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‘Instinctive Creativity’: Wissa Wassef’s Genius as an Artist and Teacher Is on Display

An exhibition of the work of the late Egyptian artist and architect Ramses Wissa Wassef and his pupils shows the genius he inspired in his “instinctive art” school.

The exhibition, called “Wissa Wassef: The School of Instinctive Creativity”, continues at the Ubuntu Gallery in Cairo until 21 June. It celebrates the work of Wissa Wassef (1911-1974), who will always be associated with teaching textile arts to children.

Wissa Wassef obtained a diploma in architecture from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1935 and was also known for his pioneering architectural designs, which include the Mahmoud Mokhtar Museum as well as many Egyptian churches that soar to dramatic heights, such as the Coptic Church of the Virgin Mary (Mar’ashli Street Church) in the Zamalek district of Cairo and the Church of St. George the Martyr in Heliopolis.

“The goal of the Harraniya school is art itself. … Art that does not age and remains bright in the style of the Wissa Wassef school, as if all the weavings were interconnected.”

Salah Bisar   An Egyptian artist and critic

He is also remembered for his academic work as professor of art and architecture at the College of Fine Arts in Cairo.

The current exhibition, however, focuses on works from the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Center, the school he founded in the early 1950s in Harraniya, a village near Giza. There Wissa Wassef spread his philosophy of “instinctive art”, teaching young children and local labourers with no formal arts training to weave tapestries and carpets that were works of art.

A Craft That Is an Art

The exhibition showcases a collection of wool and cotton tapestries made by the school’s weavers.

One work shows a horizontal view of an open palm field embracing the sky. Another is teeming with brown rural faces, soaring birds and the domes of mud houses.

Ahmed ElDabaa, founder of Ubuntu Gallery, told Al-Fanar Media that the exhibition “is an attempt to shed light on the thought of the late artist, present it to generations that did not know him, and confirm that the craft [of weaving] is an art, and that the craftsman is an artist.”

The artist and critic Salah Bisar said the exhibition reminded him of “the depth of the local character and the genius of time and place that appears in the instinctive textile arts of Ramses Wissa Wassef.”

He told Al-Fanar Media that one of Wissa Wassef’s biggest artistic achievements was that he had transformed the carpet into a piece of art for hanging on walls. The tapestry carpets from Harraniya became “an extraordinary ambassador for Egypt in the Sixties,” he said, and attracted global interest.

Teaching Instinctive Art

Bisar considers Wissa Wassef “one of the great Egyptian symbols of architectural creativity.” He studied in France, but he used his studies abroad “to develop the local art he loved.”

The late artist’s family “was devoted, after he was gone, to continuing to educate children and sharpen their expressive energies,” Bisar said. “There were generations of instinctive artists who were educated at the Wissa Wassef school.”

Gallery: Works from Wissa Wassef’s School

What Bisar finds remarkable in the works of instinctive woven art is that all the elements of the scenes they portray are derived from the Egyptian environment, including trees, people, animals, birds, and expressions of the joy of life.

Even a small tapestry might take months to make, Bisar said, “because the goal of the Harraniya school is art itself—art that does not age and remains bright in the style of the Wissa Wassef school, as if all the weavings were interconnected with each other. Each panel has rhythm, shape, texture and personality.”

Free Formations

Shaymaa Yahya, an academic and fellow artist, said the textiles of Wissa Wassef’s school belong to a type that depends on the imagination of the weaver.

She traced the history of weaving back to ancient Egypt.

“This artistic method was known in the ancient Egyptian state and the weaving goddess Tayt,” she told Al-Fanar Media. It continued “through the Roman era and the Coptic era, when monks practiced this art while hiding from the Romans, and it was called Coptic weaving,” she added. “The children of the Ramses Wissa Wassef school made this art flourish again in our modern age.”

“Ramses Wissa Wassef believed that art is an instinct in all people, and therefore he was able to produce works of genius from men and women in Harraniya who were working in the fields.”

Shaymaa Yahya An Egyptian academic and artist

“Ramses Wissa Wassef believed that art is an instinct in all people,” Yahya said, “and therefore he was able to produce works of genius from men and women in Harraniya who were working in the fields.”

Yahya said that all the late artist did to achieve this was to teach his students how to weave and use materials and tools that helped them express their art.

“The Harraniya experience is not just instinctive art, but comes under what the artist Jean Dubuffet called ‘raw art’, the product of people without previous artistic experience,” she said. “This makes art an experience that represents the personality of its creator.”

The Harraniya weavers follow the concept of raw art, not thinking of the viewer or having material goals, she said. They simply practice what releases their talent.

Summoning Imagination

Yahya said what fascinated her most about the work of the Wissa Wassef school was its “mighty ability” to summon imagination, especially among village women.

These were women who had always dressed in black from head to toe and lived in a society with limited links to the outside world. Yet they dyed wool in tens of shades of colours and selected from them “to weave wonderful worlds exploding with colourful life from above the clouds to the bottom of the sea.”

They worked with no prepared visual layout other than the mental vision of a final product that they could not see until after its completion after many hours of work.

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Yahya said what was remarkable was the women’s “belief and confidence in their abilities and imagination.” It was amazing and motivating for any artist to see that from skeins of white wool someone had slowly created figures, animals, plants, gardens, lakes and houses, she said. It represented the pinnacle of artistic creation free from the rigidity of imitation.

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