Sanaa Gateja
Rolled Secrets
June 27–August 18, 2023
Opening reception: Tuesday, June 27, 6–8pm

188 & 172 East 2nd Street
New York

Karma presents Rolled Secrets, Sanaa Gateja’s first solo exhibition in New York, following his inclusion in the 58th Carnegie International.

Gateja transforms natural materials and post-consumer paper waste into complex, mosaic-like works. Using materials such as hand-rolled paper beads and cloth made from soaked and pounded strips of inner bark, the Uganda-based artist merges fiber art, installation, painting, and sculpture. The beads, sourced from recycled paper, are first hand-rolled and cut to form and then sewn onto the barkcloth to create intricate compositions. Motivated by an innate sensibility of form, Gateja’s often monumental works oscillate between figuration and abstraction. Up close, the beads offer glimpses, between delicate folds, of their past lives—as vintage posters, pages from wig sales pamphlets, and outdated textbooks. To realize these works, Gateja engages a wealth of communal resources and traditional Ugandan methods of beading, weaving, and basketry.

The exhibition highlights two series, Rolled Secrets (2023) and Paths: The African Journey (2020). The works that comprise Rolled Secrets are primarily figurative, and often feature intricate depictions of forest settings and social gatherings, as well as beaded fringes. Gateja’s focus on trees extends beyond their form and into their complex, interconnected relationships with their surroundings—from their deep root systems to branches laden with bright leaves and multicolored fruit, as in Ripe (2022). In Voice of Peace (2023), a thicket of green and orange beadwork coalesces to depict figures and signifiers of nature—separate elements unified by rounded forms, leaves, and feather-like adornments. In Realisation (2023), a dense array of colored orbs creates a vibrant middle ground that extends upward into thin, plant-like forms and cascades downward into kaleidoscopic beaded fringes. In Paths: The African Journey, Gateja employs a more unified palette of pinks, yellows, and ocher, contrasted by rivulets of pale-colored beads, to explore the history of Africa—specifically the forces of colonization, enslavement, and the resilience of the continent’s population and diaspora. Although emphasizing abstraction, Gateja’s oeuvre draws affective connections between people and their environment. In works such as Self Sufficiency (2020) and Visiting (2020), the jostle between smooth peaks and rounded forms simultaneously suggests figures and rural topographies; the same details that evoke outstretched arms and welcoming faces are also reminiscent of grasslands and mountain passes seen from above. In these two bodies of work, Gateja articulates a kind of visual alchemy, in which art-making becomes an act of environmental and spiritual repair. 

Sanaa Gateja (b. 1950; Kisoro, Uganda) has been working with recycled paper beads since 1990, a process he describes as “Art for Development.” The production of the materials provides sustainable employment for craftswomen across Uganda. Gateja’s work was featured in the 58th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh (2022–23) and has been exhibited extensively across Africa and internationally, including at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (2010).