Thanks to BMW, Esther Mahlangu Is Still in Motion

The South African trailblazer became the first woman and first African artist selected for the prestigious BMW Art Car project. Her 1991 milestone is now recreated at Frieze L.A. thanks to the German automaker’s innovations in color-changing panel technology.

The BMW i5 Flow Nostokana and Mahlangu’s original BMW Art Car

In 1994, on a blistering summer day in Washington, D.C., Esther Mahlangu and her team of painters were adorning the facade of a downtown building in traditional Ndebele patterns. Though the commission separated her from her familiar KwaNdebele region of South Africa by thousands of miles, Mahlangu was still in her comfort zone. She learned the tribal art of painting ornamental murals on clay huts as a child but emerged as a disruptor by reimagining the tradition on canvas, as well as carpets and everyday objects. Controversial at the time, it proved fruitful: Oprah, Usher, and Swizz Beatz are among the many collectors of her vivid geometric abstractions. Mahlangu seems to have known it all along—in a Washington Post profile, she affirmed the art of her people works its beauty wherever it goes.

That may explain why BMW selected Mahlangu as the 12th artist for the annual BMW Art Car project three years prior. The first woman and first African tapped for the initiative, she followed a list of bold-faced names like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Alexander Calder. Not only did the commission mark one of the first times that African art blended with contemporary automotive design, but it also propelled Mahlangu to the global stage. The mural she and her team were creating in 1994 was next to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which was preparing to open a retrospective about her decades-long career. At 88 years old, she only continues to add to her list of achievements. She was selected to participate in the 60th Venice Biennale this spring, and the Iziko South African Museum recently unveiled another retrospective of her work, with the BMW Art Car front and center.

BMW’s Stella Clarke and Esther Mahlangu

Though making the trip to South Africa may be untenable for some, attendees of Frieze Los Angeles can view Mahlangu’s BMW Art Car in a different format. Thanks to the brand’s innovation in color-change technology, it programmed the surface of a brand-new white BMW i5—lovingly named the BMW i5 Flow Nostokana after Mahlangu’s son—to electronically animate with her patterns. “Her art inspired me years ago, back when the concept of color change on a car was just an idea in my head,” says Stella Clarke, BMW’s research engineer of open innovations. “Now, being able to realize this idea, and work with Esther Mahlangu, is absolutely surreal.”

To recreate Mahlangu’s artwork, more than 1,300 sections of laminated electrophoretic film (think of it as “digital paper”) containing micro-capsules roughly the diameter of a human hair are layered across the vehicle’s roof, bonnet, rear section, and sides, and can be controlled to accurately recreate every detail of Mahlangu’s ornamentation. The electronic control design and laser cutting process used to trim the film were both developed with E Ink, but BMW’s team of in-house engineers adapted the technology for curved surfaces and programmed animations.

BMW originally unveiled its color-changing iX Flow technology at CES 2022, when it pitched a curious question about personalization: Does a car always have to look the same? Attendees watched as an electric iX SUV changed color from black to white in one fluid motion when programmed with an electrical impulse. The innovation allows drivers to change their car’s color to suit their mood, but also has environmental benefits. Turning the vehicle reflective white on sunny days and heat-absorbing black in the cold can reduce energy use and increase the vehicle’s range. Thanks to the technology reaching even greater heights, the vehicle can itself become a canvas—and bring a boundary-breaking artist to entirely new audiences.

The BMW i5 Flow Nostokana
BMW’s iX Flow technology

All images courtesy of BMW.

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