Wounaan and Embera Baskets: Indigenous Art from Panama
When travelling, most people look for a little something to bring back home to remember such a wonderful trip. If you’re thinking about what to bring from Panama, search no more! Panama’s Wounaan and Embera baskets are probably the most unique and genuine pieces of art you’ll find in this fascinating country and you can fit them right in your luggage! The Wounaan and Embera Baskets are a living vestige of the culture and traditions of Panama’s indigenous tribes of the Darien Rainforest. Typically woven by the Wounaan and Embera women, they have taken their traditional basketry skills and transformed these once household items into some of the finest contemporary baskets in the world made from natural materials and natural dyes from the Darien, the second largest rainforest in the American continent.
A little on the Wounaan, the Embera and the Darien…
The Wounaan and the Embera are two indigenous groups that were once referred to as “Choco” tribe because they shared a similar riverside rainforest culture and both came from the Choco Department in neighboring Colombia.
In Panama, the Wounaan and the Embera have traditionally lived in the Darien Province, a land so difficult to access that even today the Pan-American Highway stops at the town of Yaviza in Panama for a long 106 km gap (known as the “Darien Gap”) and is the only section between Alaska in the north and Tierra de Fuego to the south that is still missing. Nevertheless the Wounaan and the Embera have suited their lifestyle to the harsh Darien Rainforest and, regardless of the difficult conditions, have managed to obtain everything they need from the same forest that gives them a home and shelter, including the primary materials for their stunning Wounaan and Embera Baskets.
Today, the once isolated groups have come more and more in touch with the mainstream society, and tourists in particular, opening their communities and welcoming “strangers” to learn more about their ways and customs, preserved over centuries since pre-Columbian times. You can actually find community-based indian village tours, which are really awesome opportunities for a genuine cultural exchange.
The Wounaan and Embera Baskets start with the harvesting of the raw materials. The harvesting requires lots of time and dangerous hikes into the rainforest. A fascinating fact about the baskets of the Wounaan and the Embera is that they come from the most dangerous tree for the unwary hiker in the Darien, the chunga or black palm tree, which has very sharp spines that can reach over 6 inches in length. They also harvest the nahuala or “Panama hat” plant and the natural dyes obtained from leaves, roots, bark, mud, etc.
The materials are then processed, requiring the skill and knowledge the Emberas and Wounaans have perfected over the years. The fibers are dried and bleached in the sun and split to the thickness needed, while the dyes are treated and “cooked” according to the shades and colors wanted for a particular design.
The Weaving : Patterns of the Wounaan and Embera Soul
Each Wounaan and Embera Basket is a one of a kind piece and is the result of many, many hours of labor as well as the particular expression of the artist, her own talent and her artistic vision coming right from her own personal and cultural experiences. The basket is in fact an expression of their culture, portraying symbols, religious elements and depictions of their natural environment, what they know: the rainforest. The patterns come from their imagination, their memory, their soul and the world that surrounds them: rivers, mountains, a lush forest and the life within.
Although the Wounaan and the Embera have different, very skilled, techniques for basket-making, they are best known for their artistic coiled baskets, or hösig di. The fibers of the nahuala plant are used as the foundation and the chunga fibers, being a bit finer, are used as the sewing material and together starting from the bottom begin to form a spiral shape. The bottom of the basket is probably the most complex portion of the design, and usually the artist imprints her “signature” in the bottom (a turtle, a butterfly, or some other pattern); some baskets are actually so beautiful in the base that are best displayed upside down!
As the spiral begins to unravel, the artist must be very careful, and patient, while the shape and design come to life. The hardest is to achieve a symmetrical shape, a challenge for the most skilled craftsman done on a regular basis by these amazing women artists. Using different techniques and types of coil, dyed fibers to create their simple yet impressive patterns and the finishing touches that make each basket unique and special produce some of the most refined utilitarian works of art in the whole world.
Buying baskets of the Wounaan and Embera Indians from Panama’s Darien Rainforest not only helps them to make a living but lets you to take a piece of their soul and a piece of Panama’s essence back home.
You can find them in the artisan markets located in Panama City and the surrounding, but there is nothing like buying a piece of art directly from an artist themselves which is possible if visiting the Wounaan village.