Artist Esther Mahlangu and Engineer Stella Clarke’s Color-Changing BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA

2024-03-08 / News / 4104 Sees / 0 Comments

In 1991, Dr Esther Mahlangu became the first woman and the first person from Africa to produce a BMW Art Car. Unlike the many famous names before her, Mahlangu selected a sedan—the BMW 525i—rather than a racecar. She then adorned the production vehicle with a traditiona

In 1991, Dr Esther Mahlangu became the first woman and the first person from Africa to produce a BMW Art Car. Unlike the many famous names before her, Mahlangu selected a sedan—the BMW 525i—rather than a racecar. She then adorned the production vehicle with a traditional Ndebele pattern. This year at Frieze Los AngelesBMW debuted another collaboration with the South African artist: the BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA. The NOSTOKANA is not an Art Car; it’s a one-of-a-kind concept car and a tribute to BMW’s 12th Art Car by Mahlangu. Utilizing BMW’s color-changing E Ink exterior coat, the NOSTOKANA is a kinetic sculpture that brings to life the vibrant colors and geometric patterns of the 88-year-old artist.


The NOSTOKANA is as much a technological showcase as it is an artistic one. “I’m an engineer. I am not a dreamer, I’m a maker,” Stella Clarke, Research Engineer in Open Innovations at BMW Group, tells COOL HUNTING. “This was technically very, very challenging.” To transform Mahlangu’s moving patterns onto the BMW 525i, Clarke and her team needed to outfit the vehicle with 1,349 E Ink film segments—each of which contains several million responsive microcapsules—that can be controlled to mimic the complex array of colors. “The material can represent any color you like,” Clarke continues. “That’s why we thought this concept fit wonderfully together.”


Courtesy of BMW


Clarke incepted the E Ink program and steers it into the future. Five years ago, she used an image of Mahlangu’s work to get others onboard. “At the very beginning there were two pictures in a slide deck that sold this idea,” she says. One was of the Rolls Royce Serenity with an aqua-colored interior that had custom cherry blossoms embellishments. The very last slide in Clarke’s deck was of Mahlangu sitting in a 7 Series, smiling. Next to her was artwork painted directly onto the dashboard. “I said to everyone, ‘imagine if you were greeted by an entire interior customized for you,” Clarke says. She believes this moment was what led to an influx of resources for E Ink development.


Courtesy of BMW


E Ink requires very little energy (less than 20 watts to change a car’s surface) and it’s bistable—meaning it has two stable states. “That means it needs no energy to hold a state,” Clarke says. “You apply energy to it and it changes, but when you take the energy away, it stays. You cannot ask me the question ‘what color is this car if it is off?’ It’s always the last color it was. It doesn’t deteriorate.” There’s so much potential to this material.


Courtesy of BMW


BMW has been active in the arts for more than 50 years, through hundreds of initiatives and editions. The NOSTOKANA isn’t one gesture toward diversity and inclusion; it’s one facet of within a large, longstanding commitment. “In South Africa, our plant there is 50 years old. When we celebrated the anniversary last year, Esther Mahlangu created the logo. We have such a strong bond with her. We created the Electric AI masterpiece with her.” says Dr Thomas Girst, BMW Group’s Head of Cultural Engagement. BMW also supports Mahlangu’s school, where she carries on the tradition of Ndebele art.

“We also have a huge collaboration with Zeitz MOCAA, which is the only museum for contemporary art in South Africa. We’ve been a long-term partner with them since the very beginning,” Girst continues. “Koyo Kouoh, the director there, was also on the jury that picked Ethiopian American contemporary artist Julie Mehretu for BMW’s Art Car Number 20, which will make its world premiere on the 21st of May in the Centre Pompidou in Paris—before it races at 24 Hours of Le Mans. Julie’s also creating the race suits for the drivers of her car.”


