George Lilanga was born in 1934 in Kikwetu village in southern Tanzania. Like most Makonde youngsters, he learned to carve on soft kassava roots before starting carving the hard black wood (mpingo) under the guidance of Mzee Sumaili.
In 1974 George Lilanga decided to try his chance in Dar es Salaam where he joined a group of carvers. His big break came when he was hired as a watchman at "Nyumba ya Sanaa" now called Nyerere Cultural Centre. Lilanga had the opportunity to show his carvings to the management staff, who recognized his talent and immediately changed his duties. He later added drawing to his repertoire, producing work on batiks, murals, canvas and paintings on goatskin. Today Lilanga's creations can still be seen at "Nyumba ya Saana" on the painted metal gate and on the cement cast decorations around the patio.
A major step in George Lilanga 's career occurred in 1978. A group exhibition organized in Washington D.C. featured 100 of his pieces. The Washington Post compared Lilanga's work to Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut.
From then on George Lilanga enjoyed international exposure and a continuous and impressive number of exhibitions in Europe, Japan and the United States. After having won praise from western audiences, the Tanzanian artist has become a representative of the vividness of Swahili paintings. He is currently considered as one of Contemporary African Art 's major representatives.
All of this never took him away from his country. It allowed him to contribute to the maintaining of his tribe and at the same time bring outside attention to his culture. Lilanga presents the culture and mythology of his people through canvases swarming with figures, vibrant colours and a rhythmic movement representing Mapico dance, typical of his people.
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 enamel 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.
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