THREADS OF LIFE

Introduction

 

'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 brief statement the late Ramses Wissa Wassef eloquently summed up what was for him and still is today at the heart of his unique experiment in art. The village of Harrania, not far from the ancient Pyramids of Giza, has for over four decades been the setting of a remarkable undertaking. There, Ramses Wissa Wassef, architect, designer, potter and weaver, set up a tapestry workshop for the local village children. With neither formal education nor artistic training the children of Harrania were to play a vital role in his ongoing experiment. First they would be introduced to the craft and from then on guided in a rather extraordinary way.

 

To begin with, all the weaving had to be done without the aid of any sketch or design. Even the most complicated pieces, which took many months to complete, arose from impressions of everyday life and were improvised on the loom. Ramses Wissa Wassef 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 an indirect method which dissociated and weakened the process of artistic creation. Here Ramses describes the importance of this method.

 

'The continuous effort of working directly with the material leads to a constant change in the work of these young artists. The free play of their creative power starts at the mysterious moment when the child seizes instinctively, and in a flash of joy, the idea for the picture that he or she intends to weave.'

 

To understand well how the tapestries were created, it is important to consider the role played by both Ramses and his wife Sophie. 'A work of art', Ramses once wrote, 'is similar to an address. [?] It happened that we were for these children persons to whom they addressed themselves through the medium of their work and we have been able to seize their expression and intention.

This role was neither forced nor exclusive, but was played with affection and understanding.'

For Ramses, hand-weaving was both a highly expressive and pure art which was rapidly losing ground to machine production. It was his hope to revive the fine sensibility of the craft by making a fresh start with a group of children and simple looms, proceeding, as he put it, 'as slowly as may be, so as to give wide scope for the play of deep, natural impulses.'

 

As revealed through the statement which began this introduction, Ramses's main concern rested with the child's individual potential. Modern society, he felt, was concerned more than ever with the mass of the population, giving insufficient attention to the individual. In the following passage he makes this point.

 

'Modern society only promotes impersonal and interchangeable talent which conforms to a certain set of norms. In spite of all this, sometimes the profound accent of a creative artist bursts out. But unfortunately, the world stands dumb for a long time ..... We have never tired of listening to these children. They have proved that they all possess the creative spirit."

 

Indeed it is so, for the results are clearly revealed through the excellence of the tapestries produced at the centre. Since Ramses' death in 1974, Sophie Wissa Wassef and her two daughters, Suzanne and Yoanna, have energetically carried on the experiment - an endeavour still flourishing to this day. At present, approximately one hundred individuals are employed at the centre, including adults, adolescents and children. Out of the fourteen weavers who began with Ramses and Sophie 40 years ago, twelve are still actively weaving. Ranging from the ages of fifty-five to sixty, they continue to work with Sophie as their guide and inspiration. In a separate part of the centre, Suzanne continues her work with the second generation wool weavers, a personal project she took on in 1973. She is also responsible for the production of stoneware ceramics which she herself makes and designs. Her sister Yoanna Wissa Wassef on the other hand, has taken charge of batik and fine cotton weaving.

 

Although the centre has expanded since its first days in the 1950's, the same spirit and philosophy remains alive. There, in a most impressive setting, the elements appearing in the tapestries spring to life. As one enters the main gate, on the left and facing west towards the edge of the valley, one finds a museum designed by Ramses housing a collection of ceramic sculptures. Looking to the right, one discovers the workshops and galleries for finished work. The Wissa Wassef family also have their homes here - their vaults and domes a familiar silhouette against the evening sky. These structures are surrounded by a spacious garden with a large variety of plants and trees. One part of the garden is entirely devoted to plants strictly grown for vegetable dyes which are used in colouring the wool. At the north edge of the garden is the large dome and vault museum completed in 1989. It houses the permanent Wissa Wassef collection and shows the development of the tapestries 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 planted some 40 years ago, that the "experiment in creativity" continues to blossom with each new season.

 

A Journey In Creativity:

 

In order to understand how Ramses Wissa Wassef's novel venture first took shape, it is valuable to follow the background from which his ideas emerged. Ramses' deep interest in crafts can be traced to 1932, the year that he returned to Egypt after the completion of his studies. After eight years of living abroad, Ramses had returned home in search of his culture with a determination to find his place in its milieu. It was during the early years of his return that he would take long walks through the old quarters of Cairo. This particular district had been one of his favourites, and it was there that he would wander through the narrow streets and alleyways studying the buildings and speaking to the dwellers.

