Exhibition Research: Let Textiles Talk
Meeting the Collection
by Amanda Pinatih
Started on February 3, 2020: my first day as a design curator at the Stedelijk Museum after years of working as a freelance curator. I had made exhibitions in lots of different places, from a parking lot in Eindhoven to a traditional Japanese house on the small island of Dejima or a mobile museum in the homegrown neighbourhood of Dharavi. This February, I travelled to Marrakech for two weeks to make an exhibition for the project ONE SQUARE METER BERBER in Palais Bahia, a project I committed to before starting at the Stedelijk. When I came back, I greatly looked forward to working at the museum, in an office with lots of colleagues, gaining new experiences. But then Covid-19 hit the Netherlands, and after only a week of working in the office, we were all sent home…
So how, as a newly appointed curator, do you get to know a museum collection from home? Thankfully, the online database encloses the entire museum collection: over 100,000 objects of which more than 50,000 of them belong to the design collection, in my and my colleagues care. So, with a cup of strong coffee and a fresh pair of eyes, on morning I started to look into this design collection. While scrolling through the numerous objects, six works caught my eye. Their tactile presence stuck out, and made them so distinct from other works in the collection: even digitally, you can almost feel their materiality when looking at the photographs. Although there is only a small black and white image per tapestry available in the database, the tapestries have quite a presence. Who made these textiles, and why are they in the Stedelijk’s collection? Are among the questions that immediately sprung to mind.
After some googling, I discovered that the tapestries were made by children at the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Center. In 1951, Egyptian architect and educator Ramses Wissa Wassef embarked on an experiment in creativity that would be widely praised by prominent figures in the art world at the time, including then Stedelijk director Willem Sandberg, artist Etel Adnan and philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Wassef wanted to prove that creativity is innate; that anyone can make art. He was disheartened by the general decline of creativity in 20th-century urban culture and found routine education stifling. So, he founded the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Center and chose “uninhibited” young children who were isolated from many aspects of what he saw as “modern civilization” and taught them to weave as a form of creative expression. The Center still exists, and the tapestries have been internationally recognized since the late 1950s.
Willem Sandberg shared Wassef’s fascination with what he saw as the free expression of children and bought six tapestries from the exhibition Jong Egypte Weeft in the Fodor Museum in 1961-62, which he organised and designed the catalogue for. They have been in our collection ever since, not seeing much daylight as they have only been showed a couple of times after coming back from their tour to three museums in Norway in 1962.
This is Entry 1 of the Research Log that follows the development of the exhibition Let Textiles Talk, on view at the Stedelijk Museum from November 13, 2021.
Screenshot of Adlib Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam collection, made by Amanda Pinatih on 27 May 2021