Lilanga, George (1934–2005) By Siegler, Jennifer E.
George Lilanga was a contemporary Tanzanian artist best known for his colorful paintings and sculptures of mashetani, or devils in Kiswahili, and transforming a Makonde art form developed in the 1950s into an international brand. Although his works have been exhibited widely in the United States, Europe, and Japan since the late 1970s, he received little recognition in Tanzania until the 21st Century, over twenty years after he first garnered international attention. Lilanga’s diverse work is unified by playful mashetani performing scenes of daily life in villages and cities in Tanzania. The spirits are typically depicted as hairless creatures with large ears, a wide-open mouth, prominent teeth, and a protruding stomach. Their hands only have two fingers, and their feet have three toes. Mashetani inhabiting village scenes are often depicted bare-chested with a wrap around their waist, while those in urban scenes are shown wearing Western clothing. Lilanga’s style is characterized by a sinuous line and bright, saturated hues. His two-dimensional works feature forms outlined in black or white. His compositions have no horizon line, and rarely include any environmental details. Lilanga’s themes are often commentary on changing societal values, with his titles providing aphorisms encouraging traditional morals.