From time immemorial, among the men of the Wounaan tribe, carving has always been an activity of vital importance and their skill at fashioning graceful wooden objects, such as their elegant canoes, or sublime healing staffs of the ben’kun (shaman), make it no wonder that today’s Wounaan tagua nut carvers are able to reach such fineness of form and breathtaking sculptural composition.
These traditional wood carvers have developed a sculptural art form unique in the world and in a material which is also singularly unique. Although many have heard of the well-rendered, little sculptures of the Japanese tradition, called netsuke, where animal ivory is used as the raw material, few people are aware of what the Wounaan of Panama are creating in a somewhat similar material. The Wounaan artists’ works are similarly intimate and richly detailed miniatures – but, instead of being made from animal ivory, they are carved from a VEGETABLE form of “ivory” called tagua. Tagua comes from the nut, or seed, of an endemic palm species (Phytelephas macrocarpa) which grows in their territory.
The natural colour, texture and surface tones of tagua are so much like those of animal ivory, that tagua’s attributes have earned it the nickname “vegetable ivory”. When the artists add colour to their works, it is executed with either India inks or natural dyes and pigments. The subject matter of these tiny sculptures explores the different species of local fauna and flora, in different poses and positions characteristic of such animals and foliage. The species seen in these compositions are all typical of the natural habitat of the Wounaan homeland – dense jungle, interior rivers and mangroves as well as the waters of the Pacific Ocean. It is remarkable to think that all of these works were created solely by hand – no mechanized process has been employed in the rendering of these exquisite works.
Some pieces are one-nut sculptures i.e. a composition executed within the confines of a tagua nut’s natural size, which can range from a small hen’s egg to a medium-sized potato. Other larger, more elaborate works require more than one nut and the sculptor artfully fuses several pieces of tagua together seamlessly. It is an honour and a privilege to be able to offer fine arts collectors and lovers of the wild this extraordinary art form from the hands of the best proponents of the tradition such as the internationally recognized Cheucarama family carvers (see our Wounaan basket collection under the category “Chunga and tagua fusion baskets” to view the Cheucarama family tagua carvers’ collaboration with the weavers of fine chunga palm leaf baskets creating an innovative style involving these two native materials fused in a single work). All works are signed by the artist.
Even though most of these pieces are unique and non-repeated compositions, when a tagua carving in our catalogue sells, bear in mind that the same piece can be re-created by the artist on request resulting in a near perfect copy of the original piece.