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George Lilanga (1934–2005) was a Tanzanian artist. He was of the Makonde tribe and lived in Dar es Salaam. His work was exhibited in international expositions of African contemporaries including Africa Remix in Düsseldorf, Paris, London and Tokyo.
Lilanga's parents were both Makonde (an ethnic group originating in Mozambique). His father was an agricultural labourer who worked on the sisal plantations and he had two brothers who died before him. His father left the family and married another woman. George and his family later moved to the city of Lutamba, in southern Tanzania, on the border with Mozambique.
Here Lilanga went to grammar school for four. Lilanga, in the works of his last years of life, which were dedicated to village life, returned many times to the representation of the happy moments when grammar and secondary school students received their diplomas. Shortly afterwards, he had his first contact with sculpture (roots, softwood and, later, hard ebony), working in the Makonde tradition. He dedicated himself almost exclusively to this technique from 1961 until 1972. He showed his first works to Europeans who worked in the refugee camps during Mozambique's war of independence. Following their advice, in 1970 Lilanga decided to move to Dar es Salaam, where there were greater opportunities for selling sculptures.
In 1971, George got his first job, thanks to his uncle, Augustino Malaba, an already well-known sculptor who would be his future collaborator. He worked as a night guard at the House of Art (Nyumba ya Sanaa), a typical African center for the development of art and craftsmanship. Lilanga's talents were soon recognised by Jean Pruitt. George Lilanga welcomed to Nyumba ya Sanaa to join other artists like Robino Ntila, Augustino Malaba and Patrick Francis Imanjama. He began to create batiks, works on goatskin and on sheets of iron for the finishing of railings and gates.
Lilanga frequented the art circles of the Tingatinga school. Around 1972 he became essentially a painter. Some of his works were presented at Dar es Salaam's National Museum in 1974.
In 1974, he was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus. "I was always very tired, unable to follow my normal daily routine. Therefore, I decided to go in for a complete checkup in the local hospital. On that occasion, the doctors determined that I had diabetes."
In 1977, he made his first journey outside Africa, travelling to New York, where he had a show at the Marycoll Ossing Center. He stayed for a brief time in Manhattan, selling prints made on paper or cardboard, standing on street corners.
In 1978, he participated in a collective exhibition of African artists in Washington D.C. Of the 280 works presented, about 100 were by Lilanga. It was on this occasion that he was compared with Jean Dubuffet. Lilanga was considered to have had an influence on the young American graffiti artists (Keith Haring said in an interview that he had been influenced by Lilanga's art). Lilanga began a long series of exhibitions. His works had increasing success in Africa, Europe, the US, India and Japan.
In the 1980s Lilanga participated a few times on Salzburg Summer Academy. There he learned to produce etching works which became to an important basic for his later coloured art works. Subsequently he dedicated himself almost exclusively to painting. His Shetani were represented two-dimensionally on Masonite (inexpensive panels made from wood fibre pressed, frequently used in poor African dwellings for stopping up attic roofs and as insulation), canvas, batiks and goat skin frames.
In the 1990s his works became increasingly larger (from this period are his oils on canvas about one square meter in size, his first large canvases over 200 centimetres in length and 61x122-centimeter works on Masonite/Faesite). During this period, after a break of many years, at the end of the 1990s he began working intensely again with sculpture, creating a large number of works in soft wood (usually mninga or mkongo), vividly coloured with oil-based enamels.
In the late 1990s, his diabetes worsened with severe complications. Lilanga was forced to reorganise his work, putting together an atelier that included numerous young pupils and his own relatives who were also sculptors and painters. They were closely supervised by Lilanga, and began to take over part of the work that Lilanga could no longer easily do by himself.
In 2000, the combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease led to a rapid deterioration in Lilanga's health. Due to gangrene, in October 2000 his right leg had to be amputated. In December of that year, the left leg was also amputated. Lilanga thus had to use a wheelchair; but after returning to his home in January 2001, he resumed his work.
