From the remote reaches of the Darien Gap, a roadless jungle of tropical rainforest on the border of Panama and Columbia, the indigenous Wounaan basket weavers produce museum-quality works of contemporary art sought by collectors for their beauty, craftsmanship and tradition.
“There are no cultures anywhere in the world, past or present, who have made baskets as fine as these artists make,” says Clive Kincaid of Designer Imports, Inc. Kincaid has traveled to Panama multiple times a a year since 1998 and has bought more than 20,000 baskets to import for sale in the U.S. He still marvels at the artistry of the work, where one square inch of basketry may contain 1,000 to 1,600 stitches.
The Wounaan master weavers, most of whom are women, have spent the past few decades expanding the scope and artistry of their traditional utilitarian baskets. Sewing by hand palm fibers dyed with what the jungle has to offer, they have incorporated geometric designs found in their culture’s body-painting tradition and created complicated pictoral designs.
“They’ve done what no other cultural group has done in the world,” Kincaid says. “Most weavers around the globe are limited to three or four colors, a bleached white, black, brownish orange and yellow,” Kincaid says. “In the case of the Wounaan, they live in an extremely productive rainforest and they have gone out and tried to find colors they can fix. They fix the colors by cooking roots, fruits, flowers and leaves with fire ash. With that they have created an incredible palette of colors to put into their baskets.”
Kincaid says the finely stitched and colorful baskets are further set apart by the intricate and complicated design work. “Since they branched out over 200 years ago from geometric designs, they are now able with an incredible amount of ability and expertise to create birds, animals, flowers and trees,” he says. “Some of the big baskets will have a diorama of the jungle on a single basket.”
Living a beautiful but simple life in the remote jungle, a weaver may work from two months to two years on a single basket. Baskets range in size from three inches in diameter to up to 20 inches.
“The basket design grows from the bottom out so the weaver has to have the entirety of design in her mind when she starts,” Kincaid says. “It takes a lot of imagination. A weaver must be very clever, very astute and quite determined in order to make it work. It really is an amazing phenomenon.”
The baskets of the Wounaan are waiting for you to discover and examine at the Oldest House Indian Shop at 215 East De Vargas Street, Santa Fe. Stop by today.