change came when I moved to Joburg. What I saw from Joburg was a space with limitless boundaries and opportunities.
Mbongeni Buthelezi artwork. Photo: Johannesburg in Your Pocket
Mbongeni Buthelezi uses plastic with found materials in his artwork. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

You joined Standard Bank for its city clean-ups to create your newest work. Tell us about your experience of participating in cleaning Joburg’s streets. 
It is a fantastic opportunity for me. It’s not my first time [working] with Standard Bank. In 1998, Standard Bank invited me to be the first artist to work inside the bank for one month. This happened after I had been chosen to be the artist in residency at the National Arts Festival, 26 years ago. In hindsight, that residency laid the foundation for this campaign I’m so grateful to be part of.

"Look after this city, it will take care of you!"

Your latest work is a monumental, large-scale piece depiction of the people and places in the city. Tell us about it. 
This work tries to capture the essence of Joburg and its landscape. I can write a thesis about this work as it seeks to capture and acknowledge the space called Johannesburg with its diverse lifestyles. Joburg means different things to different people, but I can safely tell you that everyone who has been to and lived in Joburg has at least one amazing experience to share about this place.

Your WhatsApp status says “Slowly is the fastest way to get YOU where you want to be”.  Take it easy!" How did you learn this lesson?
I’m trying to tell the world not to rush anything in life; it will come. I’m basing this on my own experience, where not many people gave me a chance to succeed as an artist using plastics. People are scared to jump into new things, but I was brave enough to say if God wanted me to be in this world for a purpose, He would also guide me on what to do, when, and how. It took me many years to be where I am today, 33 years of trial and error. I knocked on so many doors in the past, trying to get opportunities to exhibit my work without any success until I accepted the reality that my work is different. Now I’m doing projects and getting recognition from prominent universities around the world, from Germany to Saudi Arabia. I take it slowly, I don't rush and force anything. What is meant for me will come. What isn't, won’t. Simple.
You've exhibited your work around the world. What has been a career highlight?
That’s a tough one because I appreciate everything that comes my way, but the invitation to collaborate with the United Nations and Bloomberg Philanthropies at the COP27 in Egypt certainly stands out. Not to overshadow another important invitation at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Also, a stay in the Maldives at the Coco Resorts for a month doing workshops is one of my highlights so far, just to name a few.
The trademark floating chalets of the Coco Resorts in the Maldives, where Buthelezi conducted a workshop for a month. Photo: Coco Resorts via Instagram.

Home is...
Where I retire for a day, wake up, and welcome a new day.

Your favourite Joburg suburb, and why you choose it?
The Parks. Parktown North is my home. [It's] calm and everything is within walking distance: restaurants, shopping, etc.

What is a surprising thing people might learn about Joburg by having a conversation with you?
People must know Joburg is not as dangerous as they might think. Look after this city, it will take care of you! Opportunities are everywhere in Joburg, it all depends on where you’re looking.
A city must-see stop according to Buthelezi is Constitution Hill in Braamfontein. Photo: Justin Lee.

What three things should a visitor not leave Joburg without seeing or experiencing?
Constitution Hill. We also have sculptures all over the city to see in Maboneng, at Museum Africa, and [various] artists' studios.

Your favourite Joburg author or favourite Joburg book?
My friend, Niq Mhlongo. [Mhlongo is a journalist, editor and author.]
Niq Mhlongo -- Book title
Niq Mhlongo's novel The City is Mine (2024). Mhlongo is a prolific writer who has focused much of his craft on Joburg. Photo: Supplied.

The most memorable meal you have eaten in Joburg?
It has to be chicken and rice stew.

If you could buy one Joburg building which would it be?
Wait until I become a billionaire to buy the Standard Bank building.
Standard Bank of South Africa in Johannesburg City Centre by Anton Bosman
The original Standard Bank building, called the Standard Bank Chambers, was completed in 1907 and is located in the heart of the City Centre's financial district. Photo: Anton Bosman. 

If you were the Joburg mayor for one day (average tenure), what would you change?
I would fight crime tooth and nail until it’s zero crime in this beautiful city.

What makes someone a Joburger?
Always rushing somewhere.

One song that either is about Joburg or makes you think about this city?
Thuma Mina performed by Hugh Masekela. When I hear this song, especially when I’m outside the country, it makes me homesick.

What do you love most about Joburg?
Its people and iconic cityscape.

What do you least like about Joburg?
Crime spoils the party.

Your number-one tip for a first-time visitor to Joburg?
Take advice from the locals.

The perfect weekend in Joburg includes...
Surely gallery visits.

Three words that describe this city.
Full of possibilities.

Check out some of our previous #MyJoburg interviews for more insights into the city:

#MyJoburg with Greg Homann, Market Theatre Foundation's artistic director

#MyJoburg with Gabrielle Onay, co-founder of Picnic&Thrift
#MyJoburg with Boemo Diale, artist

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For all the latest news of what to do around Joburg, keep up to date with our weekly events and exhibitions guides.


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