 

Outings in the old quarters gave Ramses the opportunity to encounter a number of craftsmen - weavers, potters, glassmakers, and stonecutters alike - all inheritors of ancient traditions and techniques. From these meetings he gained a knowledge of skills that he eventually went on to use in his own architectural work. Perhaps more importantly, his contact with these craftsmen gave him the opportunity to study their situation closely. Before long he realised that eventually these crafts would vanish, 1) because although these men were honest tradesmen, no new force or creativity could be expected from them, 2) many of the craftsmen he knew had died without having trained any apprentices.

These facts deeply affected Ramses and thus led him to reflect on man's condition in the age of the machine and to discuss the problem with his colleagues. He later wrote, "Everywhere I found reservations in the face of increasing mechanisation, and the damaging discipline of abstract education to which human beings are subjected during the most important period of their lives - when they are becoming people."

For Ramses Wissa Wassef, once broken a tradition could not be renewed. By using their own training methods, he noted, craftsmen used to hand down their skills from generation to generation. Currently used methods only resulted in routine mass production. Modern educational systems, he felt, could not form craftsmen.

When reaching this point in his thoughts, he made the following conclusions:

Artistry and craftsmanship are aspects of a single activity.

A demand exists for handicrafts which at present is not satisfied by either art or industry. Therefore, production by craft methods can still be economically viable.

The creative energy of the average person is being sapped by an abstract conformist system of education, and by the extension of industrial techniques to every field. But while the machine threatens to reduce human beings to passivity, it also frees them to develop a potential that will wither away if it does not find real fields for action.

The capacity for artistic creation exists in every child, but it needs fostering and protecting against superficiality.

"The idea or feeling," Ramses later wrote, "which ultimately drove me to act, was to all appearances a very Utopian one ... When I try to formulate it however, all sorts of clichés and commonplace ideas creep in. I had this vague conviction that every human being was born an artist, but that his gifts could be brought out only if artistic creation were encouraged by the practising of a craft from early childhood."

 

It was in 1941 that Ramses Wissa Wassef was asked to build a small primary school in the old quarter of Cairo. This architectural project gave him just the educational opportunity he had been seeking. Wanting to provide a fairly simple technical process as a vehicle for the children's efforts, he asked the committee, which had initially commissioned the building, if it were possible to let him teach weaving to the children after school. Here, it is interesting to note that Ramses knew little of the practical aspects of weaving before taking on the project. In preparation, he read up on the subject at length and experimented with the craft on his own. He also learned how to prepare and use natural dyes, a practice he felt would give more control over the colours produced. Since that time only natural vegetable dyes have been used on the wool that goes into the tapestries.

Admirers of his achievement frequently ask why Ramses Wissa Wassef chose weaving as the medium for his experiment.

Here it is fitting to include the answer, in his own words:

 

"I chose it, (weaving) because I saw it as a way of getting the children to produce images by means of a craft technique, of starting them off on an activity that involved a union of body and soul, a balanced combination of manual work and artistic creation. This could have been done in other ways, but in fact the technique had to be chosen carefully. Drawing, painting and modelling are not craftsman's trades, while mosaic work, ceramics, wood, stone and metalworks do not present the same balance between art and craft. I felt that tapestry-making would provide the happy medium for the experiment I was planning."

 

Having once obtained permission to set up a few weaving looms, Ramses then brought in a local weaver to introduce the technique of weaving. Using high-warp looms, which are known to resemble the very earliest looms, and which leave the artist the greatest freedom in creating his designs, the children began their work. At that time the warp consisted of twisted cotton, but later linen thread was substituted. The weaving was done with local wool which Ramses had taught the children to dye.

Although Ramses soon found the results to be satisfying, he himself knew that the experiment needed more time and that it would have to be carried on further. The committee, however, did not find the project commercially feasible, and Ramses quickly realised that it could not continue at the school. It was at that point that he asked some of the young weavers if they would like to work with him privately; and so it was in 1946 that three of them went to work at his home.

