Born on November 11, 1935 in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa, artist Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu began painting at only 10 years of age. First taught the art of mural painting–a common tradition among women in her South Ndebele tribe–by her mother and grandmother, Esther went on to gain international attention and even earned a contract with BMW to create a BMW Art Car. Her large-scale, colorful, and geometric styles reference the traditional patterns found in the clothing and jewelry designs of the Ndebele people.
Esther first attracted international attention from the art world at a 1989 European exposition titled “Magiciens de la terre,” translated to “Magicians of the World,” where her work was included among several other contemporary artists’ displays. In 1991, Esther was commissioned to create her now-iconic BMW Art Car. BMW Art Cars were often commissioned from well-known and original artists such as Andy Warhol and Frank Stella. Esther’s car was a BMW 525i and was the first “African Art Car” for the project. Esther was also the first non-Western artist and first woman to design an Art Car for BMW.
In addition to her work for BMW, Esther has also had her art featured with other major companies such as British Airways, who displayed her designs on the tails of some of their planes in 1997. Her work is often exhibited internationally. The original BMW Art Car will be on display at the British Museum from late October 2016 through February 2017.
According to Esther, painting on houses is an important ritual for the Ndebele people, especially to announce important events like a birth or a wedding. Realizing that painting on houses limited the exposure of her people’s art to only their local communities, Esther began painting on canvas and board as a way to share her heritage and culture with the world at large.
Now Esther is returning to where it all started and has teamed up with BMW once again to create a new design for the BMW Individual 7 Series. Unlike with the Art Car, this latest project involved Esther designing unique panels for the car’s interior. The stunning automobile was unveiled just a few days ago at the Frieze Fair in London, where it was also auctioned off, with part of the proceeds going to an art-related children’s charity.