When art meets activism: Mbongeni Buthelezi turns plastic waste into creative solutions

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South African artist Mbongeni Buthelezi is raising awareness of plastic pollution through his artwork.
South African artist Mbongeni Buthelezi is raising awareness of plastic pollution through his artwork.
Bloomberg Philanthropies
  • South African artist Mbongeni Buthelezi is repurposing plastic for use in his artwork, and minimising pollution. 
  • The 56-year-old is raising awareness of the dangers of single-use plastics, which end up in oceans and landfills.
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies handpicked Buthelezi to have his artwork displayed at COP27, which he describes as a career highlight.
  • For more financial news, go to the News24 Business front page.

South African artist Mbongeni Buthelezi's unique painting technique takes upcycling to a new level of creativity, and his works have been showcased in full colour at the United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP27, currently underway in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh. 

His artworks feature abstracts as well as depictions of animals. They are vivid and striking, in hues of blue, red and violet.

The KwaZulu-Natal-born artist's beautiful masterpieces are created using a technique that allows him to work with paint made from safely melted plastic waste.

The 56-year-old mentor uses a heat gun that emits hot air to melt the plastic. Once the plastic is piping hot, he then applies it to a recycled canvas. Every action in the creation of Buthelezi's artworks – from the sourcing of plastic waste to the painting process – is a deliberate attempt to minimise pollution and find new uses for what would end up in landfills.

Buthelezi's artwork is on display at COP27, throug
Buthelezi's artwork is on display at COP27, through his collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropy and Africa No Filter.
Supplied Bloomberg Philanthropies

"The work that I do is not about impressing everyone, nor is it about an object that hangs on the wall without any meaning. It is meant to create an important conversation about climate change. The materials that I use directly informs my subjects," says Buthelezi.

Buthelezi is following in the tradition of other global contemporary artists who use their profiles and work to support important causes. His voice, which is amplified by the colours and the subjects on his canvasses, rings loudly to ensure that those who can make a difference in effecting climate action, do so. Buthelezi's activism espouses the spirit of climate action, mitigation and adaptation, all key measures to reducing climate change. 

This year's climate conference is taking place against the backdrop of increasing climate shocks and extreme weather across the world. The United Nations (UN), during COP27, launched an action plan to achieve early warnings for all in the next five years. 

Plastic waste pollution is increasing around the globe and threatening marine life. Every year, millions of tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans. Although many countries, such as South Africa, have put in place measures and regulations to minimise plastic pollution, those efforts are still not enough.

READ | Time is running out for rich nations to pay up for the climate crisis

Through his artworks, Buthelezi raises awareness of and combats plastic pollution. During his time at COP27, he has created a new portrait that amplifies his message of saving ocean life from plastic pollution. On Tuesday night, two of his works were on display at a private reception, where people with influence and even bigger platforms got to get up close and personal with his dazzling interpretations of the world. His art has also been integrated throughout the conference venue and they are also adorning the walls at the Bloomberg Climate Hub or pavilion at the conference.

"The invitation to display my work here at COP27 came as a huge surprise to me. Although I have done many displays all around the world, this is the highlight of my career as an artist," Buthelezi explains.  

Buthelezi was handpicked through an initiative backed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which will also see the charitable organisation donate art and music supplies to students and young people in KwaThema, Soweto and Orange Farm, three communities that Buthelezi works with to support emerging talent and to inspire ongoing creative responses to the local climate emergency.

The funding of emerging artists is especially close to Buthelezi's heart – once upon a time, he was a struggling artist who benefited from the goodness of others. 

Jemma Read, Global Head of Corporate Philanthropy at Bloomberg LP, says the charitable organisation is deeply passionate about finding and supporting voices that amplify climate action. "Tackling climate change requires innovative thinking and collaboration across society. We want to provoke a reaction from audiences and support initiatives that allow people to think deeply about climate change and other environmental issues around the world," says Read.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is driving several artistic partnerships to raise awareness of climate issues in innovative ways. Buthelezi's work on the destructive impact of single-use plastics on the world's oceans will be on display until the end of COP27. 

Plato once famously proclaimed that the measure of a man is what he does with power. Well, Buthelezi uses his power and talent to make a difference in his community and in the world. The passionate community builder wants to protect the earth from plastic waste pollution; hence, his real-life actions reflect that belief.

Mapi Mhlangu is the managing director of MInsight Content Creation and a Danida Fellow for "Reporting from the African frontline of the global climate crisis".

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