Esther Mahlangu’s Ndebele BMW art car is one of an outstanding collection of cars adorned by other world-renowned artists. Here are some interesting things about BMW’s art cars.
Wilma den Hartigh
South Africa’s Esther Mahlangu, the first African artist to participate in the BMW Art Car Programme, is again showing off her colourful creation to the world at an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. The Global Africa Project runs until 15 May 2011.
South Africa also celebrates afresh Mahlangu’s achievement in becoming the first woman and African artist to join the programme.
Her Ndebele BMW art car is one of an outstanding collection of cars adorned by other world-renowned artists. In 1975 American artist and sculptor Alexander Calder, who also invented the mobile, painted the first art car, a BMW 3.0 CSL. Legendary pop artist Andy Warhol painted the fourth, a BMW M1, in 1979, two years after Warhol’s peer Roy Lichtenstein painted his BMW 320i.
David Hockney, an English artist based in the United States, painted the 1995 BMW 850 CSI. Hockney is considered one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. American contemporary artist Jeff Koons painted the 17th and most recent art car, an M3 GT2.
Mahlangu says that painting the BMW has been one of the highlights of her career. When she was invited to decorate the car in 1991, the automotive canvas was new to her, and before she tackled an entire vehicle she familiarised herself with the style by first painting the door of another BMW. However, in one week, she turned a 5 Series saloon into an Ndebele work of art.
“When I was first asked to do it, I could already see the design in my head. I just wanted to do it,” she says. Many people have seen South Africa’s brightly coloured Ndebele homes, but her idea was to connect the traditional decorative Ndebele art form with a modern vehicle.
It should come as no surprise that Mahlangu’s art car is attracting so much attention. In an article that appeared in the Architectural Review, South African architect Peter Rich says that Ndebele art and architecture has “remarkable spatial, formal and decorative qualities”.
According to the Kyle Kauffman Gallery in New York, one of the many venues which has hosted a Mahlangu exhibition, she is believed to be the most important Ndebele artist working today.
She is also considered a pioneer in the area of Ndebele art as she was the first to transfer the traditional designs onto canvas. In the past, the multi-coloured geometric Ndebele painting was reserved for decorating the outer walls of domestic buildings.
The BMW Art Car Programme
The BMW art cars highlight the connections between auto technology and cultural trends of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Hervé Poulain, a French auctioneer and motor racing fanatic, first came up with the idea of an art car when he was thinking of a way to combine motorsport with art. Poulain asked Alexander Calder to paint his 3.0 CSL, which became the first car to merge art and motorsport. The car generated so much interest that BMW decided to establish a formal art car collection.
Since 1975, renowned artists have created excellent art on wheels, adding 17 vehicles to the collection. Many of the cars have been exhibited in famous museums such as the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the Shanghai Art Museum.
Mahlangu, who lives in Weltevrede village in the KwaMahlanga district in Mpumalanga province, speaks with great enthusiasm about Ndebele art and her career. She says that the development of her artistic talent is largely thanks to the perseverance of her mother and grandmother.
“When I was a young child, they already started teaching me to paint murals. I am so thankful that they did it. Art is in my blood and I just love it. Now I just have a memory bank full of designs and colours in my head,” she says.
She says that besides loving art, she believes her calling is to educate people about her culture and art. “It is sad that many of our traditions are lost. We must continue to teach our children about their culture,” she says.
To ensure that the Ndebele traditions are handed down from one generation to the next, Mahlangu runs classes to instruct young children in the art of traditional Ndebele design and painting. “Children have to know where they come from.”
Mahlangu works in strict keeping with Ndebele tradition. She draws freehand without sketches and only paints with chicken feathers and bundled twigs as brushes, which is the “real Ndebele way.”
She is positive about the future and preservation of Ndebele art. “I am encouraged that there seems to be a greater interest in Ndebele art these days. Traditionally, it always used to be a woman’s job to do the painting, but now that more women are working, men are also doing it,” she says.
International and local recognition
Mahlangu’s work is widely recognised and exhibited internationally. She first came into contact with the world of international art in 1989 when the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris invited her to participate in Les Magiciens de la Terre, a contemporary art exhibition.
According to African Success, a database of prominent African personalities, her work has found a place in private, corporate and public galleries worldwide. Even in her own home village Mahlangu receives many visitors who want to find out more about her approach to wall decoration.
She has also exhibited in Australia, America, Japan and in many European countries. Many of her well-known murals have been on display at the New Identities Exhibition in Germany’s Bocum Museum, at the Virgin Atlantic’s music store in Times Square, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC and at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg.
Mahlangu has also received numerous awards such as the Mpumalanga Arts and Culture Award, an award from the French Ministry of Culture and the Radio Ndebele Award in 1988 and 2001.
She remains well known for her iconic BMW art car, but says that she is also proud to have painted another car. The Kyle Kauffman Gallery notes that she is one of only two female artists to be included in the prestigious Jean Pigozzi Collection of Contemporary African Art. For this event she painted a new Fiat 500 for their Why Africa? exhibition in Turin.
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