By 1949 Ramses was faced with a great responsibility. These children had now reached their mid-teens and their futures rested in his hands. It they were to continue weaving as a career, they would need a proper environment and circumstances in order to pursue their work. On the other hand, if they would not be weavers, they would have to go out in the world to find other livelihoods. Observing that the children's results were superb, Ramses knew that not to pursue the experiment would be a great waste. It was with considerable courage then that his final choice was to help these children to become professional weavers.

Approximately ten years after the weaving experiment in Old Cairo began, Ramses and Sophie took their work even further. In 1951, the purchase of about three-quarters of an acre of land on the outskirts of the village of Harrania marked the beginning of the next phase. Each week Ramses and Sophie went out to the countryside. It was on such excursions that the village children first came to see them and play with them. In this way, Ramses and Sophie ultimately established a good relationship with their young friends. After two years, Ramses asked the children if they would like to learn to weave, and to this they agreed wholeheartedly.

In preparation, simple weaving frames were made by a carpenter and strung with threads of local wool coloured with Ramses' own natural dyes. Indigo was used for blues; cochineal and madder for reds; and weld and "reseda luteola" for yellows and greens. Two of the original students from the school in Old Cairo were brought to the centre each week to teach the children. Within a year all of them had learnt to weave, allowing the older weavers to return to their own looms.

It was at this point in the experiment that Ramses was able to carefully observe the children and to set down guidelines for their future work.

Steady contact with the young weavers brought details of the craft to his attention. Here, he describes the tapestry as it comes into creation:

 

"To produce an image in a tapestry, weft-threads of various colours are woven into the warp, which forms the working surface. The background and the design must be in different shades, and they have to be assembled thread by thread, in such a way that the design fits into the spaces in the background, without leaving any gaps. This is a very slow task, rather like the generation of living tissues. I attached a great importance to this slowness, and to the child's ideas ripening in is mind and guiding his fingers as they materialised. I also counted on experience, gained gradually day by day, giving birth continually to new images."

Ramses goes on to explain the children's abilities in the following way, "The sense of colour and rhythm, the instinctive feeling for the play of shapes and composition are the innate gifts of the child. These will atrophy and die if they are not brought into action."

In order to prevent this from happening to his weavers, Ramses gave three rules which he strictly observed throughout the work.

The first one was "no cartoons or drawings". This rule sprang from his belief that making a model or a pattern for a work of art, with the intention of transferring it to a medium that was considered difficult, meant evading the difficulty, splitting the act of creation into two stages, and resigning oneself to the impossibility of ever creating a real work of art. He was convinced rather, that only the risk involved in creating directly in the material itself could provide and channel the creative effort.

"No external aesthetic Influences," was rule number two. During the course of the experiment Ramses took great care not to provide the children 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.

The third rule given was "no criticisms or interference from adults." Because Wissa Wassef considered adult criticism as 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 at whatever came to his or her mind. In this way the young weavers were able to develop confidence in their work, and to depend solely on their own imaginations.

 

With these three rules and Ramses as their guide, he and the children took off on their journey in creativity. Within a few years time, it was evident that his experiment was more than a success. In its own quiet way, it had revealed that methods other than those used by modern education could be used with astonishing results. Here, Ramses' own words best sum up his point of view.

 

"Modern education starts by smothering the child's potentialities, and then, when it is too late, it tries to inject some life into what has managed to survive the earlier treatment ... In contrast, my point of view is that one must use the child's own forces to educate him, starting at the moment when they are still strong, and protecting them so that they can take effect and lead to actions that will become an integral and useful part of his life."

 

First Generation Weavers:

 

It was with just a dozen or so children that Ramses and Sophie began their work at Harrania in 1952. Ranging from the ages of eight to ten, they would come to be known as the "first generation" weavers. Although at first more girls than boys were attracted to the craft, eventually boy would also join their ranks.

From the beginning, Ramses knew just what was needed for these children in their development as successful weavers. While they learned the practical side of the craft, an important concern for him was also to stimulate their imaginations. In order to achieve this, he and Sophie often took them on outings to the banks of the Nile, the palm groves, the city, the zoo, the desert and even as far as Alexandria so that they could experience the sea. Ramses believed that, "For a child, the image is the vehicle of his emotions, a reflection of his inner life. It is just as natural for him to express himself in pictures as in words, which for him are merely a series of linked images."

