George Lilanga

George Lilanga was born in Kikwetu, 1934, he was a Tanzanian painter and sculptor. Trained in the tingatinga school of painting in Dar es Salaam, he is also internationally known for his peculiar pictorial style, characterized by brightly colored figures and sharp, highly dynamic, and caricature outlines.

It is difficult to establish with certainty the date of birth of an African, especially if this happens in a village in the South of Tanzania where the vastness of the territory, the destitution of the populations, the phenomenon of nomadism and the precariousness of the registry office make it difficult to give them a precise day and place. George Lilanga is no exception, of which inaccurate places and dates of birth have been indicated. He was the one who later claimed to have been born in 1934 in the village of Kikwetu of the Masasi district in the southern Tanzania region of Mtwara. The ethnic group of origin is Makonde. In fact both parents were Makonde (ethnic group originally from Mozambique). Lilanga's family was composed of his father, an agricultural worker in sisal plantations, his mother and two brothers who died before him. It seems that the mother has had other children all died at an early age. The father, probably also because of all these premature deaths, abandoned his family to remarry another woman. George attended elementary school for only 4 years of the 7 normally expected. It is interesting to note how Lilanga in the works of the last few years dedicated to the life of the village repeatedly turns to the representation of the festive moments of the awarding of diplomas to primary or high school students. It almost seems like he wants to remember his unfinished school path and he wants to send one of his messages of positive progress to the men and women of his land. Around the age of 15 he had his initiation with the participation in the ceremony called Jandoni or Jando where the young males are initiated to their future as men (the boys are separated from young women for 3 - 4 months and circumcised, they are then educated in all Masculine activities, the secrets of the bush and the magic used in hunting, began shortly after his first contact with the sculpture (the roots, the soft wood and then the hard ebony), referring to the Makonde tradition. from 1961 to 1972.
He showed his first works to the Europeans who worked in the refugee camps of the Mozambique war of independence. Also according to their advice in 1970 he decided to move to Dar es Salaam where the possibilities to sell the sculptures were greater. In 1971 he obtained his first occupation thanks to his uncle Augustino Malaba, already known sculptor and later his collaborator, in the role of night watchman at Nyumba ya Sanaa ("art house"), a typical African center for the development of art and crafts. Lilanga's talents were soon understood and he was able to show his artistic genius: he began to make batiks, works on goatskin and works on iron plates for the completion of railings and gates.

George Lilanga attended the artistic environment of the Tingatinga school, with the disciples of the famous self-taught painter who began in the 60s to paint his fantastic animals, especially "the big five" (lion, elephant, hippopotamus, giraffe and antelope) using the recycled materials (masonite instead of canvas) and workshop acrylic colors and realizing peculiar paintings with great vivacity of colors, painting in successive layers, well-defined pictorial field, dreamlike aspect of his characters. Surely the Tingatinga school exercised a strong weight in the artistic development of Lilanga. Around 1972 he became essentially a painter. Some of Lilanga's works were presented at the National Museum of Dar es Salaam in 1974. And in these works, as well as some of the later ones, we can highlight the influence exerted by the Tingatinga school. From that moment on, Lilanga dedicated himself almost exclusively to painting with his Makonde characters portrayed entirely and with bright colors.
In 1977 he made the first trip out of the African continent by going to New York. Here he exhibited at the Marycoll Ossing Center. He spent some time in Manhattam selling prints made on paper or cardboard at street crossings. In 1978 he participated in a group exhibition of African artists in Washington D.C .. Among the 280 works presented about 100 were from Lilanga. It was on this occasion that he was compared with Jean Dubuffet. His influence on young American graffiti artists was also hypothesized (Keith Haring himself stated in an interview that he was influenced by Lilanga's works). Thus began a long series of exhibitions. Lilanga's works were increasingly successful in Africa, Europe, the US and even India and repeatedly in Japan. In the 80s he devoted himself almost exclusively to painting. His Shetani were represented bidimensionally on masonite and subsequently on hardboard, the inexpensive panels of pressed wood fibers and held together by a binder, so used in Africa in the poor homes to plug the attics and as thermal insulators. These are the most beautiful works of Lilanga made with acrylic oil on masonite or hardboard of the "classic" format of about 61 x 61 cm and that show us continuous explosions of color.

In the following 90's George Lilanga became more and more famous, even if the success was greater abroad than in his own country, Tanzania. Thus he reached the highest levels of his artistic maturity. There were numerous exhibitions of his works in many countries and was recognized as one of the greatest artists of Africa, probably the greatest contemporary African artist. In recent years his works take on ever greater dimensions (from this period the oils on canvas of about one square meter of surface, the first large canvases of more than 200 centimeters in length and the masonites / faeries of 61 x 122 centimeters). Also in this period he began again after many years to devote himself intensely to sculpture, creating many works in soft wood (usually mninga or mkongo) brightly colored with oil glazes. In the late 1990s, serious complications of the diabetic disease occurred and Lilanga was forced to reorganize his work using an atelier: numerous young students and relatives, sculptors and painters closely related to him, began to perform part of the tasks that Lilanga could no longer manage. carry on alone with ease. The atelier is a way of working with African artists and re-proposes that of Renaissance art workshops.
Since 2001, due to the serious physical impairment, he returned to small jobs with inks on paper and small goat skins with a size of 22.5 x 22.5 cm, more easily and quickly, but with the help of the atelier he also continued to face paintings of considerable size and until shortly before his death he made large canvases and masonites and beautiful tondi.

He died on Monday 27 June 2005 in Dar es Salaam in his home-studio in Mbagala. In Mbagala live his second wife and three of his children including the little Dunia.

Works of George Lilanga


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