Sanaa Gateja, locally known as “The Bead King,” was born in Kisoro, Uganda in 1950, where he completed his early education. In 1970, he moved to Mombasa where he opened his first art gallery across from the port at Mombasa’s Old Town called Studio Sanaa. This gallery expanded to Fort Jesus Museum in 1974. His gallery was among the first to concentrate on exhibiting the traditional arts of Kenya, including the functional arts of Northern Kenya and Lamu and basketry and jewelry from the East African coast. He worked closely with other pioneer art organizations in Mombasa, such as Bombolulu and Mombasa Home Industries. In 1976, he opened the first major art gallery in the Mombasa city center where he exhibited works by East African artists and craftsmen. He also redesigned the Lawford’s Hotel in Malindi in Swahili style.
In the 1980’s, Sanaa relocated his studio and workshops to Nairobi. He founded a brass workshop where he created and produced brass lamps, traditional coffee pots and other brassware, including the unique lampshades in the Nairobi Serena hotel lobby. He held several exhibitions at African Heritage Gallery in Nairobi, at the National Museums of Kenya and the Kenya National Archives.
Sanaa then trained as a gold and silver jewelry designer in Florence, Italy, after which he worked in the art and jewelry trade in London for six years. In 1986, he held a major solo exhibition of both jewelry and paintings at the African Centre in London to celebrate Uganda’s liberation.
In 1989, Sanaa returned to Uganda where he founded Kwetu Afrika Art and Development Centre based in Lubowa, Kampala, Uganda. Here, Sanaa used easily available local materials to research, innovate, and create art as a means of fighting poverty. One of his unique contributions was the practice of recycling paper into beads. This medium, which he began using in 1990 at his Kwetu Africa Studio and which has spread throughout East African communities, provides a livelihood to many jobless persons, specifically, women and youth. His centre exports many products made of handmade paper beads, employing dozens of skilled female workers full time and many others on a part time basis.