As a result of their experiences with the Wissa Wassefs, in a relatively short period of time, an abundance of images began to appear on the weavers' looms. As the children explored and mastered weaving techniques, their expressions became bolder and individual styles began to emerge. All of them however seemed to focus their thoughts on the village life around them. When one considers the mechanics of producing these works, one is instantly astonished to find that the whole composition is conceived purely in the mind of the weaver. Both adults and children work seated in front of the loom and as each new piece is finished, it too is rolled under and out of view. This means that the weaver never sees the complete design until the tapestry is finished. Interesting to note, an experienced adult weaver may produce a maximum of 15 square meters a year.

 

It was after several years of dedicated patience that the works of the first generation were first put on display. Since then exhibitions of the Wissa Wassef tapestries have been held regularly in numerous countries. Many of them now grace the walls of galleries, and are found in private collections around the world.

 

Second Generation Weavers:

 

It was in 1972 that Suzanne Wissa Wassef decided to form her own group of weavers. For this purpose Ramses built her a large room at the other side of the garden away from the workshops of the first generation. At first, Suzanne's natural choice was to invite the children of the first generation weavers to join her project. Many of these children had spent their earliest years sitting beside their mothers at the loom. To keep them busy, they would often be given bits of wool to weave on small looms. Suzanne soon discovered however that they imitated the adults' designs knowing that these had already pleased the Wissa Wassefs. She often told the children, "I want you to bring out what you feel, not what your parents are doing." The lack of spontaneity in their work moved Suzanne to disband her newly formed group and to replace them with a whole new group of children who had not been exposed to weaving at all. Their challenge, and that of their teacher, was to become free from the natural impulse to imitate by using the technical skills of weaving to find fresh interpretations of the work.

 

When Suzanne began her work with these children, she made an extra effort to free them from a desire to merely imitate nature. Unlike the first generation, the second generation from the start were made aware of the characteristic details which they wanted to represent. Here she describes her aspirations for the weavers; "I wove from the age of eight to sixteen 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. It was my aim since then 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 in the round, whole scenes and broad landscapes, something that had taken their predecessors much longer to achieve.

 

Soon the second generation were able to devote more effort to finding new forms and personal styles. Also interesting to add is the fact that this generation's developments took place under different social and economic conditions. Suzanne continues her effort with 15 weavers ranging from the ages of twenty five to thirty seven.

 

Fine Cotton Weaving And Batik:

 

In order to diversify and widen the scope of weaving, in 1962 Ramses introduced cotton weaving into the workshop. For this method the cotton threads used are very fine and the vegetable-dying method very slow and complicated. In spite of its novelty at the centre, the children did not take to the new technique easily and the experiment lapsed. Only two of the original cotton weavers continued working while the remainder returned to wool weaving.

It was not until after Ramses Wissa Wassef's death that his daughter Yoanna decided to expand this method. Continuing with what her father had earlier started, here Yoanna describes her role with the second generation cotton weavers.

"When I went to work at Harrania after my father's death, I decided to revive the cotton weaving with a group of 15 children who had no parental links with the previous ones. They were happy to take part in the school and accepted more readily the difficulties of the technique. They even felt a certain pride as they were no longer considered an appendage 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 and perhaps more difficult skills than high warp, wool weaving. In cotton weaving the looms are horizontal opposed to vertical and the threads are very fine. As a result, the image takes longer to appear. In fact 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 ten year old boy soon mastered the technique provides further evidence of Ramses Wissa Wassef's original theory concerning our natural gifts of creativity.

 

Batik:

 

In 1965 batik was yet another craft to be introduced to the children at the centre. By choosing batik, Ramses wanted to demonstrate that creativity could be brought out through any medium - particularly one that had not been present in Egypt before. A second reason involved the question of the pace of the work. In contrast to weaving, batik requires fast work. Its use of molten wax and phase dying presented a new challenge requiring planning and an altogether different faculty. Those who learned this technique had to be quick of hand and eye. In batik, the cloth is dipped repeatedly into different dyes which range from clear to opaque. Elements of the design which are of the same colour are drawn in wax before dipping the cloth into the next dye. Unlike weaving, batik demands that the child should have a complete idea of what he wants to represent before starting work. As with all the other activities at the centre, here too the artists do not make preliminary designs. The versatility of batik allows one to make tablecloths, furnishing fabrics and wall pictures. For practical purposes, chemical dyes are necessary for this technique. Today Yoanna Wissa Wassef continues to guide these batik painters who have achieved quite remarkable results over the years.

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Text copyright:Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre