A Curatorial Introduction to the Exhibition Let Textiles Talk by Amanda Pinatih
Textiles are a fundamental part of everyday life—they surround us from the moment of birth until the day we pass away. Among the oldest and most universal objects that humans produce, textiles have been worn, walked on, slept under, and lived with for thousands of years. They play an important role in rituals and celebrations and afford us the ability to create identities. Through their intimacy with the body, textiles are bound up with the performativity of gender, sexuality, class, and culture, and reveal individual and collective longings. The power of textile to communicate makes it a medium that can bring across (hi)stories.
While browsing through the vast array of objects in the Stedelijk Museum’s Applied Arts collection, from fragile-looking ceramic and glass works to expressive fiber sculptures, six things immediately stood out to me: a series of woven tapestries with clumsy images of daily life very much alien among the other objects.
I wondered: What are they? Who made them? How did they end up here?
In 1951, architect Ramses Wissa Wassef together with his wife Sophie Gorgi, founded the educational institution Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Center in the Harrania district of Giza near the eponymous pyramids. Disheartened by the stifling routine education and the general decline of creativity in twentieth-century urban culture, they sought to teach young Egyptian villagers to weave tapestries to prove that creativity is innate and anyone can produce art. Wissa Wassef invited children who were isolated from many aspects of what he saw as “modern civilization” and taught them the craft as creative expression.The tapestries are internationally recognized since the late 1950s. Then twelve-year-old Ali Selim who made one of the tapestries held by the Stedelijk collection, still works at the center.
This introduction explores the framing and reframing of these six tapestries, drawing on critical contemporary voices and 1960s thinkers at work when Willem Sandberg acquired the tapestries as then Stedelijk director. Here I explore in brief Sandberg’s vision on free expression, how the children’s works related to his ideology, and where can we place the tapestries today.
The Ideal of Free Expression
Charmed by the philosophy behind the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Center experiment, Sandberg hosted the exhibition Jong Egypte Weeft (Young Egypt Weaves) in 1961 at the Fodor Museum, showing ninety tapestries woven by children at the center. Sandberg designed the catalogue and acquired six tapestries for the collection made by Rawhia Aly, Garya Mahmoud, Reda Metwalli, and Ali Selim.
When he first saw the tapestries, I can imagine he had the same reaction as I had and admired them for their material qualities. In his correspondence with Wissa Wassef about the exhibition Sandberg conveyed his excitement at seeing them hanging on the museum’s white walls elevating them as true works of art. Sandberg was fascinated by the pure expression of children and cultures that were “untouched by modernity” and that managed to preserve their “purity” against the distorted effect of bourgeois norms and values.
Expression, creativity, and vitality are key concepts in his definition of art.This notion of art led to a reappraisal that did not obey the classical canon and challenged formalism. Sandberg’s journey in 1949 to New York, Boston, Miami, Curaçao, Paramaribo, and especially Haiti introduced him to artists that he perceived as working outside this “Western” precept.
 See Hillary Weir, “Tapestry Weaving,” Embodied Wisdom, no. 262 (September / October 2010).
See Willem Sandberg, letter to R. Wissa Wassef, Amsterdam, February 7, 1962, Gemeente Amsterdam Stadsarchief, Stedelijk Museum archive.
 Caroline Roodenburg Schadd, Expressie En Ordening, het verzamelbeleid van Willem Sandberg voor het Stedelijk Museum, 1945-1962 (Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers, 2004), 344–96.
See Claartje Wesselink, “De reizende jonkheer. Museumdirecteur Willem Sandberg als cultureel diplomaat,” Virtus 22: 171–88.
Although Sandberg’s vision, rooted in its time, praises work by artists from outside Europe and North America, it also positions their art on the same level as that by children and outsider art, which he observed as having a similar spontaneous expression. Critics confront this view now and did so then: for instance, writer and former director of the Museum of American Popular Art in Santiago, Chili, Tomas Lago coined the term “instinctive painting” in the 1960s to endow a particular movement excluded from official circuits with a critical legibility in revaluating the aesthetic that had been discarded and labeled as “naïve” art, among other things. This local approach and terminology comprised an effort to challenge the historical colonial vision and hierarchies in Western art history by reclaiming the cultural values of creators who worked outside the Western art establishment.
We now no longer understand the museum as a space that represents the world, but as a mediator that constructs its own specific effects and knows that its actions—collecting, curating, making exhibitions, programing, etc.— have consequences. The museum does not merely reflect on the world but actually designs new outlooks and concepts that are generated through the particular instruments and abilities of the institution.So, how can we look at these tapestries today?
Influenced by postmodern and postcolonial tendencies that seek to decentralize the art world, in the last decades critics tried to lift distinguished categories of so-called “Western” and “non-Western” art. This dichotomy is in itself a Western invention,wherein the hegemonic concept of non-Western art is often assumed to be local whereas its counterpart is more or less universally accepted. And, unlike Sandberg, Pablo Picasso, and artists from the CoBrA movement, the free expressive style so appreciated in children’s art is no longer sought after. By his own admission, it took Picasso a lifetime of unlearning to discover how he could accomplish this expressiveness and vitality. As a medium, textile is often embedded within the social and political history at the time of production. The children’s tapestries were received as artworks in the 1960s and were never in a classificatory limbo. Rather than focusing on whether the tapestries are works of art and in which category they would fit, I’m interested in rethinking the gaze with which they were perceived.
