Johannesburg - I arrive at Mbongeni Buthelezi’s studio on the fringe of Johannesburg with one thing in mind: to find out why the world-famous “plastic painter” decided to focus his new exhibition on the country’s sugar tax regulations.
An artist rarely addresses commercial taxation laws – although important, they’re extremely boring. But I would soon find out that, for a man whose entire body of work revolves around the material implications of waste, the sugar tax could completely change the meaning of his work.
“My medium has always been plastic on plastic, but, for this particular exhibition, I sat down with the curator and we decided to focus our energies on something quite important for me, and that’s when the sugar tax thing came up,” he says, surrounded by a veritable factory of his new works.
It’s been seven years since his last South African solo show. Rows of canvasses, bubble-wrapped and ready to be hung at his exhibition at The Melrose Gallery in Johannesburg, suggest that something big has changed with the artist.
Where once Buthelezi’s canvas was completely filled with painterly swathes of colour, all made from melted plastic, he has now created what look, from afar, like minimalist watercolours. Look a little closer, and you’ll see streaks of Fanta, Coke, Twist, Schweppes, Lipton Ice Tea and Valpré labels.
“My history – my background – is in watercolour, so when I moved into plastics, I started the experiment with recycled materials. As I worked, these discarded logos and brands came up over and over again, and I eventually realised that, in most cases, I found them beautiful – the vibrant colours on these fizzy drinks. As things changed, I realised that I needed to come up with some sort of dialogue in terms of the whole sugar tax argument. Aside from that, it’s fascinating for me as an artist to look at this beautiful material that is being used as packaging.”
In his scholarly spectacles and streety red hoodie, he elaborates: “This law has become very much a part of our lives, but I don’t really want to go into the whole ‘sugar tax, or no sugar tax’ thing. I’m an artist, an observer. For most of us today, it’s common knowledge that every shop has to do something that is eye-catching to attract you as the consumer – something that is beautiful. But people don’t know what the effects of these processes are. That is where the element of education needs to come in for people who are not aware of what is happening. I want them to look at things differently; look at the art and decide what else they can see.”
Buthelezi, a pioneer in the recyclable art world, began working with plastics in 1991 – a time when it was even more difficult than it is today for a black artist to establish themselves.
“To start a career as an artist is not cheap in terms of the resources that one has to put together. To get enough of a support structure to succeed in this was extremely difficult for me. It was almost impossible to make ends meet. So that, on its own, pushed me to see things differently. And the best I could do was to look at a cheaper way of making art,” he says.
“Today, everything I make is with recycled materials. The mentality of recycling and how I see it as an artist, 26 years later, came from years of being fortunate enough to travel the world, get exhibitions, residencies and partner with clever people who I have always looked up to. Now I need to pass that message on.”
Mbongeni Buthelezi's Sugar Tax exhibition is on at The Melrose Gallery until Wednesday, 21 June.