All of our Chunga Rounds are handwoven by the Wounaan/Embera tribespeople of the Darien Rainforest in Panama before they are adorned and turned into wall hangings by our team here in our Byron Bay studio.
Basketry is one of the oldest crafts. It is likely that every culture has used plant fibers to make containers and other utilitarian objects. The Wounaan and Emberá women of Panamá have taken their traditional basketry skills and refined and developed the craft to produce some of the most unique and finely wrought plant fiber art to be found among modern basket artists.
Each Wounaan or Emberá basket/plate is a one-of-kind piece and is the result of many hours of labor as well as an expression of the artist’s own individual talent and artistic vision. The basket is also a repository of cultural information. Basket designs often incorporate religious symbols or representations of cultural artifacts or the artist’s natural environment.
Otis Tufton Mason, in his classic work American Indian Basketry, says of the indigenous basket maker:
Her patterns are in her soul, in her memory and imagination, in the mountains, watercourses, lakes, and forests, and in those tribal tales and myths which dominate the actions of every hour. She hears suggestions from another world.
Recently Wounaan and Emberá women have begun to cater to foreign basket buyers who often prefer non-traditional baskets with bright pictorial designs. While some of these picture baskets feature animals, plants and birds of the rainforest, others depict scenes that the basket maker has seen only in pictures – underwater coral reef scenes for example. These colorful “tourist” baskets usually exhibit great technical skill and are beautiful pieces of art but don’t always reflect Wounaan and Emberá culture.
Older geometric or simple figure basket designs, on the other hand, have a cultural meaning that is often derived from traditional body painting designs used in puberty or during ceremonies or designs painted on boats and altars to facilitate communication with the spirits.
We worked closely with our weavers to come up with our range. It’s rare now to find weavings of the geometric kind – depicting ceremonial body paintings, landscapes, tales, and myths. Yet these are the ones we love! The irregularity and unique combinations, a sporadic dot here or cross there. Their beauty yes, but also their status as a cultural artifact! These plates are rich with story. With history.
A Wounaan or Emberá basket starts with harvesting the basket materials. Decorative baskets are made from two types of plant fiber. The Chunga or black palm (astrocaryum slandleyanum) and the Nahuala or “Panama hat” plant (carludovica palmata). Material harvesting often requires a long and sometimes dangerous trek into the rainforest.
Once the palm fibers have been obtained they must be processed. First, they are dried and bleached in the sun and split to the appropriate thickness. The Chunga fiber used for the sewing material is then colored with natural plant dyes. Fiber processing is time-consuming and requires a great deal of skill and knowledge as well as access to a variety of dye plants and space to carry out the procedures.
Dyeing the Chunga fibers involves complex recipes to obtain the desired colors. Black requires boiling fibers with shavings of cocobolo wood, then burying them in mud for several days. Yuquilla root (turmeric) provides shades of yellow, mustard and gold. The “pucham” (Arrabidaea chica) leaf is a common and useful dye material since it combines with other substances to produce a variety of colors. The dried leaves of pucham with ashes produce a rust-brown; used alone it gives a soft violet-pink shade. The “Solomon” plant ( probably a Justicia species) is also used in various combinations to produce colors such as blue, green, purple and grey. Teak leaves give rust with slight cooking and a purple-brown with more cooking. Another common dye material is the fruit of the “jagua” tree (Genipa Americana) which is used for traditional body painting and provides a blue-black color. The bark of “jobo” (Spondias) has been discovered to produce a pleasing tan.
In Wounaan and Emberá basketry, the fibers of the Nahuala plant are used for the foundation while strands of the finer Chunga palm are used as the sewing material.
Since the actual form of the basket is a spiral, achieving symmetrical shape is quite difficult and the mark of a skilled basket maker. The maker must also keep track of the various strands of colored Chunga fiber as she counts stitches and chooses the appropriate colors at the appropriate times so that her design develops according to the pattern intended.
We are honored to be able to work so closely with our Panamanian family in coming up with a range that heralds traditional designs. We are proud to be able to continue working with them, providing them with a living wage and propagating emblems of cultural authenticity.