The rich tapestry of life

Thirty years ago, an Egyptian civil servant founded an arts community in a poor village near Cairo. Today, her weavers' work is sought after across the world, writes Michael Church
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Every generation has its visionary educators who proclaim that all children are artists – provided their talent can be set free. In Britain, this idea is part of the perennial political ebb and flow: Gradgrind ministers touting the three Rs are periodically induced to relent and issue edicts encouraging a thousand flowers to bloom. But nothing changes, because nobody believes in those flowers. The talent remains in chains.

It's time we looked at an artistic experiment which has just clocked up its first half-century. Drive west out of Cairo along fume-filled Pyramid Road, turn left at Giza, and continue south through dirt-poor villages until you come to one called Harrania. And there, among the palms, you'll find a village-within-a-village: a cluster of Nubian-style domed buildings, all pervaded by a purposeful hum.

Every room is crammed with looms and toilers grouped according to age: some of them teenagers, some of them grandmothers with toddlers at their side. At the centre is an exhibition hall where images from the world outside – flocks of geese and doves, peasants working in the fields, ox-carts progressing slowly beneath the palms – have been transmuted into tapestries on the wall. Welcome to the Wissa Wassef weaving school.

I find Sophie Wissa Wassef, 76 years young, painting at an easel, while three women she introduces as "the first generation" work at their looms. As she tells it, the story of her school has a sweet inevitability which glosses over the obstacle race it must actually have been. She was a government art inspector, and her husband Ramses was head of the architecture faculty at Cairo's fine arts academy. Fixing on Harrania as the poorest village they could find, they got to know the children, bought a plot of land, and built a makeshift school on it.

"Initially, it was just our hobby," she says. "We played with the children to win their confidence, then we asked them if they'd like to earn money, rather than merely beg for it. When they said yes, we brought in two weavers from Old Cairo, and encouraged them to teach. We settled on weaving as the perfect combination of art and craft."

They took their pupils on outings – to the banks of the Nile, the zoo, the sea – and an abundance of images began to appear on their looms. And they laid down three rules: no preliminary drawings, so that the act of creation was spontaneous; no imitation; and no interference from adults. This was to be a journey into virgin territory.

"Whether we managed to sell their work or not, we paid them from the first day, because money was the language of the village," she says. "When wool was scarce we would pay them, undo the work, and let them use the same materials again." But such problems didn't last long. A Swiss visitor invited them to mount a show in Basel, where they had to run round putting "reserved" stickers on pieces they couldn't bear to part with.

More exhibitions followed. "After a show at the Louvre, Ramses came back and told the students, 'Now you are important people, you must learn to read and write.' When they asked why, he said, 'So that you can sign your work.' So at the mature age of 20 or 21, these boys and girls began to learn to write." That was in 1960. Talking to the third generation of students now, I discover that literacy – particularly among the girls – is still rudimentary.

Hamama Ramadan, a shy 16-year-old with two works on the go – a hen and her chicks, and a group of hoopoes – tells me she's a refugee from her state school, where she was routinely beaten by teachers. "All I can write is my name," she says.

Her friend, Saeeda, also left because of brutality, but claims she can at least read the newspaper. Nadia, 12, never went to school: "That was a privilege for my brothers, but they taught me to write my name. I came here a year ago, and learned by watching the older girls. It's so peaceful here. I sit and think before I begin each new piece. I like to know where it's going."

But the Wissa Wassef's prohibition of drawing, a skill not even the Old Cairo weavers possessed, means that these students never know exactly where their work is going. They invariably start from the bottom, and the ideas grow visibly more complex towards the top. "When someone finishes a piece," says Sophie's daughter Suzanne, "everybody joins in on the birds and clouds. The excitement is extraordinary". Wissa Wassef spoke of the "flash of joy" when a child hit on an idea, and the vaulted rooms of the school's museum are literally irradiated by such flashes.

While recognising the innateness of talent, Sophie imposes no selection criteria beyond a fundamental seriousness. "Look at this lady," she says, indicating one of the grandmothers in her workshop. "She worked for 20 years without producing one single, nice piece, but now she is the best."

When the founders offered to give one of the early year's profits in the form of a prize, the idea was angrily rejected. "They said, we are all doing our best, and nobody should be privileged above the rest. That taught me a valuable lesson," says Sophie. Profits? The weavers pocket one third of the sale price of each piece – many are sold to overseas collectors – which makes them super-rich by local standards. As a result, they are village heroes and therefore role models.

The women of the first generation had to contend with husbands who disapproved of working women; today's teenage girl weavers can bargain with would-be husbands from a position of strength.

Sophie Wissa Wassef may not select entrants on merit, but she screens them medically. "The first generation all had bilharzia [a parasitic blood disease], so we now take all our new students to hospital to get them checked out and cured when possible," she says.

Meanwhile she found another illness was unexpectedly common. "We had at one point five students with schizophrenia, so I asked the doctor if working with us was harming them. But he said on no account stop them, because it's good medicine. Three were cured."

But one of the others – a 24-year-old father of six – committed suicide. "He used to sit in front of his loom saying his head hurt because it was full of images of everything he had ever seen. But he was a wonderful artist. This was his last work: the house with dark windows at the edge of the village is his own. But come and look at Karimal's weaving, which shows how this work can heal," she says.

"Karimal's husband married another woman, and she came to me and said she was too sad to work any more. So I said, 'We kill men here', and when she asked how, I explained that we could make war in our tapestries, as well as make love. So she put him in a battle scene in her tapestry, and threw him off his horse. After six months, she was so tired emotionally that I suggested she weave a pool of water for the horse to drink from. Later he came back to her – and you can see him at the top of the tapestry, happy on his horse again."

Karimal is now finishing a composition in which sub-tropical foliage grows luxuriantly round a pool. While Mrs Wissa Wassef is painting an equally luxuriant representation of the riot of blossom outside the window.

"I have learned a lot from my students – the importance of painting the background with as much love as the foreground, and how important it is to make art absolutely every day. Art is medicine for body and soul," she says.

Images tissées d'Egypte: 1 Chemin de l'Impératrice, Geneva. 12 June – 1 July. More information from