Since the first BMW car was used as an unlikely canvas in 1975, a roster of art world heavyweights from David Hockney to Andy Warhol, Jenny Holzer to Roy Lichtenstein have transformed 17 cars into 3D artworks. In 1991, South African Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu was commissioned to paint the 12th car. The white BMW 525i was coated — hub caps and all — in a mural of geometric pastel-coloured shapes creating an artwork which is at once radical and “traditional”.
Born in farming town Middleburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa during the 1930s, Esther followed her mother and grandmother into mural painting, a generations-strong tradition perpetuated by the women of the South Ndebele people who paint the inside and outside of homes with bold patterns from cow dung and naturally-made paints. It is fitting then that Esther was not only the first non-Western person but remarkably the first woman to receive an art car commission from the German luxury car giant. And, 25 years on, Esther continues to work with the car brand: at Frieze, BMW exhibited a new model with interior trims painted by the artist. Later this month, Esther’s BMW Art Car 525i Number 12 car will be exhibited at the British Museum as part of South Africa: the art of a nation where it will join other artworks which collectively aim to shed light on the varied artistic achievements of South Africa with around 200 objects arranged chronologically across seven key episodes from the country’s history, from ancient history to the present day.