Suspicions about: The BMW Art Car

I’m not only suspicious about BMW commissioning artist Esther Mahlangu to design and paint the 12th Art Car, I’m also suspicious about its place in the British Museum. I may be 26 years late to the debate, but after seeing the BMW 12th Art Car on its (stationary as it isn’t to be driven, only exhibited) tour around the globe, I thought the topic deserved a rant.

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Me being suspicious in the British Museum

Firstly, BMW have been running an “art project” in which they commission internationally renowned artists to paint the exterior of their latest, greatest and fastest model. Thus far the company have commissioned 19 artists, and unsurprisingly of the impenetrable art world, only two of which are female. The cars have previously been designed by the likes of Andy Warhol and David Hockney, but in 1991, to mark the end of apartheid regime in South Africa, BMW appointed Mahlangu to design the 12th. There are a few issues with marketing this project as “art” as such, because the cars tastefully obscure what is a very clever commercial ploy. The designs inscribed on cars epitomise the failings of aesthetic value in capitalist modernity, because the main signifier of the ‘artwork’ is the BMW, not the work of the artist. For the BMW Art Project, the artist’s relationship to the artwork can be articulated in Marxist terms: the artist becomes a worker employed to do a task, estranged from the products of her/his labour. This is not to suggest BMW omits all artistic freedom, although the company does project an ideal end product onto the artist and the BMW, implicating that the artist does not have free-reign of the “canvas” that is the car’s surface. This is not to suggest that Mahlangu was a mere victim of BMW’s exploitation – before the project she was successful as an artist and continues to be today. In some ways, the car marks progress in the art sector as it draws attention to artists that may be unrecognised or categorised as “non-Western” in the art world.

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Mahlangu signing her work

In a world increasingly defined by aspirational consumption, the BMW has powerful purchase in the socialised and globalised imaginary. To own a BMW is an indication of power, wealth and status which represents physical, social and economic freedom available only to a minority. With speeds of up to 225 km/h, the BMW Art Car propels past the standard BMW. Thus the BMW “art project” exemplifies the privilege of car owning. The 12th of the series is unlike anything BMW have encountered nor exhibited before. Dubbed the first “African Art Car”, Mahlangu was employed to paint the car according to traditional Ndebele painting. The bold, geometrical and colourful patterns of the BMW Art Car originate from the Ndebele people in the 19th century, who encountered a defeat against the Boer-settlers. Forced into a life oppression, the Ndebele people began using expressive symbols to communicate on the walls of their home; the designs became an expression of cultural resistance and identity. Once imprinted onto the BMW, the art of this traditional culture is blended with capitalist exploitation, in a way that both obscures and celebrates South Africa’s colonial past. When the Ndebele paintings are appropriated by an affluent company like BMW, the art itself becomes a commercial advertisement, and its original harrowing meaning is belittled. This is not dissimilar to how Coca Cola conveys an image of global unity which actually serves as a marketing ploy for consumer countries.

I travelled specifically to the British Museum, London, to see the Ndebele BMW Art Car in person; this accentuates how effective BMW have been in their artistic subterfuge. The car is currently being exhibited under the curated collection “South Africa: the art of a nation” in the capital city. Whilst Ndebele art originally employed the exterior walls of houses as an artistic resource, allowing inhabitants and Ndebele passersby to contribute to its meaning, the Ndebele BMW is an extravagant art project to be overseen by a privileged few – currently by those who live near or can afford to travel to London. For significance to be drawn from Ndebele art, it should not be on a BMW, nor be placed in an exhibition, a private collection, or in a gallery. The displacement of the Ndebele house paintings onto the exhibited BMW, raises problems for justifications of the museum that appeal to the purported uniqueness and power of the work it contains. Ndebele house paintings was traditionally determined by its cheapness to create and freeness to experience. By contrast, museums contain art that is extremely expensive (to make and own), costly to experience, and to be overseen and critiqued by an elite. The disconnection of the Ndebele pattern from cultural house painting and the Ndebele people, onto the branded BMW, and into the gallery, impedes on its original meaning.

The 12th Art Car’s place in the British Museum relates to Benedict Anderson’s theory that the museum shapes the way the British colonial state “imagines its dominion” and legitimises its ancestry, as demonstrated by the artefacts Britain owns and museumifies. The national collections essentializes a multitude of cultures’ history, including Britain’s own Imperial past which implicated South Africa.

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