George Lilanga: The Spirit of Makonde

11 September - 4 October 2014

The Gallery of African Art (GAFRA) is pleased to present The Spirit of Makonde, an exhibition of works by the Tanzanian artistGeorge Lilanga. Featuring early etchings, paintings and sculptures, this exhibition provides audiences with a rich body of work to view.

George Lilanga started his career as a carver in 1961 in the coastal region of Lindi in Tanzania. By 1973, Lilanga had moved to Dar-es-Salaam to study at the newly founded Nyumba ya Sanaa cultural centre. Five years later, Lilanga was participating in his first international exhibition to critical acclaim. The Washington Post review compared Lilanga's works to the French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet.

Lilanga's work draws upon the myths and cosmological beliefs of his Makonde heritage. The stylised figures that populate his work are believed to be heirs to the native spirits of Makonde cosmology. Known as Shetanis by the Makonde, these unruly spirits or devils are thought to be responsible for one's misfortune in life. Lilanga's Shetanis however, are not of the malevolent kind. His brightly coloured sculptures are humanised in their reflection of daily scenes from ordinary life. Each carved from a single block of wood and painted in vivid oil based enamels; Lilanga's Shetani's are shown brushing their teeth, joyfully at play or on the ubiquitous mobile phone. These works dated from the late 1990s, reveal Lilanga's keen eye for social observation and also serve as a critique of contemporary African culture.

The bold colours, anthropomorphic forms and busy compositions that have come to define Lilanga's style, are visible in his painted works throughout the exhibition. In the works Hindio Zawadi Niziyo Wadidi, 1998 and Naomba Muangalie Kwamakini, 1998 - both on masonite - contorted figures dominate the brightly coloured canvas. The use of masonite and enamel paint as materials by Lilanga were out of necessity rather than choice, as artists used whatever they had to hand. Referred to as 'square paintings', these 60x60 boards - originally used for ceiling coverings - provided a clean smooth surface to paint on. A hardy material, masonite is also resistant to damage. Lilanga only began painting on canvas during the early 1990s, and two works dated from the beginning of this period are featured in the exhibition. Larger scale compositions by Lilanga are a rarity, as they were often produced on commission. The Spirit of Makonde features two such works.

Early etchings dated from Lilanga's training at the Nyumba ya Sanaa art school reveal his versatility as an artist. As well as printmaking, Lilanga's practice also covered batik and metal work. In 2010, Lilanga's work featured on scarves by the fashion retailer Hermès. Completing the exhibition is a rare video interview with Lilanga in which he discusses his practice.