an abstract portrait of flowers

“Girls Voice” (2021), paper beads on barkcloth, 49 × 33½ inches. All images courtesy of Karma, shared with permission

For Sanaa Gateja, the pan-African philosophy of ubuntu—translating to “I am because we are,” the idea that society is what gives people humanity—is one of the most profound manifestations of art. Living and working in Kampala, Uganda, Gateja heads the Kwetu Africa Art and Development Centre, an organization he founded in the early 1990s. The center trains and employs about 15 people, who create small beads from post-consumer paper that the artist then stitches into large-scale tapestries.

Gateja’s preferred materials are vintage advertisements, political posters, outdated textbooks, and other colorful printed ephemera, which are hand-rolled, dyed, and cut to about three-quarters of an inch. The artist sews each component onto barkcloth, creating abstract compositions that evoke garden plots and rituals.

Works like “Voices of Peace” depict an anonymous congregation, with fiery botanicals brightening the background. Many of Gateja’s pieces advocate for environmental and social protections and speak to personal sufficiency and growth, the latter of which are intricately bound up with both nature and society as a whole.

Whether in the fragmented texts and imagery encased in the beads or the communal-making process, the tapestries encompass a mélange of tastes, preferences, and ideologies, all passed through the hands of several individuals before emerging in the final works. Nothing goes to waste, Gateja tells BOMB  in an interview, elaborating on his process:

I work on the floor. When I’m conceptualizing, I kneel and start to sketch; then I put beads on the barkcloth. I will start drawing the piece with chalk. Chalk allows me to go back and make changes. So, I’m on the floor. I have water jugs full of beads. Those with colors that don’t fit my plan, I will paint over. Painting comes at the end…I call my way of working “unit construction.” The bead is one unit, which is a sculpture. I look at the bead by itself as a complete sculpture.

Gateja is currently working toward a solo show titled NOURISHMENT, which will run from March 22 to May 18 at Karma in Los Angeles. Find more about his work on the gallery’s site.


abstract figures in red, orange, and yellow congregate in an embrace

“Look over Yonder” (2020), paper beads on barkcloth, 83¼ × 65¼ inches

a flower pot with green leaves and yellow flowers

“Home” (2021), paper, acrylic stitched on bark cloth, 82⅝ × 66⅞ inches

abstract figures stand together with fire-like plant growths above

“Voices of Peace” (2023), paper beads on barkcloth, 80 × 62½ inches

Communal Art-Making Is at the Core of Sanaa Gateja’s Monumental Paper Bead Tapestries

an abstract tree like floral form in orange, yellow, and green

“Thirst,” no date, paper, acrylic, natural dyes, stitching on bark cloth, 90½ × 59 inches

an abstract work with red and purple starfish like forms on a brown and yellow dotted backdrop

“Soil Fertility” (2023), paper beads on barkcloth, 49¾ × 59½ inches

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