Courtesy of BMW


Beyond her BMW collaboration, Mahlangu is drawing recognition on a global scale—most recently with pieces featured in Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys at the Brooklyn Museum. South Africa’s The Melrose Gallery has handled Mahlangu’s international representation for six years now, and founder Craig Mark has been her friend for more than 20. “It is our intention that Dr. Mahlangu is acknowledged for her valuable contribution to contemporary art over seven decades, that she is remembered as one of the most important artists of her time,” Mark tells COOL HUNTING at Frieze. “We hope to achieve this through the global museum tour of her retrospective exhibition, the release of several books by leading publishers, featuring essays by experts in the field, as well as a documentary, acquisitions by museums and major collectors, and several legacy projects that we are currently working on.”


Courtesy of BMW


“I’m fascinated by her ability to bridge the ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary worlds,'” Mark continues. “She was taught the art of Ndebele design by her mother and grandmother at 10 years old, as is tradition among the Ndebele. But the painting of a car, a motorbike, a bicycle, a canvas and Iman’s nude body as far back as the early 1990s is not traditional Ndebele art. Dr. Mahlangu’s creative, innovative and disruptive spirit has allowed and even driven her to experiment with new media and the latest technologies and to travel extensively in search of opportunities to collaborate, create and present artworks to new audiences.”


Courtesy of BMW


Mark acted as a bridge between Mahlangu and BMW for the NOSTOKANA, and accompanied the brand to her home on several occasions during the production process. “I was with Stella and the BMW team when they presented storyboards and digital presentations explaining what the final car would look like,” Mark says. “Dr Mahlangu was very excited by the technology and the idea of her artworks being used to change the car and to be presented to new audiences. We sent her and the family a video of the final car with it working from the BMW Lounge and Dr. Mahlangu called us. She was laughing and said that it was so beautiful she feels like learning how to drive.” She was making the sounds of a car motor while moving her hands as if they were around a steering wheel.”


Courtesy of BMW


Coupled with the shifting visual patterns of the in-person experience at Frieze, the BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA paired with its own soundscape, composed by Renzo Vitale, BMW Group’s Creative Director, Sound. Vitale wove in sequences of Mahlangu’s voice, the sound of the feather brushes she paints with and the scratch of colored pencils from the BMW design studio. It was another expressive human touch to a high-tech installation centered around a fully electric vehicle.


l Ndebele pattern. This year at Frieze Los AngelesBMW debuted another collaboration with the South African artist: the BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA. The NOSTOKANA is not an Art Car; it’s a one-of-a-kind concept car and a tribute to BMW’s 12th Art Car by Mahlangu. Utilizing BMW’s color-changing E Ink exterior coat, the NOSTOKANA is a kinetic sculpture that brings to life the vibrant colors and geometric patterns of the 88-year-old artist.

The NOSTOKANA is as much a technological showcase as it is an artistic one. “I’m an engineer. I am not a dreamer, I’m a maker,” Stella Clarke, Research Engineer in Open Innovations at BMW Group, tells COOL HUNTING. “This was technically very, very challenging.” To transform Mahlangu’s moving patterns onto the BMW 525i, Clarke and her team needed to outfit the vehicle with 1,349 E Ink film segments—each of which contains several million responsive microcapsules—that can be controlled to mimic the complex array of colors. “The material can represent any color you like,” Clarke continues. “That’s why we thought this concept fit wonderfully together.”

Courtesy of BMW

Clarke incepted the E Ink program and steers it into the future. Five years ago, she used an image of Mahlangu’s work to get others onboard. “At the very beginning there were two pictures in a slide deck that sold this idea,” she says. One was of the Rolls Royce Serenity with an aqua-colored interior that had custom cherry blossoms embellishments. The very last slide in Clarke’s deck was of Mahlangu sitting in a 7 Series, smiling. Next to her was artwork painted directly onto the dashboard. “I said to everyone, ‘imagine if you were greeted by an entire interior customized for you,” Clarke says. She believes this moment was what led to an influx of resources for E Ink development.

