Tapestries from Egypt
Tapestries from Egypt
Woven by the children of Harrania
W. & B. Forman & Ramses Wissa Wassef
hardcover with dustjacket
In 1951, Egyptian architect and educator Ramses Wissa Wassef embarked upon an experiment in creativity which would become universally acclaimed. He set out to prove that creativity was innate -- that anyone could produce art. He had become discouraged by the general decline of creativity in 20th century urban culture and dismayed by the deadening influence of mass production. He felt that routine education was stifling. For his experiment he chose uninhibited, free-spirited young children who were isolated from many aspects of modern civilization. Tapestry was selected as the ideal medium because it demanded dedication -- it was one in which an artist matured slowly. Wissa Wassef explained in a 1965 interview, "Though the mastery of the technique requires a long period of fruition... from the very beginning a child can find something in it. There are numerous difficulties to be overcome, but the achievements prove a veritable conquest, all the richer since the difficulties are greater..."
After working with a few children in Coptic Cairo, Ramses moved to the rural village of Harrania, thinking it an ideal place to find youngsters unspoiled by previous schooling and thus able to express themselves freely. At that time the only textiles produced in the area were simple utilitarian rugs and blankets.
Wissa Wassef built a home and studio at the edge of the village, with a playground, pens for animals, and a garden for dye plants. Interested neighborhood children were given beautiful handspun, vegetable-dyed yarns in a variety of colors and taught basic tapestry techniques. Wissa Wassef suggested that they "tell a story" with their yarns.
The children began with small frame looms and only two or three colors. Their works grew in complexity and size as they gained skill. No one corrected their designs, proportions, or perspective; no one questioned their pink camels or blue donkeys. Absolutely no adult criticism was allowed -- even from parents. Since it was expected that technical skill would be achieved gradually, no child was inhibited by an undue concern for straight selvages, perfect rectangular dimensions, or flat surfaces -- very difficult matters with the eccentric wefts of tapestry. Originality was encouraged as the most important quality.
Much of the strength and charm of the successful tapestry designs was due to their direct growth out of the weaving process. No preliminary drawings were used, even for large, elaborate works. The best pieces had a lively internal rhythm as well as lyrical, vibrant color. Under Wissa Wassef's careful tutelage his students produced work that had a fresh vivacity and presented candid views of rustic village life. It had a direct honesty and a simple, solid power. Unfortunately, Ramses died in 1974, but his wife Sophie and daughters Yoanna and Suzanna continued to operate the studio.
Children in Ramses' Harrania studio initially ranged in age from six to eight and they were exposed to no adult work. Eventually the studio included weavers of all ages, and children who played near their mothers' looms were eager to try weaving on small looms themselves; they played at weaving much as other youngsters imitated their mothers' housekeeping activities. Now the weavers remaining in the Wissa Wassef complex are all adults, and no young people are being accepted in that studio.
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