Sanaa Gateja, Keeper of the lake (Nalubaale), 2017. Paper beads on barcloth, 250 x 150cm. All courtesy of the artist & Afriart.

Something like a constellation

The vast collaborative work of Sanaa Gateja – made up of a million more lives outside of our own

Earlier this year our editor Brendon Bell-Roberts travelled to Uganda – there he met respected artist Sanaa Gateja. An artist relying on the influence of people rather than schools or institutions, Gateja’s socially-aware practice attempts to provide a greater understanding of art that the Ugandan infrastructure may not necessarily be supplying. Brought up amongst crafts such as pottery and jewellery, the paper bead is Gateja’s most widely used material in the production of his artworks.

View from Sanaa Gateja's studio, Kweta African Art and Development Centre.
View from Sanaa Gateja’s studio, Kweta African Art and Development Centre.

The artist treats the beads sculpturally in his construction, showing the impact of multiplicity and pattern when seen in the large scale final products of tapestries and wall hangings collected from Johannesburg to Paris. Gateja uses recycled printed paper as a great colourful and textural medium – an unprecedented resourcefulness contributing to the rich cultural production of the country.

Sanaa Gateja is also the founder of Kweta Africa Art and Development Centre based in Lubowa, just outside of Kampala. Aimed at highlighting the artist’s ingenuity in resource and materiality; we honour the social integration his art projects encourage. Researching art’s socio-political nature, we see how art can change and empower the lives of those involved. We celebrate the unique process of collaboration where one is making more than just an artwork while cultivating community. This defines a practice that, as Geteja says “bring the pieces together – [to] reconstruct, [to] build up.” Kweta Africa provides a centre for courses in weaving and basketry. The artist expresses the displacement of the villagers near the Gorilla park and the troubles they have had with finding jobs and homes. The property and courses provided can up-skill and uplift these people to become self-sufficient.

Sanaa Gateja, Keeper of the lake (Nalubaale), 2017. Paper beads on barcloth, 250 x 150cm. All courtesy of the artist & Afriart.
Sanaa Gateja, Keeper of the lake (Nalubaale), 2017. Paper beads on barcloth, 250 x 150cm. All courtesy of the artist & Afriart.

Outside of his on-site mentoring at the property in Lubowa, Gateja expresses his ideas of consulting and collaborating with other artists in Kampala to grow a further education in materials and techniques “to explore” as Bell-Roberts suggests “how the local art economy can come together to create something sustainable.” Furthermore, he shows an interest in his property becoming a centre for artist retreat and residency, expressing that working with people around art in this way is where his passion lies.

“We started off by making one simple string, and then made three strings…there are incredible possibilities”

The ingenuity of Gateja’s own practice, as well as Kweta Africa, shows an inventive use of resources and the unparalleled fostering of empowerment, growth and opportunity in the lives his practice sustains. Whilst providing board to a single mother, Gateja trains her in the weaving of a papyrus bark growing on his verandah into future endeavours of belts, bags or even jewellery. “We started off by making one simple string, and then made three strings… there are incredible possibilities,” says the artist.

Sanaa Gateja standing with piles of magazines that will be used to create paper beads.
Sanaa Gateja standing with piles of magazines that will be used to create paper beads.

It is this keen eye for seeing the potential in both people and material that collaborative art practices such as that of Sanaa Gateja work to provide opportunity for the lives deeply woven into and living out of the production of the artworks. Sanaa speaks to the rewarding and idiosyncratic nature of working in collaboration: “Each one has their own hand, and what comes out is something like a constellation” – an artwork so unique and diverse in its making that when standing before it we know its existence to be vast – made up of a million more lives outside of our own.

One of Gateja’s Bead Wear pieces
One of Gateja’s Bead Wear pieces
Bags filled with paper beads.
Bags filled with paper beads.

Pamela Bentley is a writer on ART AFRICA’s editorial team.