In 2001, due to his serious physical impairments, he returned to small works with ink on paper and small goatskins 22.5 x 22.5 cm in size, which could be done more quickly and easily. With the assistance of his atelier, however, he also continued to create paintings of considerable size, and until shortly before his death, he produced large canvases, Masonites and tondos.
Lilanga died on Monday 27 June 2005, in Dar es Salaam, in his house-atelier at Mbagala.
George Lilanga's colourful artworks underscore a whimsical evolution from traditional Makonde art, which is the source of the shetani fantastic creatures depicted in virtually all of Lilanga's paintings and sculptures. While, traditionally, Makonde sculptors choose the finest woods for their pieces and would frown upon painting over the woods' natural textures, the bright enammel multi-colour painting technique pioneered by George Lilanga gives his pieces a more contemporary aesthetical appeal and a unique style that has made them popular with collectors and art dealers. As a result, George Lilanga became a reference in african art and enjoyed considerable commercial success in the latter part of his life; prices for his pieces were further boosted after his death in 2005.
However, many pieces have been attributed by gallerists to George Lilanga based solely on their 'Lilangalike' appearance. Because pieces sold as 'Lilangas' number in the many hundreds it stands to reason that George Lilanga could not possibly have crafted them all himself, in particular in view of his frail health during the last decade of his life when the bulk of such pieces was produced.
The reality was that George Lilanga mentored and inspired several artists who worked with him and capitalised on the value of the 'Lilanga' label. After George Lilanga's death, several of those artists and new ones continued to produce under the Lilanga attribution.
A lot of George Lilanga's lifetime art works can be found in leading international collections like The Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) of Jean Pigozzi and Hamburg Mawingu Collection HMC of Peter-Andreas Kamphausen. Directly after the death of the artist the HMC: George Lilanga Collection has presented in a work directory for the first time a systematically and thematically complete summary of Lilanga's work (see references). In addition, the book explores the traditional roots of East African Makonde art as well as four decades of Lilanga's artistic development with different materials and techniques including sculpture, paintings, etchings, drawings and metal works. Currently the HMC publish the George Lilanga News as an online blog with information about the artist, his art works, exhibitions and other interesting background material. Also in 2005 the African Collection series (Skira Editore, Milan) published a well-illustrated book on Lilanga's work with useful information.
- 2012 George Lilanga: Inside...Africa...Outside, Hamburg Art Week/Hamburg Mawingu Collection (HMC), Germany
- 2005 Georges Lilanga, Jamaica, Milan, Italy
- 2004 Tingatinga and Lilanga, Kouchi Prefecture Art Museum, Kouchi, Japan
- 2003 Lilanga d’ici et d’ailleurs, Centre Culturel François Mitterrand, Périgueux, France
- 2003 George Lilanga, Christa’s Fine Tribal Art Gallery, Copenhague, Denmark
- 2002 Georges Linlanga, MAMCO, Geneva
- 1999 Georges Lilanga "Storie Africane", Franco Cancelliere Arte Contemporanea, Messina, Italy
- 1995 Lilanga's Artist in Residence and Workshop, Hiroshima City Moderne Art Museum, Japan
- 1994–1995 Lilanga's Cosmos, Okariya Gallery
- 2010 African Stories, Marrakech Art Fair, Marrakech
- 2007 Why Africa?, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin, Italy
- 2006 100% Africa, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
- 2005 Arts of Africa, Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, France
- 2005 African Art Now : Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection, Museum of Fine Art Houston, USA
- 2004 Africa Remix, Art contemporain d’un continent, travelling exhibition
- 2003–2004 Latitudes, Hôtel de Ville, Paris, France
- 2002 Mapico Dance, MAMCO, Geneva, Switzerland
- 2000–2001 Shanghai Biennale 2000, Shanghai, China
- Official George lilanga shop, – Paintings and bio
- Hamburg Mawingu Collection / HMC: George Lilanga Collection, Hamburg/Germany – George Lilanga life and work online information source
- George Lilanga
- Fake George Lilanga
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