Iconic Esther Mahlangu BMW 525i to come home after 32 years

Esther Mahlangu master of kwaNdebwele art paint. Picture: File

Esther Mahlangu master of kwaNdebwele art paint. Picture: File

Published Nov 12, 2023


It’s been 32 years since the arty and iconic BMW 525i, painted by world-renowned artist Esther Mahlangu, was first shown across the world – but now it's coming home.

The 87-year-old South African Ndebele artist adorned a 1991 BMW 525i in the traditional Ndebele art style and colours for which it has been world-renowned for decades.

Mahlangu was the first woman to create the artwork on the sedan, turning it into a unique and colourful BMW Art Car.

However, the 12th BMW Art Car has not been in South Africa since its local reveal in 1991, an absence of almost 32 years.

Now BMW Group South Africa’s general manager for corporate communications, Thilosh Moodally, has revealed that the car is expected to return to its home soil next year.

Esther Mahlangu painted her BMW in over a week in 1991, using feathers to apply the paint, as part of the Art Car series which started in the 1970s.In the late-1980s BMW had made a strong stand internationally for SA art at a time of change by getting the engaging Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu to paint their desirable car and turn it into an artwork which vibrantly reflected her cultural heritage.

“The BMW Art Cars are on permanent display at the BMW Museum in Munich, although this 12th Art Car has been showcased at events in Hong Kong, New York, Miami, Shanghai and at the prestigious Concorso d’Eleganza on Lake Como (in Italy), for example.

The car will return to South Africa early in 2024 where it will be open to the public.

“Thereafter, the vehicle will be displayed at the Iziko Museums, also in Cape Town, for a year… It will resume its touring schedule thereafter, with planned visits to the US and the UK,” Moodally said.

According to Moodally, the idea of involving the arts in crafting the German cars was initiated by French race car driver and art aficionado Hervé Poulain and was conceived in collaboration with the founder of BMW Motorsport, Jochen Neerpasch.

The first BMW Art Car was commissioned when they asked Alexander Calder to design Poulain’s BMW race car in 1975.

The idea resulted in a colourfully painted BMW 3.0 CSL which was raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it became an instant favourite with the public.

“Since then, 20 artists from around the world have created BMW Art Cars on the basis of contemporary BMW race cars and automobiles, including Roy Lichtenstein (1977, BMW 320i) and Andy Warhol (1979, BMW M1), and the 12th was painted by Mahlangu,” she said.

This was the first time a woman had been responsible for designing a vehicle in the Art Car series and the 12th is purely an exhibition piece.

Mahlangu, well-known for her bold large-scale contemporary paintings showing off her Ndebele heritage, has enjoyed a good working relationship with the German car brand for over 30 years now.

Traditionally, Ndebele women decorate the exterior walls of houses, symbolising important celebrations.

Esther Mahlangu master of kwaNdebwele art paint. Picture: Sizwe Ndingane

In 2016, she was again commissioned by the BMW Group to refine a BMW 7 Series. The vehicle was on display at the Frieze Art Fair which took place in London in 2016 but touched down in the country about seven years ago.

The 7 series has since formed part of BMW Group South Africa’s Heritage Collection and has been displayed at various arts and cultural events across.

Seven years ago when the 7 series touched ground Mahlangu reportedly said: “To paint is in my heart and it’s in my blood. The way I paint was taught to me by my mother and my grandmother.

Esther Mahlangu master of kwaNdebwele art paint. Picture: Sizwe Ndingane

“The images and colours have changed and I have painted on many different surfaces and objects, but I still love to paint.”

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Saturday Star