Opinion about Lilanga
It was in the days that I lived and worked and enjoyed life as a bohemian artist, on the mythical spice island of Ungujaa (Zanzibar’s main island), off the Coast of Tanzania, that I first came on the idea to start an African contemporary art gallery together with my wife Anita Sitta. The narrow streets of Zanzibar Stone Town were filled with ‘art galleries’ that offered the visitor nothing much more than in Kenya in mass produced candle sticks and B-class Tingatinga paintings. There was a hole in the market waiting to be filled up.
Anita and me put our little cash together and started our gallery with 200 Usd,… just enough to cover the rent of the gallery for two months. I had some connections with Tanzanian artists and asked them if they were willing to give us their works on commission,… once sold we would pay them what we owed them. One of those most generous and great artists that agreed with this arrangement was called George Di Nyama Lilanga. (I had no idea in those days, how, world wide, highly appreciated Lilanga’s work would become.)
We returned twice or thrice from Zanzibar to Mbagala in Dar es salaam on a monthly base to visit Lilanga’s workshop since his artwork, as we all know now, sold as hot cake and we needed to ‘re-stock’ almost on a weekly base. We witnessed, first hand, and with great joy, how his success grew along with the expansion of his workshop, attached to-but bigger than the house he lived in.
George proudly employed a series of great Tanzanian artists, family members or colleagues, to assist in the production of his extensive range of artworks he designed and executed in a series of media. Those assisting Lilanga whom I remember vividly were Hendrick Lilanga and Costa. His assistants were very friendly and would always proudly show you the technical difficulties they encountered and how Lilanga had taught them how to overcome these. Lilanga was not only a great artist; he was also a very patient teacher. Malaba was one of his main assistant carvers although he worked outside of George’s workshop.
We saw being created, the now highly sought-after ink drawings on goatskin, exclusively on order carved and painted bigger than man reliefs, bas-reliefs and shetani doors, amazingly beautiful batiques, small and large oil paintings on canvass or hardboard on a variety of sizes and of course, his most famous painted ‘Shetani’ carvings.
Many years after Lilanga’s death, sadly enough, some of whom are to know better, are now out to discredit this great and most sincere artist and the extensive body of work he created over the years. A body of work so strong and successful in it’s visual expression, rooted so deep down in the African culture, that it has lead to the start of a new, refreshing style within the Tingatinga movement; ‘The Shetani style’and made Lilanga to be one of the most meaningful contemporary artists of the continent.
Some key players, not hindered by the most basic art-historical insight are now fast to ‘expose the greatest art scam ever’, revealing to the world a ‘nasty secret hidden for long’. How sad such self indulgent and maybe unintended but actually racist statements sound in the ears of all those who have known the artist during his life-time for all those that ever had the privilege to visit and meet Lilanga in his workshop will be ready to testify that there was no ‘hidden secret’, no ‘scam’ whatsoever to be found in Mbagala at all. Lilanga himself never ever ’hid’ his assistants for the outside world. After all, why would he have?
It would indeed have been very easy for him to keep the door of his workshop closed for any client and to sell his works to collectors or visitors in another room adjacent to the workshop. But did he ever? No, he did not for what he did was an act of artistic greatness. All what counted was the work. The master passed on his skills and views to his friends and colleagues and as such enriched their lives (and ours) greatly. He spread and developed a style and art invented by himself, as far as it could reach and beyond. Lilanga is, and remains, up to now, the greatest Tanzanian artist of his generation and he enjoyed to share this with all of us, clients, friends, family members, art lovers and visitors.
I pointed out that the attack on George Lilanga’s heritage maybe unintended but at it's core actually a racist statement. All of us that are concerned with the arts will know at least some of the greatest, most prosperous Western artists ever such as Damian Hirst, Andy Goldsworthy, Arne Quinze, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Roy Lichtenstein, Christo, Alexander Calder, Salvador Dali, Richard Serra, Pieter Paul Rubens and so forth. I could go on and fill the page with names. Don’t we know that these artists use(d) an army of assistants to get their oeuvre produced, developed and expanded to its full potential? Yes they did, they certainly did, all of them, and many of them determined the shape of a new art style too. Why do we accuse Lilanga and not these Western artists? Western artists may use as many assistants as they wish so and even go to the point of only passing on a concept that is worked out by other artists or craftsmen,... but Lilanga can’t? And when he does so we scream out murder? Is it racism? Is it ignorance? Ignorance leading to racism? Whatever the reason, it certainly creates an aura of negativity around Lilanga’s work and devalues the interest in it. Unfairly.
We can only hope the impact of the defamatory will be one of a passing nature and that quality shetani styled artwork will continue to be produced and that future collectors will understand the value of this and Lilanga’s work and that the galleries in Zanzibar and Dar es salaam will continue to promote and as such assist the development of the style.
A wider, more considered and more connected perspective on and to the world of the contemporary and past creative arts could have lead to a more supportive stand towards the contemporary East African art of Lilanga and lets hope its beauty and meaning will remain to enrich many hearts.