A couple of years ago, a collection with tapestries from the workshop of architect Wissa Wassef in the Egyptian village Harrania was showed in a few cities in Europe. Since then international magazines have through articles and reviews told of the great successes of the young artists from Harrania at exhibitions in Paris, Zürich, Lausanne (the Biennale 1967), and in many cities in the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany. In our country the presentation of these tapestries became an exciting experience for a big audience, and many Swedes, in particular artists, architects and craftsmen now have the small village near the pyramids of Guiza as their travel destination. Some have in interviews and articles told of the rich experiences the encounter with the village Harrania and its tapestry art has given them. When the culture committee of Södertälje municipality discussed an exhibition for the opening of Södertälje konsthall on Järnagatan, the suggestion of the weavers of Harrania was brought up. The negotiations could not be finished by letter, which is why yours truly had to make the trip down to Harrania.
Together with professor Ramses Wissa Wassef and pedagogue Sophie Habib Gorgi, his wife, I had the privilege of choosing around fifty not before exhibited tapestries for the last two years. During our conversations Ramses Wissa Wassef mentioned that it is now about twenty-five years since he and his wife started the pedagogical experimental work he accounts for in a couple of articles in this catalogue. During the first year the children worked from their homes. In 1945 Ramses Wissa Wassef built the first tapestry workshop just outside the village Harrania, a power fellahin village with just over a thousand inhabitants. Most of the fellahin are farmers; some worked on leased land, only a few own the fields that require their heavy daily work. A channel from the Nile brings the water that makes the fields fertile; another channel carries off the used water. The Nile and the Nile water is the condition for the village and play a huge part of their imaginary world. Where the Nile’s water does not reach, the desert stands triumphant. Ramses Wissa Wassef has sometimes been called pedagogue, sometimes idealist or visionary.
His strong belief in the human and her possibilities has given him patience, drive and inspiration over the last half century. In a lecture a few years ago he spoke his credo: “I have often been asked how it is possible to get fellahin children, who live a very primitive life, to make these kinds of artworks. To that I say, that even though my young artists live as fellahin, they are from an artistic viewpoint to be considered neither children nor primitive. In a child’s normal development, the progress humanity has made during a geological timespan can be accomplished very quickly. I am absolutely certain that the same things we have achieved in tapestries just as well could have been made if you worked with ceramics, music, theatre or whichever art form or form of expression. It is exclusively a question of what approach you have to the task and which conditions of work you can give the youth. My support has been the simple conviction that art is born with the human. The educator’s task is to protect the human from the educators themselves, because during childhood art is fragile in nature. You cannot hinder its growth by neglecting it, but you can also not try to rush its progress – that happens all too often – in order to quickly force it into a final form. You want to give the child the time it needs to reach the truths you can teach.” In addition to his own story, it should be mentioned that his inspiring work has reached international claim. Artists and pedagogues from several continents have come to Harrania to meet him, and similar experiments are taking place in different places as a result of these study visits.
Ramses Wissa Wassef makes no models and also does not allow the weavers to make sketches or cartoons. He says he has no patented pedagogical methods. We do suspect, however, that not only his ability to share his technical knowledge has been a condition for the work, but also that his inspiring presence has been absolutely necessary for these young artists’ creativity. His wife has through her great interest for the task and her love for the village and its people created the atmosphere and the trust that has made the young boys and girls tell about the village and all its four- and two-legged inhabitants in the tapestries, about the happy and the unfortunate happenings, about birth and death, about myth and reality. The small village is a closed environment, just as the small cubic houses of sundried brick. Only friends are invited to the families, and the village people only open up personally to those they think to be a sincere friend. Only to them they let their rich imagination flow in speech and song. Ramses Wissa Wassef’s important contribution is that he has found the key to this rich world, that he has made the young people transfer their experiences and vision to the tapestries, as immediately and real has they can tell or sing it a night at the open fire in his studio.
For this colourful and rich image world we thank professor Ramses Wissa Wassef and his spouse Sophie Habib Gorgi and the young artists of Harrania.
Södertälje, May 1968
– Eje Högestätt
PS. With the exhibition The Weavers of Harrania, Södertälje konsthall opens in the new building at Järnagatan 22. It is a gratifying statement on behalf of Södertälje city that they through the culture committee have enabled the establishment of its own art exhibition space, if not yet in its own gallery building but in temporary premises. From the beginning these premises were meant to be rented out as an auto showroom, which of course explains the look of the rooms. Although the ceiling height is too low for a real gallery, and the lighting is also not ideal for exhibitions of art and crafts, we find here the conditions for the city’s own exhibition space. Since the gallery at street level could merge with the spaces a level below, there are also possibilities for meaningful work to happen around the exhibitions, such as art evenings of different kinds. Experimental exhibitions, happenings, musical presentations and sound phenomena of a louder character should be able to take place without neighbours and people out for a walk being more than desirably worried.