South African Artist Paints with Plastic Waste

Mbongeni Buthelezi, an artist from South Africa, has shunned paint in favor of plastic. He melts discarded plastic bags and uses the molten material to produce stunning works of art. The 49-year-old has been working with the unique medium for the past 23 years, ever since he graduated from art school.

Buthelezi said he decided to work with plastic because he wanted to stand out, and this was an innovative, original idea to do that. “With watercolor and other mediums that I have experimented with in the past, I felt that I’m hitting the ceiling,” he told Euronews. “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.”

According to Buthelezi, his chosen medium also serves as a metaphor for life. “I collect rubbish and create something beautiful from it,” he wrote on his website. “That’s what we can do with ourselves and our lives.”


Buthelezi’s introduction to plastic happened during a workshop he attended with a Swiss artist who used plastic as a canvas. Inspired by the idea, he started to think of how cheap and readily available plastic is, and how it could be used not only as a canvas, but also as paint. So he collected plastic and started experimenting with a heat gun, applying the melted material onto a black plastic background. He slowly worked on improving his technique, and eventually became an expert at painting with plastics.


He calls his creation process simple and haphazard, but believes that the final pieces speak for themselves. “I’m interested in finding the details in the painting, but also, as you step away from the piece it really comes together,” he told BBC news. He also called himself “a mirror for the society I live in, and I want to make a meaningful impact on that society.”


In his paintings, Buthelezi depicts a variety of subjects – everyday scenes, African history, human portraits, and abstract images. He also makes bold statements about social and environmental issues. In one painting, he’s used purple and orange soft drink labels to paint the clothes worn by women chatting on a street corner. He wants the rough texture of the plastic to represent the difficulties of life in South Africa’s townships. He also has a series of black-and-white portraits of children playing – which is important to him because his own childhood was more about hard work and independence.


According to Buthelezi, he is the only artist who works with plastic. He likes that, because an external point of reference could mess with his originality. But he also says that melted plastic is an easy medium to work with, especially for those who may not be able to afford traditional art supplies. “Anyone can gather plastic waste and start painting, and construct something out of nothing,” he said.


Buthelezi’s works have been well received by critics and art lovers alike. In 2010, online magazine Live Out Loud said his art “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.” His paintings have been exhibited in South Africa, as well as Germany, the US, and Holland, for years. To check out more of his work, you can visit his website:


Sources: Media Club South Africa, US News, BBC News, Euronews