Esther Mahlangu’s first retrospective and her animated BMW art car collaboration

South African artist Esther Mahlangu is a national treasure, her work widely recognised and in private collections worldwide. She works within the centuries-old Ndebele art tradition, practiced by the Ndebele people of South Africa and Zimbabwe. These hand paintings are typically created using delicate feathers and natural pigments. Ndebele artists paint on various surfaces, on walls, houses, clothing, pottery, textiles, and the shapes and colours can carry cultural readings, reflecting social status and spiritual beliefs within the community.

Mahlangu’s work stands out among her contemporaries for its unique, imaginative abstract designs and vivid colour combinations. She works straight from imagination, drafting these precise geometric shapes without the aid of rulers or masking tape, and the thick black lines that are a defining feature in her work echo traditional Ndebele beadwork. Early on in her career, Mahlangu adopted acrylic paint for a more expansive colour palette, and she has worked with wall-size canvas to evolve her designs further.

The artist’s first retrospective, Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, opened earlier this month at the Iziko Museums of South Africa in Cape Town with plans to travel to other destinations including the US. It coincides with a colour-shifting art car the artist has created with BMW as part of Frieze LA. Mahlangu famously painted the 1991 BMW 525i Art Car becoming the first female artist and first African artist to take part in the programme. The 2024 i5 Flow Nostokana is an art car for a new era, a moving canvas which simultaneously performs BMW’s latest tech and exhibits the Mahlangus distinctive artwork.

See the art car project here.
And a look at the retrospective here.

Norman Foster’s ‘Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture’ at the Guggenheim is a requiem for the age of combustion

Norman Foster's thought-provoking 'Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture' at the Guggenheim Bilbao looks at the pioneers of automobile design in the context of art, architecture and critical theory, provoking timely discussions as we edge towards the post-combustion age
Dymaxion #4, 2010, based on #1-3 (1933’34) by Buckminster Fuller and Starling Burgess. Image curtesy of Normal Foster Foundation

The imagined future of the automobile was once exhilarating. It involved Jean Bugatti’s Type 57SC Atlantic, conceived in 1936 and to this day a work of art on wheels. The future was Wifredo Ricart’s 1952 Pegaso Z-102 Cúpula and Franco Scaglione’s 1954 Alfa Romeo BAT Car 7 for Bertone. Most daring of all, the future could have belonged to a world where the architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, together with yacht designer Starling Burgess, imagined the painfully cool and to this day avant-garde 1933 Dymaxion.

These motor cars explore inventive aerodynamic shapes, they are nautical-informed feline beauties, have curvaceous, luxurious, customised bodies, and are inspired by science and the space age and rockets. They represent extraordinary ingenuity; many are lyrical designs, immersed in meaning. Their designers were looking to the future, and the automobile’s prospect was bright and exciting, bursting with optimism.

Crucially, all this creative work didn’t happen in car design studio isolation. Rather, automobile design lived within an expansive narrative arc that involved art and architecture, urbanism, critical theory, philosophy and intellectual discourse. The car was seen as a vehicle for progress, not just for profit.

Norman Foster's 'Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture' at the Guggenheim Bilbao looks at the pioneers of automobile design in the context of art and architecture and more, provoking timely discussions as we edge towards the post-combustion age
Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center (1956), photographed by Ezra Stoller. Curtesy of General Motors

‘Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture’ (8 April to 18 September 2022) firmly places the automobile in this context. And by doing so, is a timely show to enliven discussions around the future of motor cars as we edge towards the post-combustion age. Or at least I hopes so. Curated by the architect Norman Foster at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the exhibition is a spirited celebration of the artistic dimension of the automobile — visually and culturally linking it to parallel worlds of painting and sculpture, architecture, photography and film. And it is a thoroughly beautiful show.

See why Norman Foster believes looking at the work and ideas of these visionary creatives will help navigate a better future. Read my full article here.

Ed Ruscha “Standard Station” (1966), seven‑colour screenprintEd Ruscha

Memory, race, identity inform Sondra Perry’s winning artwork for Rolls-Royce Dream Commission

Sondra Perry’s “Lineage for a Phantom Zone”
Lineage for a Phantom Zone – photo credit Sondra Perry

Themes of lineage, memory, longing, race, identity form the basis of the latest artwork created under the patronage of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. American artist Sondra Perry’s Lineage for a Phantom Zone uses the concept of dreams as a space for reconfiguring history. Her immersive and powerful audio-visual installation reconstructs an imaginary dream about her grandmother. This is a highly personal story told through the lens of imaginings as a way of discussing critical notions surrounding the erasure of Black history in the American South. The artist has imagined the dream space as a passage to reach sites of heritage absent in reality. Read my interview with Jessica Persson-Conway, head of Rolls-Royce art program, here.

Why we should rethink design in the age of machine intelligence

Should design as a practice undergo a complete rethink in the age of machine intelligence? The question is at the heart of a speech co-written by the designer Chris Bangle and his son Derek for a speech he gave at the end of last year on re-inventing luxury at the Whitney Museum in New York. Such discussions are the reason I write and so, needing to know more, I got in contact. (read the full interview here)

The Bangles are calling for a complete re-invention of design for the new age of transport. The argument is that it is irrational to partake in current discussions on sustainable design or the meaning of luxury when a real shift requires a fundamental rethink of design and its human creatives. ‘Design, as it is now,’ Chris says, rejects humanity, preferring in every way, shape and form the cold idea of the machine-made. We must jettison even the look of the machine age.’

As a discipline, design continues to live in the world of the machine; it’s trapped in its prime at the peak of the machine age. Then the human designer was awarded for creating in perfection like a machine. But in the age of machine intelligence, the thinking human need no longer mimic the machine. Only through liberation from this outdated concept, the argument goes, can design help shape a more interesting future.

Chris uses a dramatic example in a humble teapot, one that foreshadowed the machine age look that is still with us but was in fact designed three decades before the birth of modernism. When you listen deeply to such an object and let that guide your actions, you are no longer outside the narrative looking in, but rather part of the storytelling. He explains, ‘you begin to design diegetically, inside the narrative, then suddenly design processes become wonderful design adventures.’

I’m reminded of the work of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most lyrical artists and designers of the last century, whose life was dedicated to sculpting the world he wished to inhabit. He too advocated listening to the stone, the object, the space – seeing sculpture as a means of creating harmony between humans, industry and nature and thus improving how we live. He wrote: ‘Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.’

Chris says re-inventing design need not be a negative thing. In conclusion to his Whitney speech he says: ‘It will be the greatest creative challenge design has ever responded to. I am convinced design will succeed at redeeming itself; it will be thrilling and it happens when we stop fussing over the whats we can create and move on the why of what we should create.’

And I’m happy to enter 2022 on this positive note. Happy New Year.

See the full interview here

In talk with the maestro of car design Marcello Gandini

Marcello Gandini remains the maestro of radical car design with the incredible body of work he did while at Bertone – think the original Lamborghini Countach and Miura, and the pioneering scissor doored Alfa Romeo Carabo. Long been an admirer, I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to speak with him, to reflect on his body of work but also to hear his candid thoughts on the missed opportunity with the first generation of electric car designs.

To quote him: ‘Nothing in an electric car currently makes you say at first glance: Wow, this is a different car, it carries a new message, it speaks evidently of a new language of change and innovation… It is a shame.’

Once a rebel always a rebel.

See the full interview here

Image: Marcello Gandini and his Lamborghini Countach © Lamborghini