'Bead king' Sanaa Gateja on upcycling, art as a social enterprise

Thursday February 17 2022
Radical Care

Sanaa Gateja's "Radical Care" exhibition at the Afriart Gallery in Kampala. The exhibition will run to March. PHOTO | COURTESY


Contemporary multi-disciplinary designer Sanaa Gateja also known as the 'The Bead King' is currently holding an eight-week solo exhibition titled 'Radical Care' at the Afriart Gallery in Industrial Area, in Kampala. The show features 23 new works, 17 two-dimensional works and six sculptures all produced in 2021.

The exhibition will run to close March 26 and all the works on show have been influenced by Gateja’s experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and features a collection of artworks by the women that he also trains in bead work.

“My exhibition marks two years of the pandemic and the changes it brought in people lives as well as innovation. As an artist, I realised how important it is to care for humanity, the environment and a shift in our spiritual responsibilities, hence the title Radical Care,” Gateja told The EastAfrican, in an interview.

Gateja is an artist, painter and jewellery but it is his signature adaptation of recycled waste materials, particularly his pioneering fashioning of beads from discarded paper, which has earned him the nickname ‘The Bead King.’

Some of his acclaimed works are an intricate combination of installation, tapestry and sculpture, which reference to traditional weaving and stitching. He is heavily influenced by the potters, blacksmiths and basket weavers of his childhood village.

He also works with barkcloth, paper, raffia, beads, wood, cowhorn, sisal and banana fibre to construct large artworks as social commentary on nature and materialism which is central in his work.


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

“All this is not done by me but the people I employ to work with me at every stage of the process. It is a community value addition process. The process is long and involves cutting, rolling, treating, weaving and then the art.” He says he can make beads from rocks, banana fiber and paper.

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

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

Being a social commentator, the piece Namuwongo, The Urban Series — made of hard paper on bark cloth — is about the artist’s concern for city planning (or lack thereof), human congestion, uncontrolled settlements and slum proliferation 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 bark cloth. PHOTO | COURTESY OF AFRIART GALLERY

In Early Days 1, 2 and 3 — all made of paper beads and bark cloth on hand-woven raffia — he is addressing teenage pregnancy and early motherhood as an effect of the pandemic and the lockdowns.

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

He added that the pandemic made him realise that he could take the time to improve his creativity; “Covid swallowed up many physical exhibition venues and with restrictions on travel, it meant less income and minimum exposure. It however compelled me to produce more works with determination for better articulation of my subjects.” And that is how he created the work on show.

As much as he is happy that the economy has reopened, Gateja, said, “It will not fasttrack the creative industry fast enough but we may see many innovative ways and emerging new materials for use in the creative industry.”

As a social entreprenuer, he describes his use of waste material as “upcycling’’ discarded paper, and combines his skills with traditional art knowledge by working with communities. “It is taking a unit and multiplying it into thousands by hand to construct art.”

In essence though, Gateja is not just about discarded paper and bead-making for the sake of art, he is using this venture as a means to fight poverty in the country in his small way.

He prefers working with women because he considers them not just more creative but also because they are breadwinners for their families too. “Women by nature are creative, with a knack for using their hands in fashioning minute object and have eyes for detail more than men. I find satisfaction in skilling women who in most cases sustain homes. I work with close to 50 women off and on.”

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

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

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

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

''I use barkcloth in nearly all my artworks and this has encouraged makers of bark cloth over the years because as a member of the Bakomazi Twegate based in Kalisizo and Kanabulemu in Masaka district, the aim is to grow as many mituba trees as possible to sustain the nascent but growing barkcloth sector and other plants used in art and craft.”

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

Incidentally, the artist has accumulated stock of waste paper and some of it is from the Barack Obama first presidential campaign.

“After Obama won the presidency, a friend from Chicago visited my studio and told me how she had been working in the Campaign Office for President Obama and on seeing what I was doing with discarded paper she wished I could have access to the thousands of leaflets and pamphlets that were about to be shredded.”

“I asked her to stop them from shredding it and that I was interested enough to pay for its shipment. We made arrangements and half a tonne of paper was shipped by air and I still have stock of it left,” he added.

“I try to be as natural as possible and therefore use very little paint because most colourful magazine waste paper give me the colours that I want,” Gateja said.