Jewels in Motion: An interview with Sanaa Gateja

Sanaa Gateja is an artist truly designed for the 21st century. His ideologies of creativity are spot on the current global consciousness. Making art by recycling man-made waste materials. Empowering craftswomen all around Uganda by sharing his skills of beadmaking. Continuously improving his artwork or jewellery by constantly innovating. And combining art forms as different as music, fashion accessories, interior decor and visual art to express a holistic milieu where authentic African culture can be experienced.

Not bad for a man whose artistic journey started in the late sixties.

Editor Thomas Bjørnskau talks to Sanaa Gateja (born 19..) about his creative forces and ethnic remix culture.

Gateja Sanaa, Start Journal of Arts and CultureOne random day in young Sanaa’s life, he sat on a beach, observing the way the sunlight and the waves put the surroundings in motion. At this moment Sanaa knew his mission in life was to become an artist, trying to capture the movements made by light, colours, and living organisms, and the way we move our eyes when experiencing the creation of life.

”Creation is a mystery to me. That is why I love art. For me, art has to be abstract, because everything is in motion. Art brings me closer to the process of creation, which I would never fully understand.”

The Bead King

He is known to the Ugandan arts scene as the Bead King, being the inventor of beads made from recycled paper and other waste material. And the curious mindset of his has enabled him to constantly come up with new beads, thereby turning crafts into arts.

Gateja is also a painter. His artwork could be described as mixed-media, experimental abstract art. Sometimes based on natural materials like barkcloth or raffia which gives it an authentic African look. People tend to reflect on his work as something more experimentally and visionary in terms of materials and techniques.

EDITOR: This sense of movement; captured by your use of lines, circular strokes, and three dimensional elements that play with lights and shade; what are the main ideas you want to express?

”I like to think of my artwork as a celebration of life and family. Everybody has their moments, when they really feel something worth to remember,” Sanaa explains and points to a painting which has caught my attention. ”These figures celebrates life by dancing.”

Sanaa Gateja. (c) 2010. All rights reserved.
Sanaa Gateja. (c) 2010. All rights reserved.

ED: Where do you go for inspiration? Or what do you do when you lack inspiration?

”I go back to the simple things. I believe inspiration comes when you are faced with the materials you want to make. I may see something beautiful that I would really like to paint. So I sketch it. Then, in front of the canvas, something else might come up, because the materials I am using talks about different things than the original idea I had. Consequently, my work changes.”

ED: Are there any persons that have meant a lot to you?

“Well, the two people I always remember most when it comes to reflecting to who am as an artist, are my parents. I spent a lot of time with my mother who exposed to me handwork and hard work! She inspires me up to now.  My father died at a very old age of 92 and in the last 15 years of his life he sat and shared his thoughts on my choice of color. I was always surprised that he never mentioned any thing about the subject matter, but always guided me in the colors I used. He loved bright ones and would point with his stick where I should add or subtract intensity of colour.”

Sanaa works with total dedication at his workshop in Lubowa, close to the International School of Uganda. His studio is filled with plastic bags containing beads in different shapes and colours, accessories made from beads, artwork made from plastic and recycled paper beads, and artwork painted, sculptured and mixed on bark-cloth. During my visit, some of the craftswomen working in his garden will drop by and ask for tools and materials needed to make their living.

His background

Sanaa’s professional life started in 1968 as the Assistant Crafts Officer at the Ministry of Culture and Community Development. That led him to the EXPO 70 in Osaka, Japan, where he managed the Uganda Pavillion. In 71 he moved to Mombassa, Kenya and opened Sanaa Gallery, selling African art and offering interior design services. He ran the gallery until 1982, when he moved to Italy, where he took various courses and obtained an Interior Design Diploma.

”Being exposed to Italian industrial designers, it was obvious that I was more of an artist than designer.”

In 1985 he moved to London and completed a course in Jewelry Design and Goldsmith at London College of Art and Design. Now followed a busy time in London. He ran the Safari Studioes and Gallery showing his own and other African artwork. He also started teaching at the Africa Center in Recycling and Jewelry Making, and in 1987 he was the Artist in Residence for Art and Jewelry at the Commonwealth Institute in London.

At this point in his career, he was combining the three ingredients that he has excelled in for more than twenty years now; jewelry, recycled materials and teaching.

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”In London in the late eighties, I developed a way of expressing myself creatively combining music, jewelry and visual art. Then one day, I got this vision of a crested crane moving in this typical crane dance, making its honking sound. This image melted together with images of Ugandan villages, and I knew I wanted to move back again. I also knew that I couldn’t use the metals jewellers traditionally use, like gold and silver, but had create from whatever was available at a low price. ”

Sanaa left London for rural Africa, bought some land in Kasese, and began teaching his skills. During the first years he felt that there were people around him that wanted to exploit him. So, after some steps in the wrong direction, he had to refocus.

