Sana Gateja’s case for using more African art in living spaces

Sana Gateja at home. His art is inspired by dancers, matmakers and other crafts. PHOTOs/Edgar R. Batte

What you need to know:

Sana Gateja’s artwork is inspired by crafts makers, dancers, drums and all other local crafts. This truly represents our African nature and values.

“The house I live in (now) was patched up. I added to it, for example the veranda and then the living room. The other rooms are for sleeping.  The veranda is where I like to spend most of my time because it has a nice breeze and gives me a view of my plants and trees.  Before the advent of TV, Africans spent most of their lives outside. TV and sitting inside does not appeal me to very much,” says the multimedia artist Sanaa Gateja as he leans back on a grey cushion of his mahogany coffee brown seat at his veranda that overlooks the hills of Bunamwaya and Sseguku.

Even if he had a state-of-the art home cinema, he would still be happy to spend more time outside.

The multi-disciplinary creative known for unit construction on jewellery work made from recycle materials and beads, lives on a hill in Lubowa, a relatively quiet neighbourhood on the Kampala-Entebbe Road. Gateja says he settled here in 1994.

“If I were a rich artist, I would probably not be living in this sort of house, but I love my little house with its arches.  They frame up the environment and within that frame, there is beauty. Sometimes when I look through the arch, I can see a framed picture of fene (jackfruit) tree and all that is good,” he says pointing to the mature jackfruit tree.

The artist says his wife is a good landscaper and gardener who keeps the compound well taken care of. The interior of the home tells of Gateja’s artistry with paintings hanging on the walls.

He tries as much as he can to live with elements of art within the house, from the table mats to paintings and wooden sculptures.

Making money

Gateja is known for his expertise in beadwork. In fact, some call him the master of beadwork in Uganda. So he gets people who commission him to do art pieces for their homes.

Most of his art can be found displayed in hotel lobbies and high profile offices. He has turned his four-acre land into his workshop.  As you move from the upper to the lower compound, you notice a woman working on a stretch of colourful beads that hang on a wire.

Adjacent to them, is a line of potted vegetables and herbs.

 Inside, more women are busy on beadwork as they chat away. In the backroom are bark clothes adorned with beadwork in different colours.


Finally, Gateja leads me to a store that has more beadwork and then to his office area with desk on which I see sketches he has dubbed ‘food security’, illustrated by pots. They are works for a customer he will be making cards for, from recycled paper.

“I craft my artwork. I pick up paper, cut it and measure it and make beads, and when I thread one bead to another, I repeat it a million times until it becomes a piece of artwork so it is what you would call craft and art,” he explains.

When he realised that he was going to become an artist, he found that following in the footsteps of Europeans was not easy.

“I would rather follow in the footsteps of my African ancestors. There is not much evidence of their master pieces, even in our museum so I tend to search in the villages which have remnants of techniques, knowledge and expressions that I am looking for,” he observes.

His work is inspired by mat weavers, dancers, drums and all our crafts and art because he believes African art is a celebration of the everyday African lifestyle. Each artpiece is unique to the individual who has done it.  African artists often infuse their spirits into their work.

“An individual who is skilled always likes to leave a mark on what they make in order to be different from others, so I cherish African creatives. I have had an opportunity to meet the extremely good craft makers not only in Uganda but in Kenya and West Africa,” explains Gateja

In Uganda, you can find locally made and imported pieces of art crafts at National Arts and Cultural Crafts Association of Uganda (NACCAU) next to National Theatre, on Dewinton Road in Kampala as well as at the craft village along Buganda Road, another near Christ the King Church in the city centre, in Entebbe and in private craft shops and art galleries.

Part of the veteran artist’s home is beautified with reeds. The other has sculptures that stand out on well mawed grass and then plants and several trees, including matooke. 

“I would say that our communities of Ugandans are yet to embrace the traditional crafts,” the multimedia and unit construction artist, adds.


He started painting on barkcloth in 1980, a fabric that can also serve the purpose of a canvas and a wallpaper.

Before 1980, he was in Kenya and was importing it from Uganda and selling it to interior designers and hotels in Mombasa.

“Wherever I travelled after that, in Italy, United Kingdom, I travelled with it and would work on it,” he adds.

Gateja’s journey into art started when  he was a little boy.  He would observe things his peers were unable to. He was fascinated by the way rivers flowed and the way the moon shone. In Namutamba Primary School and at Old Kampala Secondary School, he met teachers of art who taught the subject in a conventional, traditional way.

“It was unexciting as they insisted on realism more than expression then moving on to meeting crafts people when I worked with the ministry of culture in the late 1960s. There was a big shop on Kampala Road before we moved to Apolo Hotel, which is now called Sheraton Kampala Hotel,” he recollects.

The future

Africa has given the world some of the greatest interiors and design moments, with inspiring artists and designers with its bold graphics, strong silhouettes and exquisite craftsmanship.

“In 2020, as the clean edges of ubiquitous minimal design make way for more organic shapes and bolder colours, African accents are going to be making their way into more homes. Let us cast an eye over some of the key elements of this trend and explore some ways to incorporate accents of this effortlessly luxe; but never at the expense of comfort, style,” observes an online style platform .


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