This Ethiopian immigrant artist designed the latest BMW racecar for one of the world’s biggest stages

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 5, 2024 10:18 AM EDT

Ethiopian American painter and artist Julie Mehretu has designed the 20th BMW Art Car that will race the track at Le Mans, the 24-hour endurance motorsport race in June. She has merged the distinct concepts of art, technology, and mobility to showcase her performative painting of a BMW M Hybrid V8 racecar on one of the world’s biggest stages. Mehretu continues an almost 50-year tradition that began in 1975 when racing driver Hervé Poulain invited his artist friend, Alexander Calder, to paint a BMW 3.0 CSL which was subsequently raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

“I’ve loved cars for most of my life, as toys, as objects, as possibilities. It is from that space that I’m really excited to be working on the next BMW Art Car more than anything. The thrill of the speed, the 24 Hour race of Le Mans and what is possible to invent in hybrid and fully electric vehicles as future modes of play and pushing ahead into new terrains of transportation and motorsports,” Mehretu explained what the BMW collaboration means to her.

Mehretu did not know she was in contention to design the next installment in BMW’s legendary collection of “rolling sculptures”. She was unanimously chosen by an international jury of museum directors and curators, and given complete creative freedom. However, when initially approached by BMW’s urban cultural emissary, Mehretu declined the opportunity. She was shocked by the offer and could not even fathom how to approach painting a car. During the first Covid lockdown, Mehretu came around to the idea and was persuaded to take on the project.

Her thought processes were stirred by the lockdown and she saw the opportunity to transform the new BMW M Hybrid V8 racecar into a dynamic work of art. Mehretu used her monumental painting Everywhen, the centerpiece of a retrospective currently being held at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, as her jump-off point. Inspired by the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill, the art loosely informed the color and form vocabulary on the surface of this car. Mehretu worked with BMW’s designers and her own team to transfer the art onto the automotive canvas through 3D mapping. She also designed the race suits and helmets for the BMW drivers competing at the race.

“It’s important to build some form of infrastructure where we can come together and study this environment. Algorithms aren’t going to help us, and media is a source of enormous power as we all know. My father loved cars, growing up in Ethiopia. BMW was important so being able to take that meaning and do something else with it creatively… there’s a whole different way of playing with car culture, it’s exhilarating. Especially in a world that’s so complicated and where dreams can feel like they’re almost impossible,” Mehretu said about the transformational dimension of her partnership with BMW.

The creative partnership between Mehretu and the BMW Group is about much more about designing a vehicle, extending to a far-reaching and sustainable commitment to social issues. BMW has pledged to run a series of Pan-African translocal media workshops which will provide a space for artists and filmmakers to work together and exchange ideas. Mehretu will host a series of gatherings in eight African cities over nine months to open up spaces where artists can convene, exchange, and collaborate across local contexts. These workshops are geared towards establishing a forum where artists can consider new pathways to implementing just civic futures in their local communities and harness the power of the trans-local collective.

The results of the workshops will be presented alongside the 20th BMW Art Car at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town in 2025.

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Mehretu and her family relocated to the US when she was seven. She received her undergraduate from Kalamazoo College, Michigan, graduated from The Rhode Island School of Design with a Master of Fine Arts degree, and spent a year studying at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar Senegal. Her paintings, prints, and drawings explore palimpsests of history and engage the viewer in a dynamic visual articulation of contemporary experience, a depiction of social behavior, and the psychogeography of space. Mehretu has been running a studio in New York since 1999 and has received numerous awards including the US Department of State Medal of Arts Award.