”Although things went wrong in the beginning, something good came out of it. I targeted the European high-end market, cooperated with the Export Council, and sold my artwork to Christmas markets and a gallery in Germany. So I was making arts for the European markets, while sharing my craft skills for the local producers.

Viral culture

ED: Because I have a professional background from Internet development, I am fascinated by your sharing culture. Could you talk about why it is important for you to spread your ideas, the skills and techniques?

”There are really two aspects; creativity and financial gain. First, you will discover that the beads are very small and beautiful sculptures. You actually make a piece of art, which I think is a vehicle through which we can share ideas and colours and fascination and creativity. Furthermore, since our society is not a manufacturing culture, the craftsmen that learn this skill, can continue to make new products themselves, sell them and gain an income. In that way, it is both sharing of ideas and income.

And I know, that at the end of the day I am an artist. I am able to do it differently, better and develop unique products for the upscale market.”

ED: Can you describe how you are able to stay one step ahead in terms of innovation?

”When I am asked to teach someone, that is when I get challenged. Also, I don’t like to teach the same things. Therefore, if I am called to teach in Kasese, I go there and look at the environment, try to discover local materials to use in my products. I enjoy this element of surprise. So I search for local waste material that could be turned into small beautiful objects.”

ED: How is typical the process when working with bead innovation?

”When working with jewelry, it is all about finding that one item which is the key. I would typically close the door to my studio, put on some music to get into the right mood, isolate everything else and focus on that one key item.”

A conversation with bark-cloth

ED: And how is this different from being a painter, working with a canvas or a bark-cloth?

”Well, painting is different. But there are also differences between the two fabrics you mentioned. An empty bark-cloth contains many ideas – it talks to you. I look at the bark I have chosen to work with, start to cut it, choose the width and length and observes how the lines, the texture and colours almost become part of the working process. You talk to it and it talks to you.”

ED: So would you decide the subject matter quite late in the process?

”That is right. Either you start sketch on it, apply paint, or put stuff on it, and the work starts to reveal itself, halfway through.”

ED: What kind of materials would you mix into it?

”I would use threads, ruffia, beads, seeds, even wood. The bark could be manipulated and threated almost like parchment, like skin, and you could stitch or glue things to it. The whole process is very different than working with an empty canvas. The canvas contain no ideas, and you need to prime it before the ideas come to show.”

Woman Ahead - Women on the Move!! - Sanaa Gateja. Museum of Arts and Design. Photo: Ed Watkins

Sanaa Gateja is one of the internationally acclaimed Ugandan artists. He is one of the one hundred artists, the only Ugandan, currently on show at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York. He is displaying a huge female necklace; made from rolled paper from National Geographic magazines, bark-cloth beads, banana fiber beads, lava stone beads and raffia. And together with Algernon Miller, he is displaying an 8 x 10 feet fabric made from beads fabricated from recycled Barack Obama presidential campaign litterature.

Future steps

ED: What would be your next steps? Are you able to find new ideas?

”Funnily enough, I am actually feeling that I am going to blossom after so many years,” Sanaa laughs warmly. ”I like the way my recent works are coming out. The exhibition in New York has given me a lot of feedback. I am very happy with how I work. I feel I am getting closer to what I really want to be, in terms of versatility, in terms of dealing with materials. I can combine my interior design job, the artwork and the beads my women make, and use this force to create something fantastic.

And I would like to write a book.”

ED: What would it be about?

”It would be about techniques, how to deal with materials, in relation to ancient and modern techniques. There is a lot of fleeing and displacement in Africa, people live a versatile life, and must be able to apply themselves in various ways. A bit like my own work; I must always regenerate new ideas, and this is what the book should be about. How to survive as an artist and as a person living in Africa with this mindset of constantly innovation.”

ED: Any messages to the younger artists?

”I would say that they could be much more observant and respectful to what is creatively produced. My message would be to love creative work. Also – and this goes out to a larger audience – we have to look at ourselves as Africans, and start feeding on our own culture. Don’t look to New York, but make the local culture as good and authentic as possible.”

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Studio photos and video by – Thomas Bjørnskau.

4 thoughts on “Jewels in Motion: An interview with Sanaa Gateja

  1. How can I purchase your necklace make of beads of rolled up tiny strips of magazines as shown in Budget Travel magazine?

  2. Hi Thomas,

    Great article, I was wondering how I could get in contact with Sanaa? I’m off on Thursday so anytime tomorrow or Wednesday would be great.

    Hope you’re well,

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