Sanaa Gateja
March 22–May 18, 2024
Opening reception: Friday, March 22, 6–8 pm

Karma, Los Angeles
7351 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, California

Karma presents NOURISHMENT, Sanaa Gateja’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, open from March 22–May 18 at 7351 Santa Monica Boulevard. The show precedes Gateja’s inclusion in the Venice Biennale’s Ugandan Pavilion, curated by Acaye Kerunen. 

Through a process he calls “unit construction,” Gateja builds intricate assemblages from thousands of hand-rolled paper beads sewn onto bark cloth. Each individual bead, or unit, is both a complex artwork—in his words, “a complete sculpture”—in itself and assimilated into the larger composition. Made from post-consumer paper waste, the materials are tightly rolled, varnished, and dried, each its own exercise in the upcycling of offcast, two-dimensional materials into three-dimensional forms. Gateja’s process resonates with the concept of “social sculpture,” Joseph Beuys’s belief that societies are artworks crafted communally from each person’s political and material contributions.

Gateja, who was born in Uganda, joined his country’s Ministry of Culture and Community Development shortly after graduating secondary school, inspired by the blacksmiths, potters, and basket weavers he grew up admiring. In 1972, he moved to Mombasa, Kenya, and opened Sanaa Gallery. There, he specialized in the sale of traditional Kenyan crafts, especially beadwork, which has been practiced for at least 50,000 years in East Africa. Later stages of his life took him to study interior design and jewelry-making in Osaka, Florence, and London. It was at John Cass College of Art (now London College of Art and Design) in London that he first encountered paper beads. In 1990, he returned to Uganda, bringing the techniques with him and teaching them to locals, who in turn assemble the beads that become the basis of Gateja’s works. In the years since, a whole economy has sprung up around the production of paper beads in the country and beyond. 

The works in NOURISHMENT contend with this cycle of mutual influence and support. In the artist’s words, this series “pays homage to and honors our ancestors,” while “each artwork tells a story nourished by the past and present.” The form of Ancestral Nourishment (all works mentioned 2023), with its symmetrical array of feather- and leaf-like motifs, simultaneously evokes a mask and a tree, perhaps a mutuba, the source of the barkcloth that serves as Gateja’s substrate. Just as the beads are made in Uganda, barkcloth is native to the region, where it has been manufactured for centuries by artisans who pound the tree’s inner bark until it is thin and flexible. The process of growing mutuba and creating barkcloth is sustainable—the fast-healing trees can be harvested multiple times a year and require little water to survive. 

Building on the theme of sustenance, Granary depicts its titular architectural and agricultural subject as simplified chevrons and circles in magenta and blue, repeated such that a geometric pattern emerges. At once abstract and representational, this assemblage transforms a symbol of stored community wealth into a composition that thrums with lively rhythm. In Arise, featherlike profusions radiate outward from circular cores, creating forms that are at once daisy and mandala. Each bead is individuated by the particular slices of printed matter that give its surface variation in hue. Gateja’s nexuses—of beads, of organic forms, of collaborators—coalesce as wholes that are just as great as their constitutive parts.