Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre, Egypt


Egyptian Landscapes: Fifty Years of Tapestry Weaving at the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre, Cairo, Egypt
Brunei Gallery, London
January 19th – March 17th, 2006

In a desire to nurture the innate creativity believed to be present in each and every child, the late Egyptian architect Ramses Wissa Wassef established an art school outside Cairo in the 1950s and invited local children to learn the art of weaving. “I had this vague conviction,” he is quoted as saying, “that every human being was born an artist but that his gifts could be brought out only if artistic activity was encouraged from early childhood by way of practising a craft.” After mastering the basic principles of weaving, the children were left to weave under the guidance of three basic rules: no preliminary sketches, no external aesthetic influences and no critical interference from adults. Inevitably, a homogenization of style within the group is now apparent, but the centre’s work remains unique within the broader field of tapestry. One signature that has developed is a density of detail that results in many of the works acquiring a slightly buckled surface texture. While this may not be a quality valued within traditional tapestry, it certainly supports the organic imagery of the work.

The exhibition singles out the weaver Sayed Mahmoud as a talent within the community, weaving large complex works even as a young teenager. His and the other enormous tapestries in the main gallery are cacophonous: almost overwhelming in their density of imagery. I found the more modestly sized “Acacia Tree’ by the same artist to posses a restraint that offered delicacy and calm. There are other gems to be found in this fascinating exhibition as well, ironically often displayed in less prominent locations. In the stairwell, Fawzy Moussa’s “Cypress and Olive Trees” is woven in a sophisticated complementary palette of blues and oranges reminiscent of a William Morris. I can only attribute this connection to the palette of natural dyes used by both the Centre and Morris, for if the work was born of the centre’s desire for spontaneous creation there should be no art historical references to be found.

Nadia Mohamed’s “The Garden” was another beauty, capturing a striking level of detail with variegated petals, delicate red poppies and the vitality of spring evident in the composition’s tumbling foliage. Downstairs a small group of cotton tapestries woven on horizontal low warp looms with foot pedals present more refined works on a smaller scale. Adel Shahat’s “Cactus” and “Spring Flowers” stand out for the delicate texture felt across the surface of the tapestry and, particularly in “Plants” a rhythm to the imagery, which belies the spontaneity of its design. Unquestionably, this exhibition provides inspiring viewing. It has been over a decade since tapestries from the Centre were last displayed in the UK, then inspiring numerous responses from school projects to professionals. We can only hope the same is about to happen again.

Modern Carpets and Textiles (spring 2006: 15)