Art appreciation

Sanaa Gateja, the “King of Pearls”, talks about upcycling and art as a social enterprise


Contemporary multidisciplinary designer Sanaa Gateja, also known as ‘The Bead King’, is currently curating an eight-week solo exhibition titled ‘Radical Care’ at the Afriart Gallery in Industrial Area, Kampala. The exhibition features 23 new works, 17 two-dimensional works and six sculptures, all made in 2021.

The exhibition will end on March 26 and all the works on display have been influenced by Gateja’s experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and feature a collection of artwork by women whom he also trains in beadwork. .

“My exhibit marks two years of the pandemic and the changes it has brought to people’s lives as well as innovation. As an artist, I realized how important it is to take care of humanity, the environment and a shift in our spiritual responsibilities, hence the title Radical Care,” said Gateja . East Africain an interview.

Gateja is an artist, painter and jeweller, but it is his signature adaptation of recycled waste, particularly his pioneering bead making from discarded paper, that has earned him the nickname “The Bead King”.

Some of her acclaimed works are an intricate combination of installations, tapestries and sculptures, which reference traditional weaving and sewing. He is strongly influenced by the potters, blacksmiths and basket makers of his native village.

He also works with bark, paper, raffia, beads, wood, cow horn, sisal and banana tree fiber to construct large works of art as social commentary on nature and the materialism that is at the heart of his work.


The self-taught visual artist has a workshop in Lubowa in the Wakiso district where beads are made by rolling any paper, thick, thin, colored, plain, old or new or into bead size or pulping the paper and shaping into sculpture, round beads or new handmade paper.

“All of this is not done by me, but by the people I employ to work with me every step of the way. This is a process of adding community value. The process is long and involves from cutting, rolling, processing, weaving and then art.He says he can make beads from stones, banana fibers and paper.

He hopes the public will understand and learn from the message behind Radical Care for people to change their attitudes for the good of posterity and the environment.

For example, the Blossoming piece, made of paper beads on hand-woven raffia, addresses the issue of passing knowledge from the older generation to the younger generation and a brighter future for people and their environment. .

As a social commentator, the piece Namuwongo, The Urban Series – made of hard paper on barkcloth – speaks of the artist’s preoccupation with urbanism (or lack thereof), human congestion, uncontrolled settlements and the proliferation of slums in Kampala that have grown organically and do not coincide with social services and amenities.

The urban series

”Namuwongo, The Urban Series” by Sanaa Gateja, made of hard paper and seeds on barkcloth. PICTURES | COURTESY OF AFRIART GALLERY

In Early Days 1, 2 and 3 – all made of paper beads and barkcloth on handwoven raffia – he tackles teenage pregnancy and early motherhood as an effect of the pandemic and lockdowns.

“I was influenced by the need to overcome the pandemic by seeing how many of our children who were out of school faced exploitation and unwanted pregnancies,” he said.

He added that the pandemic made him realize that he could take the time to improve his creativity; “Covid engulfed many physical venues and with travel restrictions meant less revenue and minimal exposure. This, however, compelled me to produce more works with determination for better articulation of my subjects. And this is how he created the exhibited work.

Although he is happy that the economy has reopened, Gateja said: “It will not accelerate the creative industry fast enough, but we could see many innovative ways and new materials emerging to be used in the creative industry. .”

As a social entrepreneur, he describes his use of waste as “recycling” discarded paper and combines his skills with traditional artistic knowledge by working with communities. “It’s taking one unit and multiplying it into thousands by hand to build art.”

Essentially though, Gateja is not just making paper and beading thrown in the name of art, he is using this business as a way to fight poverty in the country on his small scale.

He prefers to work with women because he sees them not only as more creative, but also because they are the breadwinner of their family as well. “Women are by nature creative, with a knack for using their hands in making tiny things and have more attention to detail than men. I find satisfaction in training women who, in most cases, I work with about 50 women from time to time.

He says he only needs to improve the shapes of the woven baskets to international market specifications because the women are already doing a good job in weaving them. “I am paid as a crafts trainer by the communities. We apply a modern aesthetic to our traditional skills so that there is a global appreciation for our craftsmanship,” he said.

He is particularly drawn to aesthetics and value in his work: Creating a balance between what is visually appealing and original.

Gateja’s art can also be described as part of the global consciousness of contemporary times, where the environment and its preservation are highly valued, although he works with both organic and synthetic materials.

“One of the biggest concerns in my work is conservation and environmental sustainability.

”I use barkcloth in almost all my works and it has encouraged barkcloth makers over the years because as a member of the Bakomazi Twegate based in Kalisizo and Kanabulemu in Masaka District, the goal is to grow as many mituba trees as possible to support the nascent but growing sector of barkcloth and other plants used in arts and crafts.

Barkcloth is used in traditional coronation and religious ceremonies, political and cultural gatherings involving royalty, and for burials, storage, and decorations. According to Gateja, barkcloth is as important as paper because it is about preserving the environment, spiritual and traditional beliefs – and not just for the sake of the arts.

Incidentally, the artist has accumulated stocks of old papers, some of which come from Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.

“After Obama won the presidency, a friend from Chicago visited my studio and told me how she had worked in President Obama’s campaign office and seeing what I was doing with discarded paper, she wished that I could have access to the thousands of tracts and pamphlets that were about to be shredded.

“I asked him to stop them from shredding it and that I was interested enough to pay for his shipping. We have made arrangements and half a ton of paper has been flown in and I still have some in stock,” he added.

“I try to be as natural as possible so I use very little paint because most of the old colored magazine paper gives me the colors I want,” Gateja said.