Threads of Life,
Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre, Egypt: A Journey in Creativity
Ikram Nosshi & Suzanne Wissa Wassef
For the past 60 years the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre has been the setting of a unique experiment in creative weaving that has produced tapestries admired and collected by museums and galleries around the world. The life work of its founder, Ramses Wissa Wassef, was dedicated to realizing the innate creativity of ordinary young Egyptian children.
“Human freedom never has as much meaning and value as when it allows the creative power of the child to come into action. All children are endowed with a creative power which includes an astonishing variety of potentialities. This power is necessary for the child to build up his own existence.”
In this statement, the late Ramses Wissa Wassef eloquently sums up what was for him, and still is today, the heart of this unique artistic weaving experiment. With neither formal education nor artistic training the children of Harrania were introduced to the craft and guided from then on in a rather extraordinary way by the following three rules.
1. “No cartoons or drawings.” All the weaving had to be done without the aid of any sketch or design. Even the most complicated tapestries, which took many months to complete, were improvised on the loom and arose from everyday life impressions. Ramses believed that in spite of all risks, a work of art had to be conceived and executed directly in its material. To depend on a design was a roundabout method which dissociated and weakened the act of artistic creation.
2. “No external aesthetic Influences.” During the course of the experiment, Ramses made it a rule not to provide the weavers with works of art to imitate, nor did he ever take them to visit museums or art galleries. It was his contention that, “adopting someone else’s feelings and attitudes, or yielding to his influences means a loss of contact with one’s own emotions.” He further added, “The inspiration so often sought from great masters, or from those praised by critics, has never been a cure for mediocrity, but frequently been its cause.” As Ramses observed, the children showed far too much of their own inventiveness for it to be necessary to show them anything to copy.
3. “No criticisms or interference from adults.” Because Ramses considered adult criticism to be a crippling intrusion on a child’s imagination, no criticism whatsoever was tolerated. In the closed environment of the atelier, each child was free to work on whatever came to his or her mind. In this way, the young weavers were able to develop their confidence and personality in the work, depending solely on their own imaginations.
Admitted to the workshop between the ages of 10 and 12, the children also attend the village primary school, where they receive an elementary education that leaves unimpaired the freshness and spontaneity of their native gifts. Life in the fields acquaints them with plants and animals, which they learn to love and later try to express in the tapestries. The young weavers work diligently all week without a timetable or other form of compulsion. What impresses one most is the joy and serene confidence that stems from being appreciated and respected. From their earliest tentative efforts, they are paid for their weaving, according to its artistic value and workmanship. This has proved an effective system; it implies that the child’s effort is appreciated for its value, and that he is embarking on a serious career.
Why did Ramses choose weaving as a mode of expression?
Hand-weaving was at one time a highly expressive and pure form of art which is quickly losing ground to machine production. It presented a number of advantages, providing the weaver was not viewed simply as a worker. To master this art entails a long apprenticeship. Direct weaving without a cartoon compels the weaver to create his subject strand by strand, to compose it on the loom. The weaver passes through a series of stages before mastering the art.
• The child first works without fear or hesitation, deriving inspiration from his imagination and from nature.
• Then he renders his feelings into pleasant motifs, revealing a surprising power of compactness, which is governed by the degree of difficulty in weaving them.
• Next is the stage of repetition of motifs to fill the surface. After that, the weaver will try to create new unrelated motifs.
As the weaver learns to master the technical difficulties, his expression becomes richer and subtle and his style emerges. A sort of rhythmic impetus becomes apparent, a movement that precedes any attempt at formal expression. The images are reduced to diagrammatic sketches, whose harmony is felt by the artist and which are sometimes stripped of all detail to the point of abstraction.
This reduction to essentials gradually loses its stiffness and severity and the composition becomes suppler and more articulated, with the lines softening. Slowly, the different styles of the young artists become evident. Some of the weavers exaggerate features; others are realistic in their treatment of images. Some delight in fluid composition of water and fish. Others excel in grouping flowers and birds, all with poetic intensity.
When the young weavers reach adolescence, collaboration is established between their creative fantasies and the teachers’ sense of arrangement and composition. The teachers do not interfere with any original subject the weavers suggest, they merely help them define their work and choose a range of colours.
At this point, it might be useful to indicate the role that the Wassefs are playing in the creativity journey of the weavers. Although deliberately discreet, they are nonetheless influential from the start, for it was always up to them to choose the place and kind of work, the nature of their relationship with the weavers, and the appropriate materials and methods.
Today, our hope at the Art Centre is to continue reviving the fine sensibility of the craft with the current and future weavers, proceeding, as slowly as may be, so as to give wide scope for the play of deep natural impulses. Our concern is the weaver’s individual potential, since modern society more than ever promotes impersonal and interchangeable talent conforming to a certain set of norms.
