The Beauty and Wonder of Rainforest Baskets

By , August 18, 2009

I first read about Wounaan handmade Hösig Di™ basketry from Panama, in ARTNews. I was immediately taken with the beauty and geometry of their graphic patterns. I had been looking for something unique for a project I was finishing and I felt that the baskets could be perfect. Overall, the home was very traditional but the media room was to be a more contemporary space. I had the opportunity to bring in something more rustic and handmade. We had already done the entire estate with refined decorative arts and had used almost every type of beautiful accessory imaginable.  I was searching for something truly unique that worked well with the color scheme of red, olive and pale gold.

The clients had collected wonderful things in their travels, including a rain stick and an assortment of African masks, which I wanted to use in this room.  These baskets had a natural connection. When they arrived, I fell in love with them and the client did too! Having an eye for very fine things, she was impressed with the incredible quality and caliber of the basketry.

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Traditionally, these baskets did not include complex motifs but were more utilitarian, although it seems no one is sure what the baskets were originally used for – some tribal elders says they held treasure. The move from traditional to the current patterns can be attributed to a very few Wounaan Indian women who challenged themselves to create something much more beautiful.

 Beautiful symmetry

 The bottom of these baskets are inticrate and exciting on their own.  A collection of these hung on a wall so that the bottom shows would make a breathtaking display.

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The Wounaan name for the original, traditional coil-construction baskets made of palm fiber is hösig di.  To create their contemporary baskets, weavers sew silk-fine strands of the black palm Astrocaryum standleyanum, called chunga, and color these with vegetal and organic dyes.  These are then woven over a coil structure of Carludovica palmate, called naguala. 

An amazing pattern

An amazing pattern

As noted on the Rainforestbaskets.com web site, ever since Wounaan basketry took the giant leap from depicting simple, crude motifs to the pervasive use of intricate cultural designs enveloping virtually all available space, weavers have created mental mazes for themselves. Indeed, many basket designs are today so complex and intertwined that keeping the stitch-by-stitch ramblings in check is a daunting task that requires intense concentration and precision. Each unique basket takes anywhere from 30 to 34 months to complete.

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Starting knot made of palm fibers

Starting knot made of palm fibers

The chunga  is one of the most defensive plants in Panama’s Darién rainforest. It protects itself with vicious spines up to six inches long. Only the young, tender emerging leaves at the top of its spiny trunk are used to create hösig di.  Historically, the entire tree had to be felled, and its trunk was either used or left to become more organic material on the forest floor.  As weavers and village leaders began to recognize the potential for economic disaster if the chunga palms were decimated, increasingly sustainable harvesting practices—such as the use of tall ladders leaning a safe distance from the fierce, impaling spines, scythe-like blades attached to long poles, and replanting—are being developed and implemented. 

Chunga is so closely linked to Wounaan tradition and daily life, that experts say each basket begins its creation with an inherent spiritual quality.  In fact, in an article written by Stuart Warner and published in the summer 1996 issue of Native Peoples magazine, he refers to the Wounaan as “spirit weavers.”

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These baskets are perfect examples of eco-friendly fine art.  The Wounaan tribe has long understood the need for the sustainability of their lands.  With Northern values encroaching more on their culture in recent years, they’ve realized the value of connecting more with the outside world in a way that would bring support to the tribe, without the risk of losing their ancient arts.  The people at Rainforest Baskets are encouraging the tribe to continue with this unique art form by bringing these baskets to us. Their  goal is to support the acquisition and educational needs of discriminating collectors, museums, and select galleries throughout the developed world. I encourage you to watch this video explaining the wonderful spiritual connection these artisans have with their world.

The texture of these baskets is exquisite. They are both fine and sensuous to touch. When you rub your hand over the basket, it feels like a very fine silk yarn was used. The Wounaan Indians have been quietly and expertly weaving these baskets for thousands of years. Only recently have they become accessible to the Western World.

You can learn more about these wonderful artisans and their craft here.

 All the best to you,

Jane

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