Courtesy of BMW

E Ink requires very little energy (less than 20 watts to change a car’s surface) and it’s bistable—meaning it has two stable states. “That means it needs no energy to hold a state,” Clarke says. “You apply energy to it and it changes, but when you take the energy away, it stays. You cannot ask me the question ‘what color is this car if it is off?’ It’s always the last color it was. It doesn’t deteriorate.” There’s so much potential to this material.

Courtesy of BMW

BMW has been active in the arts for more than 50 years, through hundreds of initiatives and editions. The NOSTOKANA isn’t one gesture toward diversity and inclusion; it’s one facet of within a large, longstanding commitment. “In South Africa, our plant there is 50 years old. When we celebrated the anniversary last year, Esther Mahlangu created the logo. We have such a strong bond with her. We created the Electric AI masterpiece with her.” says Dr Thomas Girst, BMW Group’s Head of Cultural Engagement. BMW also supports Mahlangu’s school, where she carries on the tradition of Ndebele art.

“We also have a huge collaboration with Zeitz MOCAA, which is the only museum for contemporary art in South Africa. We’ve been a long-term partner with them since the very beginning,” Girst continues. “Koyo Kouoh, the director there, was also on the jury that picked Ethiopian American contemporary artist Julie Mehretu for BMW’s Art Car Number 20, which will make its world premiere on the 21st of May in the Centre Pompidou in Paris—before it races at 24 Hours of Le Mans. Julie’s also creating the race suits for the drivers of her car.”

Courtesy of BMW

Beyond her BMW collaboration, Mahlangu is drawing recognition on a global scale—most recently with pieces featured in Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys at the Brooklyn Museum. South Africa’s The Melrose Gallery has handled Mahlangu’s international representation for six years now, and founder Craig Mark has been her friend for more than 20. “It is our intention that Dr. Mahlangu is acknowledged for her valuable contribution to contemporary art over seven decades, that she is remembered as one of the most important artists of her time,” Mark tells COOL HUNTING at Frieze. “We hope to achieve this through the global museum tour of her retrospective exhibition, the release of several books by leading publishers, featuring essays by experts in the field, as well as a documentary, acquisitions by museums and major collectors, and several legacy projects that we are currently working on.”

Courtesy of BMW

“I’m fascinated by her ability to bridge the ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary worlds,'” Mark continues. “She was taught the art of Ndebele design by her mother and grandmother at 10 years old, as is tradition among the Ndebele. But the painting of a car, a motorbike, a bicycle, a canvas and Iman’s nude body as far back as the early 1990s is not traditional Ndebele art. Dr. Mahlangu’s creative, innovative and disruptive spirit has allowed and even driven her to experiment with new media and the latest technologies and to travel extensively in search of opportunities to collaborate, create and present artworks to new audiences.”

Courtesy of BMW

Mark acted as a bridge between Mahlangu and BMW for the NOSTOKANA, and accompanied the brand to her home on several occasions during the production process. “I was with Stella and the BMW team when they presented storyboards and digital presentations explaining what the final car would look like,” Mark says. “Dr Mahlangu was very excited by the technology and the idea of her artworks being used to change the car and to be presented to new audiences. We sent her and the family a video of the final car with it working from the BMW Lounge and Dr. Mahlangu called us. She was laughing and said that it was so beautiful she feels like learning how to drive.” She was making the sounds of a car motor while moving her hands as if they were around a steering wheel.”

Courtesy of BMW

Coupled with the shifting visual patterns of the in-person experience at Frieze, the BMW i5 Flow NOSTOKANA paired with its own soundscape, composed by Renzo Vitale, BMW Group’s Creative Director, Sound. Vitale wove in sequences of Mahlangu’s voice, the sound of the feather brushes she paints with and the scratch of colored pencils from the BMW design studio. It was another expressive human touch to a high-tech installation centered around a fully electric vehicle.




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