The women weavers of the Wounaan tribe, as well as many of the Emberá tribe of the Darien region of Panama are arguably creators of the finest handmade baskets in the world. This exquisite art form has developed over the years evolving from their age-old hösig di (the term for chunga palm (Astrocaryum standleyanum) baskets in Wounmeo, the language of the Wounaan) baskets made from the split, young leaves of the culturally important chunga palm and which then is coloured with natural dyes. The fineness of these baskets require that a spine or needle be used to weave them and once stitched, each strand of chunga is pulled very taut over the internal and bundled naguala palm fibre strands creating a remarkably strong wall. The tightness of the stitch and strength of the walls of these works gives an appearance of solidity at times alluding to that of pottery vessels.
There are a variety of stitch techniques, from the very fine and smooth, skin-like finish of the ‘combed silk stitch’, to the weaving seen in ‘rolls’ called the medio doblado stitch. Vegetable and mineral dyes are used to colour the strands before they are stitched into the basket. The cream colour that one sees in these baskets is the natural colour of the dried and split chunga leaf. In any colour tone, however, in which the strands are dyed or left natural, the most remarkable aspect of the chunga palm is the unique attribute of the surface of this material. It possesses its own natural “varnish” resulting in a visible shine on the basket’s surface.
There are several forms of basket work that are created: from the typical ‘pot’ or vessel type to plates and disks and even figures and masks. Regarding the decorative themes employed, these fall into two categories: 1. tribal designs and 2. flora and fauna.
Tribal Designs: This category of basket decoration is the older, original type. Many of these designs are derivative from their traditional body painting (called ki’paar in Wounmeo – a jungle henna extracted from a fruit and mixed with a measure of ashes which men and women apply to their bodies).
Flora and Fauna Designs: These are mostly stylized animal and plant design elements in direct reference to the local flora and fauna of the Darien. The regions where the Wounaan and Emberá live cover jungle tracts, rivers, as well as coastal waters (Pacific Ocean).
Very recently, an unprecedented new basket-type has emerged. It is a chunga-tagua nut fusion basket which incorporates these two materials allowing for a collaboration between the women – predominantly the basket weavers – and the men – predominantly the tagua nut, or ivory nut carvers (see our catalogue of the Wounaan carved tagua nut sculpture). Curiously, these new baskets are reminiscent of the native Inupiaq’s whale baleen and animal ivory combination baskets from northern Alaska.
Knowing some background about this basket weaving tradition makes one appreciate more the visual and structural marvel and testimony of human creative expression that these works truly represent. Dancing is very important in the Wounaan and Emberá tribes’ culture.