Since Ramses’ death in 1974, his wife Sophie and their two daughters, Suzanne and Yoanna, have carried on the experiment. At present, approximately 35 artists are engaged at the Centre. Out of the fourteen weavers who began with Ramses and Sophie 60 years ago, four are still actively weaving with Sophie, ranging in age from 63 to 72.
The second generation wool weavers: Suzanne Wissa Wassef group:
Suzanne continues her work with 14 second generation wool weavers, a personal project that she took on in 1972. Their ages range from 36 to 50 years. Suzanne began her work with these children, aiming to free them from a desire to merely imitate nature. Unlike the first generation, Suzanne’s group was made aware from the start of the characteristic details which they wanted to represent. Here she describes her aspirations for the weavers: “I wove from the age of 8 to 16 and discovered that the technique had many possibilities. The more I wove, the more I discovered how freely one can express oneself on the loom. Since then it has been my aim to initiate in the weavers this sense of free expression and unfolding magic.”
Working with this in mind, the results were indeed surprising. Suzanne found that once the children had learned to think for themselves, they were able to create whole scenes and broad landscapes, something that had taken their predecessors much longer to achieve. She is also responsible for the production of stoneware ceramics which she herself makes and designs
The second generation fine cotton weavers: Yoanna Wissa Wassef group:
In 1974, Yoanna expanded the fine cotton weaving, continuing with what her father had earlier introduced in 1962 in order to diversify and widen the scope of weaving in the workshop. She describes her role with the second generation, “When I started, my aim was to revive and expand the cotton weaving with a group of 20 children. They were happy to take part in the Centre and accepted more readily the difficulties of the technique. They even felt a certain pride as they were no longer considered an adjunct to the wool weavers, but rather a new group with its own identity. What is also remarkable to note is that I often found in their tapestries details reminiscent of the ancient Coptic fabrics, which of course, they had never seen.”
The difference in the two types of weaving becomes clearer here. The technique of cotton weaving calls for different skills than wool weaving. In cotton weaving the looms are horizontal instead of vertical and the threads are finer. As a result, all phases of the
work take greater patience and perseverance. Even the dying process is more demanding since cotton does not take natural dyes easily. The reward, however, lies in the result. This method produces weavings of great intricacy and clarity. The fact that a 10 year old boy soon mastered the technique provides further evidence of Ramses Wissa Wassef’s original theory concerning our natural gifts of creativity.
Although the Centre has greatly expanded since its first days in 1952, the same spirit and philosophy remains alive. It is essential to realise that the entire development of second generation wool and fine cotton weavers took place without the presence of Ramses Wissa Wassef. Indeed, some modifications were made by Suzanne and Yoanna to meet the immense social changes that took place in the Egyptian society as a whole. The second generation artist weavers have been an integral part in every tapestry exhibition that the RWWAC has held since 1979.
Natural vegetable dyes for the wool and cotton:
In 1961 Ramses Wissa Wassef began cultivating natural vegetable dye plants in the garden of the Art Center, in order to dye the wool & cotton yarns used in the tapestries. He admired their natural beauty and strongly believed that artisans must have control over the basic materials used in their craft.
For centuries, these dyes existed in Egypt and played a fundamental role in the coloring of textile fabrics. Ramses always employed a sustainable approach. He planted Madder, whose roots yield dark red-orange, Reseda (weld), an annual flowering plant that gives different shades of yellow, Pecan leaves, yielding beige, Eucalyptus leaves, which yield light yellow and Indigo, for all grades of blue. Green was obtained by immersing the yellow yarns into the indigo vat.
Twice a year, in spring and autumn, the weavers get together with Suzanne and Yoanna to dye the wool and cotton yarns in a joyful atmosphere. This festival of colors takes four days. At the end of each day, while the weavers are eating together in the garden, the wool yarns are hung around them in a celebration of bright blues, greens, reds and yellows. Ramses was not just trying to protect the old crafts, which seemed likely to disappear because of industrial competition and social changes. He also hoped to revitalize those crafts by reintroducing them in modern daily life.
At the north edge of the garden is the large dome and vault museum completed in 1989. It houses the permanent Wissa Wassef tapestry collection, which displays the development of the individual weavers since the early days of the experiment. Looking off into the distance and across the fields and desert, the statuesque pyramids of Giza complete this sublime picture. It is here, in just this setting, with the seeds that Ramses and Sophie planted some sixty years ago and tended by Suzanne and Yoanna, that the experiment in creativity continues to blossom with each new season.
Suzanne Wissa Wassef was born in 1950, the elder daughter of Ramses and Sophie. She spent most of her childhood holidays at the Art Centre observing how the freedom given to young weavers resulted in building their self-confidence and allowed their creative power to develop. Weaving from the age of 8 to 16 she discovered the endless possibilities of the technique. Suzanne started the present second generation weavers in 1972. She is also a stoneware ceramic designer, a passion she inherited from Ramses.