BY Stephen Nartey, 9:00am March 24, 2023,

Sanaa Gateja, the Ugandan ‘Bead King’ who makes beads from recycled paper

Sanaa Gateja/Photo credit: Tappan Collective

The contemporary Ugandan artist, Sanaa Gateja, has a unique name that the people of his home region call him. He earned the name “Bead King” for his style of art – recycling papers into beads. The technique has not only brought him fame, but transformed the lives of women in his village and other African countries, who have become a support system in the value chain.

The ingenuity of his art has made him one of the most outstanding artists on the African continent. He has shared his artistic work with art lovers and curators in Japan, Italy, and Great Britain.

No matter how long his work keeps him in a foreign land, nostalgic feelings always lead him back home. His career took off at the Ministry of Culture and Community Development in 1970, where he was tasked to supervise the craft shop in Ugandan’s pavilion at the international Expo in Osaka; he later stumbled upon his unique style of art while teaching in London, according to artic paper.

He discovered a paper bead one night while going through the art rubbish after class, this sparked his fetish for recycling paper into his own beads. He took the bead home to study it and utilized the gift that fascinated him.

Since then, Sanaa has not ceased producing paper beads, his craft has thrived mainly due to the accessibility of paper anywhere in the world. He uses recycled paper, which he finds in abundance in Uganda. A crucial time in his craft was when he came across propaganda magazines that were not only colorful but glossy. It gave him ideas to infuse class and glamour into the beads he made.

Paper waste is one of the challenges confronting many countries globally, and Uganda is no exception. The Bead King indicated how books, brochures, political posters, and calendars are readily available raw materials for him. He recalls how press materials from Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign fed the production of his beads. He made a large tapestry called CHANGE out of it, which was exhibited at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, according to we represent.

Saana’s paper beads have undoubtedly become a national cottage industry in Uganda, which is also helping women to earn an additional stream of income. Many Ugandans are involved in making wall hangings, art, and home décor from recycled paper. It is believed that an estimated 50,000 people earn additional income from beads in Uganda.

Saana was born in 1950, during the period when Uganda was being colonized by the British. He opened his first gallery in the city’s old harbor at the age of 21; the first patrons of his work were men, women, and children who lived around him. He was enthralled by the smiles the children displayed while wearing his beads. Aside from recycled beads, he also makes cloth from the barks of trees. Now in his seventies, Saana continues to derive joy from making paper beads.

His works have played a tremendous role in rallying Africans against colonialism on the continent. He has participated in many exhibitions and has been widely recognized for his art.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: March 24, 2023


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