There are some signature fiber artworks in the Stedelijk’s collection by pioneers as Sheila Hicks and Lenore Tawney. In the 1960s and 70s, both artists wanted to take the conversation away from craft to sculpture, challenging the gender bias that derived from the association of textiles with women and the domestic realm.However, to be able to take their textile practice further and to test the boundaries of the art world Hicks and Tawney employed craft techniques from all over the globe, from South America to India and North Africa. Travel became a tool for them to redefine the convention of flat tapestry and, just like Wissa Wassef, to experiment with weaving techniques which granted them access to the art world.
Even earlier, Wissa Wassef wanted to reinstate crafts in Egypt to make sure this tactile knowledge wouldn’t disappear amid a developing industrial society. Coming back to Egypt in 1935 after his studies in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts he observed how industrial technology had pushed aside traditional crafts and believed craftsmanship was perishing due to a lack of evolution. He thought regeneration would help revive it, and not only sought to revitalize weaving through the free expression of children that directly reflected on their own surroundings, but cultivate the plants needed for natural dyes on site at the center, using and preserving one of weaving’s most traditional methods. He had only three rules for the children: no preliminary sketches or drawings, no external aesthetic influences, and no critical interference from adults. Wissa Wassef considered weaving a means to hold onto craft skills and practices and engage with personal environments and histories. He also wanted to confront the modernist and conformist system of education that in his view created robots. In this way, the architect used his textile-making knowledge to critique the homogenizing effects of industrialization.
Similar to Hicks and Tawney, Wissa Wassef rendered the weaving technique a vehicle for change—an instrument to prove free expression—by giving weaving practice an extra dimension. Craft had previously functioned as a conceptual limit, as a polar opposite of art where artists shouldn’t go, but which, at the same time, was essential to the elevation of art. However, the combination of form, craft, and fiber added up to a resistance to the art world’s hierarchical conventions.
Textiles are now experiencing a revival in the art world with many young makers using them to shape their narratives and with pioneers like Hicks being re-evaluated. Their material specificities like pliancy and flexibility are reflected in how the medium is received—always shifting depending on the time and space. Knowledge too is flexible and constantly changing, which doesn’t imply that expertise is trivial, but that things and ideas were conceived in different times and spaces and can be approached from new perspectives.
Let Textiles Talk
Willem Sandberg and Ramses Wissa Wassef both seem to have had clear ideas on how to view these tapestries. Whereas Sandberg had a colonial vision on the purity of art made by children and artists outside Europe and North America, Wissa Wassef believed colonial educational systems suppressed the in-built energy of the creativity and innovation of children. However, both believed that free expression could only be maintained if it was protected from modernity. As Raisa Kabir elaborates in her essay, these geopolitical dimensions, power imbalances, and a Western demand for vitality catered to a signature aesthetic that is still perpetuated by the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Center.
To explore new perspectives that question former views, the research for Let Textiles Talk focuses on engagements with objects and materials as a productive way to discover these different viewpoints. This allows us to understand the tapestries in new ways and does not suggest a final truth for the objects: they can always be seen in a new light, within varied contexts and from multiple perspectives. With their materials and motifs closely interwoven with cultural and social histories across diverse locations, the tapestries provide a lens through which to explore cultural sameness and change.
Textiles as materials grounded in particular places trace migration, as Dorothy Akpene Amenuke shows us with her work How Far, How Near, engaging with cultural classifications consolidated by intercontinental trade and colonization indexed in the imaginary of the African continent. Referring to the historical fracture and kinship between cultures, Amenuke’s work provides a contemporary perspective on textile.
Juxtaposing the children’s tapestries together with other objects from the collection, like the works of Hicks, Tawney, and Amenuke, reveals further meanings and ways of knowledge production. Referring to my opening questions in addition to asking how the tapestries came into our collection, in what context and with what views, there is a need to ask how they belong in the collection now and in the future. The exhibition is not only concerned with how much was known or could be discovered about the tapestries, but ways of knowing, looking, and thinking about the works. This entails talking to Taya Doss, the granddaughter of Ramses Wissa Wassef, who now runs the still very successful art center, interviewing artist Dorothy Akpene Amenuke who emphasized that “textile is never innocent”, listening to weaver Ali Selim talk about how the experiment liberated young female weavers from the domestic confines, as well as diving into the material dimensions of the tapestries. Dynamic research is done in the museum not to protect established knowledge positions, but to constantly seek out other things to be known.
Due to their constant use and presence, textile triggers discussion and provides a means to place the past in dialogue with the present. The six tapestries considered in this exhibition might seem anomalous within the Stedelijk Museum collection, but nevertheless form a classic paradigm of how European institutions have collected art from outside Europe and North America as something “other”. Even if the tapestries are made by children, they are constitutive in that they have power to enact individual and collective expression as vessels for communication. What do they say to you?