Just beyond the shadows of the ancient Egyptian pyramids of Giza, generations of children have been handcrafting tapestries from woolen thread and weaving looms, weaving scenes from their tiny farming village into works of art treasured by galleries, museums and collectors for the innocence of their childhood perspective.
Their simple yet fanciful textiles show colorful images of animals and trees, birds and streams, plants and people, each crafted from natural dyes.
This month, David Williams of Sonoma brings dozens of the original tapestries to a new exhibit opening at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, “An Accomplishment in Creativity: The Egyptian Children’s Tapestries.”
The 80-year-old entrepreneur, avid salsa dancer and former engineer is an authority on the tapestries created by children in the remote Coptic Christian village in the Nile River Valley that, until recent decades, hadn’t seen change for 2,000 years.
It’s where Ramses Wissa Wassef, an innovative Egyptian architect and artist, conducted an experiment in 1952 to test his belief that people are innately creative. He built a studio in Harrania, an area untouched by outside influences, and invited 12 village children to learn basic weaving skills and then work without criticism or commentary from adults.
His effort “was a transformative agent for the village,” said Williams, one of the world’s leading experts on Harranian tapestries. “His intention wasn’t to create child artists, but artists period.”
The experiment was a huge success and, in time, the tapestries were declared Egyptian national treasures, even given to Nixon and Kissinger during Harbinger of Peace efforts. Some 20 studios were established in the area, creating a community of tapestry artists, renewing interest in the ancient art form and providing villagers with income beyond traditional farming.
During a 40-year period that started with a 1963 trip to Egypt to visit a friend, Williams built a collection of some 200 tapestries from young weavers at Wissa Wassef Art Center, the original studio.
“A couple dozen of them are so exquisite that I just love them,” Williams said. “They bring back memories of adventures in Egypt.”
The collection includes textiles of various skill levels, from novice to more advanced creations as the child weavers gained experience. Some took several months to complete and could command prices exceeding $15,000.
The children always have been paid for their craftsmanship, both as reward and encouragement for their developing abilities.
“Weaving is slow and painstaking. It takes time to develop individual skills,” Williams said. “Overall, the quality of the work has significant influence.”
It was perhaps serendipity that Williams discovered the tapestries at all.
When he and his late wife Dolores were young students at the University of Chicago and living in a rough neighborhood on the city’s south side, they made it a practice to know their neighbors. Dolores baked a cake, and the couple knocked on an adjacent apartment door to greet some new neighbors, newlyweds from Egypt.
“They were so happy to see happy faces,” Williams said. “They became our closest friends in the two years they were our neighbors. It was the beginning of a long-term friendship.”
When the couple returned to Cairo, the friendship became international. On their first visit to Egypt, Williams and his wife were introduced to the children’s tapestries of Harrania.