Panamá's Wounaan Indian Baskets - "The Best Baskets in the World"
January 08 2014
There likely does not exist a finer basket in the world than the Wounaan baskets. Intense natural colors, intricate designs and exceptionally fine weave make these remarkable creations from the Darién Rainforest of Panamá one of the rarest and most highly-regarded art forms across the globe.
A Collection of Fine Wounaan Hösig di Baskets
Wounaan Weaver in traditional dress with basket
Although I was in Panamá in1998, I didn't discover these baskets until I was back in America. My favorite fair trade art gallery in Costa Rica, Galería Namu, first featured them in their eNewsletter 9 years ago and for me it was love at first inbox click. The delicate weave and vibrant patterns entranced me, and the story of the gifted women who create them intrigued me. It became my mission to acquire one - which I did back in October of last year. I also scooped up a few for the shop to appease other amateurs of beauty and rare art, like you.
A typical day at work!
The Wounaan tribe, which number only about 8,000, inhabit around 15 villages in a beautiful and fragile corner of our planet - the Darién Rainforest. Woven from the leaves of the chunga palm over horizontal strands of naguala fibres, the motifs of the baskets reflect their culture and their surroundings.
Wounaan baskets have been produced for 100s of years by the women of the tribe. The art has been handed down from mother to daughter since the earliest times and, over much of their history, the primary use of these baskets was utilitarian or ritual. In more recent years the craft has evolved to include the intricate, museum-quality baskets that are heralded today.
The process to make a basket is labor intensive starting with harvesting young leaves from the chunga palm. Tribes people will travel great distances to find the sacred tree whose trunk is covered with fierce six-inch spines. The further the distance traveled the greater the risk of encounters with the world's most venomous snake as well as Colombian guerrillas, kidnappers and drug traffickers. During these missions, the shaman, women elders and tribal leaders pray, dance and chant to ensure their safe return.
Spines on a chunga palm
The chunga leaflet, once the epidermis is stripped away, is a creamy white. To create color, women and children gather roots, leaves and berries for making dyes. A weaver will typically boil dye plants over an open fire for one to two hours until the color reaches the desired intensity. She then adds the wet skins of the thinly peeled chunga and allows it to boil for several more hours.
The beginning steps of a Wounaan basket
Thirty-three is the average age of a weaver, and those who reach the pinnacle of the craft are considered master weavers. These weavers are able to take the silk-like strands of the palm fiber and transform them with precise detail into jewel-toned butterflies, lush orchids or geometric patterns (and they do this all upside down!). An exceptionally fine, tightly woven basket 10-inches tall can take a weaver up to a year to complete. Very large baskets that are 20 inches or taller can take two to three years. Some of the finest small baskets can work in as many as 60-70 stitches per inch.
As our world gets smaller and life in remote Darien becomes less tolerable and unsafe, more families are relocating to other villages or to Panama City. The future of this art is unknown as the Wounaan youth get seduced by the allure of Western ways and , in some cases, forfeit their chance to join the ranks of the world's finest weavers.
However, in the meantime, it is fortunate that such a tradition still does exist today and that we get the chance to appreciate the exceptional art that is celebrated the world over.
The three baskets that I curated for the shop!
I am introducing these rare baskets to the shop by making available to start 3 small remarkable specimens. They are certain to enchant the lucky collector as well as all who see them!