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20th BMW Art Car by Julie Mehretu in Paris | Image: BMW Group

The French Connection: Why This BMW is a Work of Contemporary Art

You never forget your first time. For automotive journalist Ben McKimm, a maiden journey to the French capital illuminated a world outside the ordinary, culminating in the reveal of the 20th BMW Art Car. A fusion of worlds set to an iconic backdrop, Julie Mehretu’s creation was, as she so eloquently put it, ‘a performative painting’.


For better or worse, this tiny island at the bottom of the map that we call Australia is a bloody long way from anything. It’s a fact I was reminded of repeatedly during a recent trip to Paris for the unveiling of BMW’s 20th Art Car. A 60-hour commute culminating in less than 48 hours on the ground will have you questioning if travel is really all it cracked up to be, but the moment you step foot on French soil, breathe the cigarette-laden Seine-swept air and smell the warmth of croissants waft across your palette, everything makes sense.

The French Connection

For me, a first-time Parisian, the journey was two-fold. On one hand, I arrived full of vigour for the Art Car launch, eager to step inside Ethiopian American contemporary visual artist Julie Mehretu’s world, but on the other, my motivations were a little personal.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit, but this was my first time in Europe full-stop. I’m not particularly well-travelled outside of the odd family holiday to America, so finding my footing on the fabled Champs-Élysées or Rue de Rivoli felt like an entirely new adventure. Even in my jet-lagged state with Julie Mehretu’s Hybrid V8 release creeping ever closer, jaunts through the historic streets, exploring, and landing at a cafe to sip an espresso were a priority, and I was determined to make the most of my time.

I challenged myself to visit as many landmarks, coffee shops, menswear stores, and patisseries as my itinerary would allow. In my mind, it was a necessary step in fully understanding why I had travelled halfway around the world, if not simply to see the covers taken off a racing car before it entered the Le Mans 24-Hour race.

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A Taste of Paris

Like so many others, our Paris highlight reel started with a dinner at Le Train Bleu. Constructed in 1900, the iconic restaurant is among the city’s most famous, so much so that the halls, which were constructed by revered architect Marius Toudoire, are listed as historical monuments. Here, in this remarkable setting, we got our first glimpse at what Julie Mehretu had in store for us.

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Mehretu’s journey to the epicentre of the contemporary art movement is characterised by refinement. After moving to the United States at a young age, she completed a Bachelor’s Degree from Kalamazoo College in Michigan and a Master’s degree in Fine Art with honours from The Rhode Island School of Design.

Toiling across mediums that include painting, drawing and printmaking, Mehretu established herself as an artist with something to say. Her work is described as a contemporary experience that considers social behaviours and the psychogeography of space by exploring history, whether geological time or modern-day social philosophy. And while you’ll find some of her most famous works on display in the MoMa, the BMW M Hybrid V8 Art Car is her first three-dimensional work of art.

Julie Mehretu’s BMW Art Car

Mehretu is the latest in a long line of creatives tasked with stepping outside their traditional mediums for BMW. For almost 50 years, the German automaker has collaborated with globally renowned artists as part of its ‘Art Car’ series. High-calibre artisans such as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons have participated in the venture, alongside Australian artists Ken Done and Michael Jagamara Nelson, who created two of the most beautiful BMW M3 Group A racecars that we’ve ever seen.

This year’s edition takes inspiration from a BMW M Hybrid V8 racecar and follows the BMW M6 GTLM created by John Baldessari in 2016. It will compete in the upcoming 24 Hours of Le Mans, which Mehretu revealed was an important step in the process. In a strange twist of fate, the artist explained that the BMW Art Car is only completed once the race is over.

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“The whole BMW Art Car project is about invention, about imagination, about pushing limits of what can be possible,” she said. “I don’t think of this car as something you would exhibit. I am thinking of it as something that will race in Le Mans. It’s a performative painting. My BMW Art Car was created in close collaboration with motorsport and engineering teams.”

When it does inevitably hit the track, Mehretu’s creation won’t hold back. The BMW M Hybrid V8 weighs around 1,029kg and is powered by a twin-turbocharged V8 engine and electric motor that produces around 477 kW of power and 650 Nm of torque depending on the circuit. Results for the team so far have been mixed, achieving a best place finish of 6th overall at IMOLA as part of the FIA World Endurance Championship. The debut race for the Art Car livery will be at 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 12th, 2024, at which point Mehretu’s vision will take flight.

“The idea was to make a remix, a mash-up of the painting. I kept seeing that painting kind of dripping into the car. Even the kidneys of the car inhaled the painting.”

The vehicle’s abstract visual form results from digitally altered photographs, which are superimposed in several layers of dot grids, neon-coloured veils and the black markings characteristic of Mehretu’s work.

“In the studio where I had the model of the BMW M Hybrid V8, I was just sitting in front of the painting, and I thought: What would happen if this car seemed to go through that painting and becomes affected by it.”

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Art With a Purpose

Most importantly, BMW and Julie Mehretu’s collaboration also includes a joint commitment to a series of Pan-African Translocal Media Workshops for filmmakers. These workshops will tour various African cities in 2025 and 2026 and culminate in a major exhibition at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town.

Oliver Zipse, the chairman of the board of management of BMW AG was in Paris for the unveiling and described Julie Mehretu’s vision as an extraordinarily strong contribution to the BMW Art Cars series. “Julie Mehretu has created more than an amazing Art Car. Her ideas provided the impetus for us to expand the cultural commitment of our Art Cars to promote the creativity of young artists in Africa.”

Illuminating the City Of Light

Seeing BMW and Julie Mehretu’s collaboration up close, I gained a new appreciation for the culture of creativity. In its purest form, the 20th Art Car exudes the performance BMW fans have come to know and love, whilst also providing an avenue for expression. Mehretu’s art is not merely slapped haphazardly onto the chassis of the existing supercar; it’s weaved intrinsically through each panel and fused into the design DNA. Here, art and performance merge, and like two sides to a delicately assembled Macaron, both virtues are weighted equally.

So, as I wandered back to my hotel, exhausted from twenty thousand steps and fuelled entirely by pastries and sleep deprivation, the reality of travelling home finally hit me. Thinking back on the previous 48 hours; breaking bread with BMW’s CEO, strolling through the Arc de Triomphe and partaking in a myriad of seemingly meaningless activities, I understood the French connection. Sitting at the top of the hill at Montmartre, looking out over the city as a Citroën 2CV drives past was the immersion that I was looking for. Perhaps this was the performative painting Julie Mehretu was talking about all along.

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