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Innovative Ugandan Artist Brings Work to US

Ugandan artist Sanaa Gateja has gained a reputation for innovative works created from unusual materials. His artwork was recently on display at an art gallery in Washington, D.C. and that's where VOA's Mariama Diallo caught up with him.

Whether it is painting, handcraft jewelry or fashion design, Sanaa Gateja has got it all. His inspiration first came from a traditional Ugandan material called bark cloth. "As an artist I loved it because it inspires me the way it is made."

Bark cloth making is an ancient craft in southern Uganda.

As Gateja explains to some people who have came to see his work, the cloth comes from the inner bark of a ficus tree. It is harvested during the wet season and then, in a long process, beaten with different types of wooden mallets to make its texture soft, fine and give it an even terra-cotta color.

Critics say his abstract art reflects the political and socio-economic reality of our time. This one for example is the last piece he painted before coming to the United States. It coincided with peace talks in the southern Sudanese city of Juba between the Ugandan government and the Lords' Resistance Army rebel group.

"This piece has to do with making up, solving problems, reconciliation. It has very big forms there, there are two people almost shaking hands."

The challenges are huge for artists like Gateja who try to make a living from their art.

"Art is not easy to sell in a small country where art appreciation or people with money to buy art are very few. So it is tough. We tend exhibit within the region: Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and so forth. Living off art, there are few artists living off art purely like myself who struggle to make a living. You have to work very, very hard."

Gateja also makes beads out of recycled magazine paper, which in turn are used to make other art pieces.

"We make bags out of it. We make jewelry out of it. We make costumes. Recently, we are trying to do tableware."

His work is being exhibited at the Mbari Institute in Washington, DC. Mimi Longford, who is modeling one of Gateja's pieces, is President & C.E.O of the gallery. "These are artists who are not known so much in the U.S. and need to be seen. It is important that people know that are is happening in Africa."

For her, the love affair with African art started a long time ago. "Having lived with my parents in both Ethiopia and Nigeria and having both parents be artists, we always knew the artists of each country we visited. In Nigeria we became very involved with Nigerian artists. And had a salon (art showing) in our house every Thursday afternoon where people could come and meet artists and see work and hopefully buy work."

Prices for Gateja's paintings range from $400 to $2,000 (U.S.), with the gallery taking a 40 percent cut on every canvas sold. Gateja says you can also find his work on the Internet. "I've sold a few pieces on E-Bay."

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    Mariama Diallo

    Mariama Diallo is a senior reporter covering national and world affairs for Voice of America in multiple languages. She was recently the VOA acting bureau chief for the agency's West Africa office.