George Lilanga (born 1934, Kikwetu, Masasi District, Tanzania, died 2005, Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania) comes from the high, arid plateaus of the Mozambique-Tanzania border. This is the great center of Makonde culture, noted especially for its mapico initiation dances and rich sculptural traditions. Lilanga began his training as a sculptor in 1961. In 1972 he settled in Dar-es-Salaam; in 1973 he became associated with the newly founded Nyumba ya Sanaa (House of Arts), a gallery and cultural center established by local artists. In 1980 he encountered the works of the Tingatinga School (established by the followers of Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga, 1939-1972) and Tingatinga’s example of exuberantly patterned and playfully abstracted paintings had a profound effect on his work.
Lilanga’s art—animated by a keen sense of social critique and caricature—illustrates the continuity of artistic vision among the Makonde and its renewal in the context of the present day. In many ways his sculptures and paintings follow Makonde conventions. His playful figures are best understood as heirs to the Makonde shetani, the unruly spirits of Makonde cosmology. Similarly, the complexity of his paintings can be compared to the Makonde ujamaa (tree of life), which signifies unity and solidarity. At the same time, the vibrant inventiveness of Lilanga’s work also testifies to the profound revolution that marked the birth of individualization and personal talent in Africa.