22. ilb 07. - 17.09.2022

John Kilaka

Portrait John Kilaka
© Hartwig Klappert

John Kilaka was born in a village in southwest Tanzania in 1966. As a child he accompanied his father who was out working in the field, fishing and hunting. However, painting was his passion. At school he annoyed his teachers by distracting his fellow students from their lessons by drawing on the blackboard, using up the meagre chalk supply. At the age of twenty Kilaka went to Dar es Salaam in order to focus on his calling as a painter. He became affiliated to the painters’ studio »Village Museum«, founded in the seventies by Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga, the pioneer of modern African art, and exhibited his first paintings. Since then Kilaka has been among those artists who develop the legacy of the earlier Tanzanian »square painters« through contemporary ideas. During a show in Basel in 1995 the idea emerged of producing an illustrated book with the painter, and in collaboration with the Swiss children’s book endowment fund Baobab. This led to the publication of »Frische Fische« (2001; t: Fresh fish).

In his richly coloured and succinctly drawn illustrated books John Kilaka sets down animal fables based on the oral traditions in his native land and tells of friendship, betrayal and reconciliation, of village companions, music and dance. In doing so, he offers insight into a strange yet familiar world. In »Frische Fische« he recounts, with wit and irony, the story of Sokwe Chimpanzee, who has caught a large number of fish and wants to sell them at the market. However, his deceitful friend Dog greedily wolfs down the catch and heedlessly risks harming his friends. Disappointed, they bring him to trial. The illustrated book was given the Blue Cobra Award (2002) as an extraordinary work that deals with estranged worlds and racism. John Kilaka presented examples of African fauna in his second book, too. »Gute Freunde« (2004; Eng. »True Friends. A Tale from Tanzania«, 2007) tells of the bountiful rat Ratz and his friend Elephant, who tries to get the better of him. The translation, which came out in Ruanda at the same time, won the Bologna Ragazzi Award »New Horizons« (2005). The jury explained their decision as follows: »John Kilaka’s books summon up feelings that are not to be found in traditional children’s books in Europe. With this book we travel back in time to a period when artistic books were still distinct from television and communicated wisdom and society’s dreams and visions.« Yet Kilaka’s books not only thrive on local complexion but also on the visual details of modern life, presented with a hint of irony: Mrs. Hippo wears pompon earrings in her pointy ears and Elephant’s shirt stretches tight around his big belly. Alongside deep insights into responsibility and guilt, we find in Kilaka’s works a plea for violence-free conflict resolution. Once the friends have pronounced their judgment, the thieving dog has to do double his quota of the forest’s reforestation without further ado.

John Kilaka, who has also illustrated three Tanzanian children’s books, lives as a freelance artist in Dar es Salaam where he runs a small chicken farm with his wife and three children.

© international literature festival berlin