Julie Mehretu’s BMW Art Car Fuses Glitches and Blurs

The 20th BMW Art Car, designed by the artist, sees a 2D image transformed into a 3D vehicle.

Woman with glasses sits inside racecar against red background
Julie Mehretu inside her newly-unveiled BMW Art Car. Photo Tereza Mundilova/Courtesy BMW

When Julie Mehretu was first approached to design the BMW Art Car, she wasn’t sure she was ready for the challenge. “I was really concerned about taking on a project like this and I didn’t think I would be able to do it,” said the Ethiopian American artist at a press preview of the BMW (BMWYY) M Hybrid V8 race car.

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But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, she began to miss the voice of the late curator and art critic Okwui Enwezor, who died in 2019 and was a member of the panel that originally selected Mehretu for the Art Car. “I thought, what would Okwui do in a situation like this? I kind of laid down this gauntlet for myself,” said Mehretu. “And then I started to think expansively around the idea of the car.”

Mehretu’s BMW Art Car was unveiled today (May 21) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. A work of art complete with graffiti-like lines and patches of neon, Mehretu’s car marks the 20th iteration of the BMW Art Car program. The car itself, striking in its aesthetic, is fully functional, too, and set to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race next month in France.

Colorful race car wrapped in multicolored abstract painting pictured against light grey background
The car will compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Photo Tereza Mundilova/Courtesy BMW

BMW’s first Art Car was created in 1975, when the French racing driver Hervé Poulain asked his friend Alexander Calder to paint a car for him to drive at Le Mans. Subsequent iterations of the Art Car have been created by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, with the 19th BMW Art Car designed by John Baldessari and unveiled in 2016. Frank Stella’s edition in 1976 and Jenny Holzer’s in 1999 were of particular influence for Mehretu, who was chosen in part due to her experimentation with movement and design in her work.

Mehretu’s 2021-2023 painting Everywhen, currently on view at her “Ensemble” exhibition at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, was the starting point for the car. Transforming the 2D painting into a 3D image by morphing and remixing digital photographs to fit over the car, Mehretu covered the BMW M Hybrid V8 in dotted grids, neon splashes and black markings.

She acknowledges that the design will look different when speeding down the straightaways or taking corners at Le Mans. “Hopefully it’ll be very blurry, but then when it comes still it comes into this glitchy kind of space,” said Mehretu. “I’ve worked with blur a lot in my paintings and the blur has been an interesting space to investigate for myself in terms of the illegibility of it.”

Abstract colorful painting filled with graffiti-like lines and blurry painted areas
Julie Mehretu, Everywhen, (2021-2023). Courtesy the artist, White Cube (London) and Marian Goodman Gallery (New York)/Photo: Tom Powel Imaging/ © Julie Mehretu

Mehretu at one point also planned on creating spare replacement car parts covered in black and white negatives of her design, which would be added mid-race if the vehicle was damaged. Despite the support of BMW, officials at Le Mans eventually shot down the idea, claiming it would change the car too much and could potentially lead to a disqualification.

BMW’s associated investment in a series of Pan-African workshops

But Mehretu’s BMW Art Car wasn’t supposed to be a racecar at all. The artist was first approached to paint a fully electric vehicle and initially talked with BMW about committing resources to a Pan-African project in lieu of competing in a race. While BMW later decided to continue focusing on the Art Car in motorsports and subsequently offered up the Hybrid V8, their commitment to Mehretu’s initiative remained. “They’re really different projects,” said the artist.

Sponsored by BMW and conceived of by Mehretu in collaboration with Mehret Mandefro, co-founder of film organization the Realness Institute, the Pan-African Translocal Media Workshops will tour African cities to provide spaces for artists to collaborate and engage in dialogue. They will run throughout 2025 and 2026 and take place in Senegal, Morocco, Rwanda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa and Tanzania.

Woman stands in leather jacket in front of race car filled with three men
Julie Mehretu poses with BMW Motorsport drivers. Photo Tereza Mundilova/Courtesy BMW

Results from the Pan-African Translocal Media Workshops for filmmakers will culminate in an exhibition at the Zeitz Museum in Cape Town that will inclide Mehretu’s BMW Art Car. “Julie Mehretu has created more than an amazing Art Car,” said Oliver Zipse, chairman of the board of management of BMW, in a statement. “Her ideas provided the impetus to expand the cultural commitment of our Art Cars to promote the creativity of young artists in Africa.”

First, however, is the Le Mans race on June 15. Driving the 20th BMW Art Car in suits also designed by Mehretu will be BMW Motorsport drivers Sheldon van der Linde of South Africa, Robin Frijns of the Netherlands and René Rast of Germany. Despite BMW’s fruitful legacy with motorsports, its BMW Art Cars have yet to come in first during a race. Mehretu is hopeful that will change this year. “That’s the idea. That we’re going to win,” she said.

Julie Mehretu’s BMW Art Car Fuses Glitches and Blurs