A dapper older gentleman in a fresh China-blue and white kitenge African-patterned shirt approached me at the coffee house with a large grin. So elegant he almost gave a Florentine courtier’s bow when greeting me. I felt very honoured as this was Sanaa Gateja, one of Uganda’s greater living artists.
Trained as a goldsmith in Europe’s culture capital Florence, the heart of the Renaissance Era Italy, 62-year-old Sanaa Gateja is a young man at heart with a large community spirit.
When we got to his studio, the artistic magic began in the glory of the huge natural cliff garden. It is easy to see that this view- to which his studio is angled- is his major inspiration. Inside, what originally looked like a rolled up piece of bark-cloth was unfolded to reveal the richest splendor in creation: `` Women and Nature’’.
My goose bumps unrolled as the piece unfolded. It is a piece of such stunning intricate detail, carefully rolled paper beads in rainbow colors, carefully stitched into a pre-arranged design and then brought together with careful touches of paint that breathe life into the final work. This piece is made with a community of women that Sanaa trained to do all the beadwork. He is currently working with a lot of beads that they make and then turn into paintings along with collages such as President Obama’s campaign material.
This is a brand new piece of Gateja’s. It portrays a young woman on a rock- she is a younger woman- and the other woman could be her mother or her aunt, an older more authoritarian figure, who is looking after little grand children around her. The younger woman is holding a child in her right hand to her breast. She is a little more coquettish but is still a strong woman. In between the women there is a representation of a father figure. He is not represented naturally as the two women are, because his presence is symbolic- he is not really there with the children as the mothers are. He is sort of distant.
This is art that represents Gateja’s lifetime work with communities. His first experience in community art was when he worked with the ministry of Culture and Community Development in 1968. It was so effective that even as an 18 year old boy who just carried boxes and did manual labor there, he felt it. The government then had built community centers all around Uganda that were used for community meeting and community activities and also a collective center for arts and crafts.
There was revival then in crafts, so much so that Kenyans then were buying Ugandan crafts and selling it as theirs- the same way we do today in the reverse. He was able to get promoted and was eventually sent to Japan to represent Uganda at a trade fair. When in Japan he was hugely exposed to business and artistic creativity and resigned the ministry and never worked formally again. He was 20 years old. So in 1974 he started the first gallery in Mombasa called Gallery Sanaa on what used to be Kilididi Rd but is now Moi Avenue showing regional artists. That is when he went to Italy to learn jewelry making and eventually sold his gold and silver jewelry on Clarkenwell Road in London. There the council also hired him to teach jewelry to single mums.
Gateja says, contrary to the claim of many NGOs in Uganda, he is actually the originator of the paper bead craft, which he started teaching communities of women in the early 1990s as income generating and cultural activities. The practice picked up, and then some `enterprising’ NGOs followed suit in the 2000s by claiming they brought this to teach Ugandan women how to recycle.
In Uganda there were no customers for his luxurious gold and silver jewelry and so he started this, as it was the only way he could see how to teach recycling and craft. Now Uganda is known as the paper-bead country. ``The other day I read and email from a lady who started something in Northern Uganda and they claim that they started this bead making. It makes me so furious and I want people to know that Ugandans are the ones who started this business. And we (I) did it because, it was the immediate creative thing that could involve many more people, and bring income to many more people, and make me the artist that I am today. This is what this piece represents’’.
``Life is a journey with a purpose. The message I bring is visually African. The themes I paint are universally human. Dealing with the materials that guide me, I talk with you the observer. We share the energy within us provoked by Art’’. Sanaa Gateja 1998