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George Lilanga - Tanzania

George Lilanga - Tanzania - SARENCO FOUNDATION
Having carefully been placed on a trolley by a nurse, a patient calmly accepts an examination by a doctor in scrubs and a cap who measures his pressure with a kind of white, pump-actioned snake. On his head dances a little Shetani monster with coloured, amoeba-like bodies jumping around, balanced on elastic extensions. These occupy all the empty spaces between the tables and the figures, the assistants and the dancers. Still further up there is a display of promising phials on a green table which, perhaps, contain the cure for many illnesses, while two nurses are busy preparing another table for an operation. And finally, above everything else, a bespectacled doctor looks after a gangling patient surrounded by other assistants, other soft and capricious creatures, vases and receptacles, and amoebas and sheets and corpuscles. This is the large-scale painting Hospital by George Lilanga, and I have happily lived with it for some ten years; it is one of the most representative works from the last, extraordinary period of this artist who died in 2005.
Who knows if the inspiration for this unlikely subject came to Lilanga from visits that, despite his objections, he was forced to undergo in this not exactly pleasant place (and hospitals can be even less pleasant in Africa) in the last years of his life, tormented as he was by a particularly grave form of diabetes which, slowly, devoured his whole body? And yet his liberated and exuberant vision becomes the expression of an overwhelming energy, of a milieu brimming over with the frenetic and unstoppable activity of the Shetanis inextricable intertwined with that of human beings.
As long as there is life they don’t stop, not even in hospitals where, what’s more, the Shetanis find themselves extremely comfortable: malicious creatures arrived here from some other dimension, they live together with the humans and animals from the earth, and they cultivate the unpleasant habit of installing themselves in the houses and even in the bodies of people. Look out! Every so often they take on the shape of women with claws, girls with ass’s legs, anthropomorphic dogs and further, unlimited variations and metamorphic variations. This, at least, is what is said by the Makonde who frequently cohabit with these little spirits - who are disrespectful and malicious rather than really diabolic - above all near Zanzibar and along the south-eastern coast of Tanzania and Mozambique. Lilanga was a Makonde himself and he often told how, as a child in a village to the south of Tanzania, he was immersed in tales about the Shetanis, wizards, devils, and magic. Everything is alive, everything moves, everything has sense, and everything needs an appropriate answer. Like other great personages of contemporary African art, Seni Camara for instance, Lilanga dreamt about his Shetanis and their adventures. And perhaps this was how it was too for his Makonde predecessors whose Shetanis he genially transformed into a wholly artistic question – which, after all, is typical of Africa where divinities happily change into trees, animals, stones and, for God’s sake, into meteorological, astronomical, and psychological phenomena, and where it is expedient to present them with a fine statue, some welcoming mask where they can live for some more or less indeterminate time. The Makonde have transformed their spirits into beautiful ebony statues; at first rigid and hieratic, then softer and more ductile, spiralling and disturbing. Lilanga offered his Shetanis hundreds of sculptures and thousands of paintings to live in, and at the same time he delineated in these canvases their grandiose epic poem, worthy of a mabarata born on the other side of the Indian Ocean. He would paint anywhere: his instinctive horror vacui, which in his case is best translated simply as horror, a disgust with generic emptiness, with a useless void of sense, led him to take over everything - as Enrico Mascelloni reminds us in an important monograph about the artist (African Collection, Skira, 2005) – to the despair of the director of the Nyumba ya Sanàa, a well-known cultural center in Dar es Salaam, who had given over the spaces of the Foundation for him to paint, which he did, including even the toilets, as he also did in the Goethe institute in Dar es Salaam. Lilanga carefully covered every square centimetre with colours and Shetanis, not forgetting the walls beneath the stairs. By paying tribute to the grand epic of these disarticulated and, when it comes down to it, congenial little devils, Lilanga has offered them infinite houses to live in and infinite images to be mirrored in, and so indirectly he has contributed to neutralising their possible devastating effects.
But Shetanis are not enough, just as the Makonde sculpture tradition is not enough, a tradition from which the artist indisputably derives. As so often, the difference is to be found, not in the presence of a simple interpretation of a style, but in great talent, so great as to free itself even from the tradition it was nurtured by and which he has without a doubt betrayed (as his Makonde colleagues have always maintained) without, however, denying it.
On the other hand, between Lilanga and the Makonde sculptors there is a difference analogous to what distinguishes Leonardo da Vinci from his colleagues in Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop. Excellent interpreters of a powerful formal language, the minor Florentines never went beyond a correct application of the rules of perspective, just as the Makonde carvers never free themselves from their willing subservience to the most beautiful and long-lasting African wood: ebony. Lilanga, instead, was a free artist, which is the same as saying a real artist. He took over the Makonde devils and the typical flexibility of his immediate predecessors (immediate because traditional Makonde sculpture in Mozambique was hieratic, static, and rigid, as Mascelloni has explained), just as he did the painting techniques which arrived in that part of Africa with the colonialists.
