Mbongeni Buthelezi

Gallery 157 Johannesburg

Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi is widely known for trademark plastic paintings. In this solo exhibition, entitled New Evidence, he again showcases the technique, pairing his black and white plastic paintings with charcoal drawings. Due to his use of recycled plastic in the past, Buthelezi has been described, rather crudely, as an environmentalist. He dismisses this description.He first became acquainted with the technique in 1986 when Swiss artist Luca Ganser demonstrated it at the Funda Art Centre. It was a useful technique for an impoverished artist unable to afford expensive art materials. A former student of watercolorist Charles Nkosi, Buthelezi is equally known for his live charcoal drawings and watercolours. These are bold in nature and richly descriptive of the moment – much like a photograph in the Cartier-Bresson mould. Buthelezi showcases his observational knack in this show, exploring abstracted tones and textures. Some viewers wondered where the colour was this time, Buthelezi explaining that he now uses sponsored plastic – it is supplied untreated. This nuance, which accounts for the lack of colour, allowed Buthelezi to explore new dimensions in his work.Thematically, his works are concerned with healing and revival. His subjects include musicians and a group of women who work outside his studio. Everyday they knit intricate patterns on cloth in a concentrated manner. It is both a therapeutic and fulfilling activity, their skills transforming basic raw materials into a vibrant kaleidoscope of colour and pattern. It is a process analogous to Buthelezi’s. The artist’s plastic paintings struck me as more exciting. Continuing in the tradition of his watercolours, Buthelezi’s loose strokes record his subjects in a fluid and fresh manner. These works dominated over his expressive charcoal drawings, which seemed fleeting and lacking in detail. Buthelezi does not do well with representation and line; his strength has always been tone and texture, an attribute that has allowed his work to retain a fresh breezy feel, like a sketch. One of the joys of this show was seeing the artist engage with tonality rather than relying on colour, a strategy prompted by the artist’s move from found to sponsored materials. This in itself is an indication of his growing status as an artist.
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