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The Picasso of Africa: George Lilanga

Andréa Fernandes

In our quest to feature a different artist from a different country in each installment of "Feel Art Again" this month, today's post highlights George Lilanga (1934-2005). Known as "the Picasso of Africa," Tanzania's best-known artist comes at the suggestion of reader Christina W.

1. George Lilanga's paintings and sculptures are full of colorful, playful figures. The figures, known as shetani, have been described as a kind of "devil" from African mythology" and as "heirs to the unruly spirits of Makonde cosmology." (Makonde is Lilanga's tribe.) The titles of Lilanga's paintings are just as playful as the figures in them: "There's a word but I've forgotten it," "Wait a minute, my neck is itchy," and "When children play they jump here and there" are a few examples.

2. Lilanga first began sculpting as a teen, working in the Makonde tradition. In the 1970s, Lilanga switched to painting, a change that was considered by some of his fellow artists to be a betrayal to the Makonde sculpture tradition. Lilanga returned to sculpture in the 1990s, during which time he produced works carved in soft wood and painted with vivid oil-based enamels.

3. In 1978, Lilanga got his big break. An exhibition of African artists was mounted in Washington, D.C. with 280 works of art, of which approximately 100 were by Lilanga. He received international exposure and became one of the most well-known African artists of the time.

4. Controversy surrounds Lilanga's artistic legacy. His children claim exclusive rights to his style of art, but others allege that Lilanga was not a solo artist, but the head of an art studio. They believe those he trained and worked with should be able to continue the Lilanga style. One artist who has been accused of stealing Lilanga's style is his uncle, Augustino Malaba, a well-known sculptor in his own right with whom Lilanga had trained and later collaborated.

5. "Art is natural to us Makonde people," Lilanga once stated, "it is an important work and a source of income." When Lilanga's diabetes worsened in the 1990s, Lilanga put together an atelier, employing sculptors and painters, including relatives, therefore providing a source of income for his fellow artists. The other artists were closely supervised but were given more responsibilities as Lilanga's health declined, especially after his legs were amputated in 2000.

6. Lilanga summarized his artistic career in one sentence: "I paint when I'm happy and I tell the daily life of my people."

A larger version of "UKIFKA MJINI KILA MTU NA LAKE" (above) is available here. Fans should check out Lilanga Mania;; the collections of Lilanga art from HMC and ARTCO; the GeorgeLilanga videos on YouTube; these photos of Lilanga; the George Lilanga monograph; and Hendrick Lilanga, George Lilanga's grandson, who is also an artist in the Lilanga style. "Feel Art Again" appears three times a week. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.