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Wissa Wassef
Arts Center


"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 sums up what was for him and still is today at the heart of his unique artistic experiment. The village of Harrania, not far from the ancient Pyramids of Giza, has for over a number of years been the setting of this remarkable undertaking.

There, Ramses Wissa Wassef, architect, potter, weaver and designer, set up a tapestry workshop to be used by the local village children. With neither formal education nor artistic training the children of Harrania were to become an important part of his ongoing experiment. They would be introduced to the craft and guided from then on 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, were improvised on the loom and arose from everyday-life impressions. 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 a roundabout method which dissociated and weakened the act of artistic creation. Here Ramses describes the importance of this method.

"The continuous effort of working 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."

Tree of life - 1955

To better understand 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 comprehension."

For Ramses, hand-weaving was at one time a highly expressive and pure art which was quickly 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' main concern rested with the child's individual potential. Modern society he felt, more than ever, was concerned with the population in mass, giving less attention to the individual. In the following passage he details this point.

Sycamore - 1945

"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 center. Since Ramses' death in 1974, Sophie Wissa Wassef and her two daughters, Suzanne and Yoanna, have energetically carried on the experiment - an endeavor still flourishing to this day. At present, approximately one hundred individuals are employed at the center, 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 forty-five to fifty, they continue to work with Sophie as their guide and inspiration. In a separate part of the center, 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 center 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 making dyes. 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 dessert, 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.



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