Lilanga had no fear of the potential contradictions which his contaminated approach might meet up with: at the beginning of the sixties he happily presented in New York and Washington his early inks on goat skin, which were still almost monochrome. He then improvised on canvas, on panel, on cement, on any kind of support that was to hand for his inebriating flowering of pure colours, the most brilliant, lively, enamelled, and superficial offered by the European, American, Chinese, and Far-Eastern chemical industries. He then arrived, scandalising his local colleagues, at painting ebony, denying its smooth perfection, its intrinsic nobility, and treating it like some cheap piece of plywood or medium-density hardboard.
But then in neo-Latin languages “tradition” and “betrayal” have the same root which naturally implies that every act relative to “handing on” also means a betrayal, a transformation: stasis is death, certainly so in the field of art. And thanks to this systematic and reiterated betrayal, Lilanga, after his early American success, one soon noted by Keith Haring, progressively brought his irrepressible Shetanis to the whole world: the tipping point came in the early nineties after Jean Hubert Martin, in 1989, presented Magiciens de la Terre in the Pompidou centre, a show for which it really is justified to use the expression “epoch-making”.
In fact, despite some earlier attempts, it was Magiciens de la Terre that managed for the first time to insinuate completely new energies and forms directly into the heart of the, rather self-centred, contemporary art system. These energies arrived in Paris from the most remote and hidden corners of the world: from aboriginal Australia, for example, or vast spaces emptied by colonialism and dried up, if not actually turned into a desert, such as in most of Africa or in Asia. But even in these territories art has prospered. Just how adventurous and improbable it might be to go in search of it has been well recounted by André Magnin – who had collaborated with Martin on the preparation of the show – in a long interview published in African Art Now (Merral) in 2005. This book significantly displays a work by Lilanga on its cover, even though the Tanzanian artist did not participate in the Pompidou exhibition and was discovered by European museums and galleries only some years later, obviously causing great excitement as an exemplary figure who marked the passage from “tradition” to “individualism”, from the stereotype to invention; in other words, according to the deeply rooted and widespread western concept, the shift from handicraft to art or the manifestation of a pure talent for imagery.
In the nineties Magnin, by now the director of Jean Pigozzi’s CAAC, was not the only person going around Africa: so too was Sarenco who, from his base in Kenya, and often accompanied by Enrico Mascelloni, was easily able to move the length and breadth of the whole continent, discovering various important but until then overlooked figures. Sarenco was among the first to work in a systematic way with Lilanga, whose catalogue raisonné he is currently editing (the first three volumes have already been published).
Thanks to Sarenco Lilanga came to Italy various times (I myself met him in Verona in 1999) where, in the nineties, he took part in such important shows as Il ritorno dei maghi in the Palazzo dei Sette, Orvieto. In the meantime, shortly after 2000, he had been seen in the Pigozzi collection the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in, and he also participated in Africa Remix, an exhibition curated by Simon Njami which, between 2004 and 2006, travelled to the Düsseldorf Kunstpalaast, the Hayward Gallery, London, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. This was a catholic and ambitious show that insisted it was giving an overview of the whole of Africa and included artists of various generations, artists resident in Africa or abroad who employed many expressive forms, either traditional or using conceptual and innovative languages. There was everything. But Simon Njami could not do without Lilanga, even though he was not “one of his” artists (since 2000 we have learnt just how Africa, having become the yearned-for prey of the art market and system, has almost literally been “torn apart” by the claims of rival curators, each the antagonist of the others, and each with his own pathetic pretensions to the exclusive and legitimate “propriety” and “truth” of the production of the whole continent). Lilanga was perhaps not very close to Njami’s sensibility or taste, and yet he could not be excluded because of the fame he had conquered without doing anything in the least different from what he had always done and wished to carry on doing: he was someone who had never learned English, who had remained in Tanzania with his wife and children and who, even if he had wanted to, was unable to leave his large studio. In other words, someone who had done nothing other than be happy.
Because, if we have to talk about secrets, happiness was the secret truth behind Lilanga’s painting: an infinitely repetitive painting that, however, never repeated itself; one consisting of flat yet never superficial painted areas, without a particular centre of interest, and aimed at expanding infinitely in all directions, as though it were the universe. In fact his tri-dactylic characters with their long ears and big belly seem to fluctuate in a liquid space where the laws of perspective and gravity do not count: in their place, are to be found new areas of rarefaction and condensation, of rhythmic intensification and musical dissemination.
The music that accompanied Lilanga for all the thirty years he devoted completely to recounting his happiness.
Martina Corgnati