Portfolio by Sanaa Gateja/Introduction by TWR

Sanaa Gateja has been at work for four decades, not counting the years during which he thought about, experimented, and then perfected the singular technique that puts his practice firmly at the intersection of the arts and crafts movement in East Africa. He’s a jewellery designer and mixed-media artist whose essential material is the bead he fashions – one at a time – mostly from paper, effectively turning what others discard into design codes that he cracks into existence as valuable works of art.

He is, in a way, a magician – because no one should be able to do what he does repeatedly, with the same level of intellectual engagement, with the same spiritual purism, at the same level of beauty. His canvas is barkcloth, to which the beads are glued by his team of artisans who follow the abstract sketches or portraits he draws. His subjects range from nature to native spirituality. Even though he’s quite prolific, he never makes the same artwork twice. His pieces and installations are among the most aesthetically pleasing work being produced in Uganda today, and perhaps the whole of Africa, making Sanaa a household name and a living asset to collectors.

Sanaa, who was born in 1950 in Rwanda, grew up first in Kisoro and then in Namutamba. He was influenced very early by blacksmiths and potters in his village, the sort of artisans who created wonderful ornamental objects not for fame and fortune but because they lived to make these things. They were incognito artists, and Sanaa himself lives and operates as one despite his status and the global interest in his work. There is a genteel, almost aristocratic manner about “the Bead King” of Uganda, presenting the portrait of the artist as a gentleman. He produces quietly, in a quaint studio in Lubowa that offers him and his visitors a picturesque view of the built-up hills on the other side of Entebbe Road.

Sanaa’s artistic evolution is rich and long: the journey into exile in the troubled 70s, the art gallery he once owned in Mombasa; the relocation in the early 80s to the Italian city of Florence, where he wanted to train in the shadow of the High Renaissance masters; the phase as a goldsmith in London, where his work helped articulate a new vision for the Black arts movement; and then his return to Uganda in 1989.

In 1990, when he had his first local exhibition at the Nommo Gallery in Nakasero, he was sketching and painting on barkcloth. Paper was primary only to his jewellery work. But in the late 90s paper “started to overtake the barkcloth” as Sanaa discovered the beaded “unit construction” of which he’s now a master. His artworks have been exhibited around the world. He was, most recently, at work on ornamental pieces, including an elaborate chandelier, that were exhibited in a palace in the German city of Dresden.

The pieces he chose for this portfolio, although only a tiny fraction of his immense body of work, are old and new works that distil the essence of his practice. Beads mean a lot to him, as they have meant a lot to his ancestors, and as they probably will mean a lot to those who follow in his footsteps. They are vessels in which mysteries lurk. They are objects of desire. They signify wealth. And they are talismanic, in the sense that “we all have secret messages somewhere” in the subconscious reflexes, he told TWR.

“There is a recurring image of a circle in my life, which I think stems from my childhood, of beads on women’s necks, especially my aunt who used to have a big necklace. I would be fascinated by the size of the necklace,” he said.

Today, amid a blossoming of contemporary African art, he’s happy with the output of young artists, especially their originality. Yet he regrets that some others still mimic European styles of creating that do little to evoke quintessential African experiences. For him the objective, he said, is always “to evoke an African spirit into the art that we did not have in our normal schools.”