A gentleman entered the gallery recently; he was on a business trip in San Jose. He said he had missed his 7 year old daughter’s birthday and wanted to get her something very special. I showed him little boxes and mirrors and Native dolls, but none of these hit the spot because he was too absorbed by the case of carved tagua as though they were mesmerizing him. He grinned and said he wanted to get her an exquisite ‘vegetable ivory’ carving yet was unsure as to why he was so drawn to them for his little girl but just felt convinced that they would enchant her. That sent me spinning off into my own reverie which took me quite by surprise and it was as follows. When I was a little girl in Ireland my aunt had an amazing collection of miniature glass animals displayed on a glass tray which she actually allowed me to play with. My wee fantasies would have me cavorting with penguins and unicorns, monkeys and giraffes and the like. I was in awe of these little transparent wonders and I treated them with reverence and care. I too was no more than 7 years of age.
Suddenly what had seemed to be, perhaps, a somewhat sophisticated choice of gift for a youngster became a charmed choice, unusual and precious all at once. I told my visitor my own experience and he didn’t seem at all surprised. Now came the fun part: his decision – and you’d probably like to know what he chose. He was particularly fascinated by the purity of natural, unpainted carved tagua and chose a lovely, delicate hummingbird pendant. This dainty bird was carved in a pose as if flitting wide-winged in the air. A perfect choice! And I imagine that in just a few years time he would buy her a pair of matching earrings.
To clarify what vegetable ivory is, it refers to the fruit/seed of an endemic palm tree, Phytelephas – meaning “plant elephant,” the genus of this palm tree, named after the nuts of the trees which when dried out have all the properties of elephant (tusk) ivory. Given the welfare concerns for elephant populations it is wonderful to be able to own the beauty of ivory in a sustainable form. So many benefits are generated from this crop, both in the contribution of enchantment to the world of art, and in the stimulation of local tropical economies, and one which does not include the felling of trees. Indigenous tribes living around the equatorial areas of Panama, Colombia and Ecuador reap the benefits of using this crop for export as well as for carving.
To return to the topic of carving tagua, I would like to mention an interesting phenomenon that I have observed as I become more acquainted with these sculptures made by native Wounaan men using this material. A dramatic aspect is revealed in the perspective and powers of observation which are brought to bear in the realization of these works of art. As well, they are a striking reminder of just how intimately familiar with the natural world these artists are. I am reminded of the rather stodgy, stuffy and academic rendering of birds by John James Audubon. His work was brilliant, but coldly brilliant as his inert creatures graced the paper with studied indifference.
These carved tagua artists – and I write of those I know best – are men of the Wounaan tribe of the Darien region of Panama. They create these carved tagua pieces exuberant with life and immediacy. Their work can be as small as a little poison dart frog hiding under a delicate leaf on the forest floor, or as extravagant as a foot-long work of a boa constrictor curling slyly around a branch. It should be noted that the small pieces are made from one single nut whereas larger pieces are made up of 3, 5 or more tagua nuts in an assemblage using a bond made from the dust of the tagua nut itself.
You can see all of these carved tagua pieces on our website within the main collection Wounaan Carved Tagua. Rediscover your inner child as your eyes delight in the magic of the world of miniature.
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