The Iziko Museums of South Africa and BMW presents **Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting**: Esther Mahlangu. A Retrospective. The exhibition, curated by Nontobeko Ntombela, highlights Esther Mahlangu’s over 50-year-long career and her meteoric rise as a contemporary artist, earning her global acclaim. The retrospective will be on view at Iziko Museums of South Africa from 18 February 2024 until 11 August 2024. From there, it will begin its global tour, stopping first at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, before moving to the United States in early 2026.

BMW proudly supports the landmark exhibition **Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting**: Esther Mahlangu. A Retrospective, which honours the talent of Esther Mahlangu and celebrates a shared history of collaboration. This exhibition includes Mahlangu’s BMW 525i Art Car, returning to South Africa for the first time in over 30 years. 

Mahlangu became the first African and the first woman to paint a BMW Art Car in 1991. This collaboration marked a significant moment in art, blending African art with contemporary automotive design.

“Painting has always been a part of me. I cannot separate it from myself, and neither would I want to. I look forward to sharing my practice and long and colourful story with you on my upcoming Retrospective Exhibition”, says Esther Mahlangu.

Through the language of colour and form, the exhibition charts Mahlangu’s contribution to contemporary art for nearly seven decades. More than 100 artworks have been gathered from global collections. They have been placed alongside historic photographs and a short film. This diverse collection from Mahlangu’s expansive oeuvre that features in Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu. A Retrospective, will offer a comprehensive yet intimate insight into her vast and vibrant career.

“Mahlangu’s journey is a testament to passion, innovation, and resilience”, Curator Nontobeko Ntombela remarks. Continuing, “The retrospective pays homage to Esther Mahlangu’s unique approach to art, which intersects African cultures with modernity and the contemporary. The exhibition celebrates Mahlangu’s voice, agency, and pioneering spirit, symbolising her self-enunciation, self-determination, and creativity”, she says.


The retrospective is a landmark achievement for South African art. It recognises Mahlangu as one of the few South African artists who have had the opportunity to present a retrospective exhibition in world-renowned museums. Of the exhibition, Dr Bongani Ndhlovu, Acting CEO of Iziko Museums of South Africa, says: “Iziko Museums is honoured to celebrate the living legend, Dr Esther Mahlangu, and to host this colossal showcase where creativity, culture, and aesthetics are fused.” He continues, “Dr Mahlangu is a living symbol of triumph against adversity. Her approach to art has inspired generations and is a reaffirmation of calls for Africa-centred innovations.”

“The BMW Group’s commitment to this exhibition is a testament to our respect and admiration for Dr Esther Mahlangu’s pioneering spirit and remarkable contribution to the art world. This exhibition not only celebrates the incredible journey and legacy of Mam’ Esther but also symbolises a cherished collaboration that dates back over three decades. We are especially excited about the return of the BMW Art Car to South African soil – a significant symbol of our shared history and appreciation for art that transcends boundaries”, says Peter van Binsbergen, CEO of BMW Group South Africa.

The BMW Group’s Cultural Engagement, with exclusive updates and deeper insights into its global initiatives, can be followed on Instagram at @BMWGroupCulture.


Esther Mahlangu’s collaboration with the BMW Group, spanning over three decades, represents a remarkable blend of traditional Ndebele art and modern automotive design, demonstrating an evolving and deep-rooted partnership.

BMW Art Car: The journey began in 1991 when Mahlangu, the first woman to do so, designed a BMW Art Car. She adorned a BMW 525i with vibrant Ndebele patterns, connecting South African art with automotive design. This project showcased her unique artistic style on an international platform and marked a significant cultural and technological crossover, transitioning from mural painting to the canvas of a modern vehicle.

BMW Individual 7 Series by Esther Mahlangu: In 2016 Mahlangu once again partnered with BMW. This time, she lent her distinctive style to a BMW 7 Series interior. Her iconic motifs were meticulously integrated into the wood trims of the luxury sedan, exemplifying a seamless blend of traditional art with contemporary luxury. This unique vehicle, symbolising the enduring collaboration between Mahlangu and BMW, was revealed at the Frieze in London and later auctioned for charity.

The Mahlangu Phantom: The collaboration took a luxurious turn in 2020 when Rolls-Royce commissioned Mahlangu to create an artwork for the Gallery of a Phantom, named “The Mahlangu Phantom”. This project elevated her art to the pinnacle of automotive luxury, affirming her status as a respected cultural icon and artist.

50 years BMW Group South Africa: In 2023, as part of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of BMW Group South Africa, Mahlangu was invited to design a commemorative logo. This logo, infused with her artistic essence, symbolised the half-century milestone of BMW in South Africa and highlighted the long-standing relationship between Mahlangu and the BMW Group. 

The Electric AI Canvas: In 2023, Mahlangu’s artistic journey with BMW reached a new dimension with the “Electric AI Canvas” project at Art Basel in Basel. Here, her traditional art was transformed through technology, as AI-generated animations based on her designs were projected onto the fully electric BMW i5. This innovative display merged Mahlangu’s cultural heritage with the forefront of digital technology, showcasing the dynamic potential of combining traditional art forms with modern innovation.


Throughout these collaborations, Mahlangu’s work with BMW has elevated her art to a global audience and served as a beacon of the harmonious blend of cultural artistry with automotive design, illustrating a unique and enduring relationship.


Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting
Esther Mahlangu. A Retrospective


18 February to 11 August 2024


Iziko South African National Gallery 
Government Avenue
Company’s Garden
Cape Town


Most Popular