Where is the Darién Rainforest?
The Darién Rainforest is actually the Darién Province, some of it is Darién National Park, and it is located in the eastern portion of Panamá, Central America, between Costa Rica and Colombia. This rainforest should not be confused with the Amazon of South America. The border of Panamá creates the southern-most end of Central America. Colombia is in South America. The western portion of the Darién is flanked by the Pacific Ocean. Some villages are coastal, and some are on tidal rivers not far from the ocean. There are no Wounaan villages flanking the Caribbean.
Are the people who make the baskets the same as the people who make the reverse appliqué fabrics called molas?
No. The people who make the molas are the “Kuna,” who live in “Kuna Yalla” near on the Caribbean coast and islands. The people who weave the baskets are actually two tribal groups:
The Wounaan—numbering about 8,000, who live in about 15 villages as well as in a small enclaves surrounding Panamá City. The Emberá—numbering about 20,000
Hundreds of years ago these people began to migrate from their homeland in the Chocó region of Colombia northward into what is today the Darién Rainforest. As a result, anthropologists collectively labeled this group “Chocó.” Colombian Wounaan continue to flee violence in their country and escape into Panamá. In the mid and latter part of the 20th Century, the Chocó were finally recognized by their individual tribal names. The Wounaan and Emberá languages are distinctly different, and their villages in the Darién are composed largely of one tribal group, but intermarriage is changing that linguistic and cultural landscape.
Which group makes the finest baskets, Wounaan or Emberá?
Curators and collectors credit the Wounaan as being the superior weavers. Though it’s not very complimentary, some have called the Wounaan originators of fine art, while the Emberá are the imitators. But some individual Emberá weavers have achieved high levels of skill. Basketry by Wounaan weavers in Colombia, from which they migrated, has changed little in the last several decades, while the basketry of the Panamá Wounaan has achieved world-class status.
How do these baskets get from the weavers to me, and who imports them?
We work directly with Wounaan weavers. Rainforestbaskets.com® was launched in 2002 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The goals of Rainforestbaskets.com® evolved over time, but clearly the overlying focus was to convert perception of Wounaan basketry from craft to art; help collectors learn about the people and the basket-making process; develop “artists,” rather than merely purchase baskets from weavers [this, we came to learn, meant creating an “artist-patron” relationship]; develop collector markets for the finest Hösig Di; broaden exposure of this art form through fine galleries and museums; curate a world-premiere museum exhibition on the culture and the art form.
But what does the weaver get out of it?
Rainforestbaskets.com honors the price a weaver sets. You can be assured that the baskets we specially commission are always “fairly traded.” We have achieved this goal by creating an artist-patron relationship. We work directly with weavers and their families, actively supporting them throughout the months and years that it takes to make just one museum-quality basket. We do not feel it is necessary nor appropriate for a weaver to wait six months, a year or two to be compensated for the work she’s done. Further, weavers are intelligent women, educated at least through the 6th grade, and they know the value of their work in U.S. dollars. That increasing numbers of men are taking to weaving is a testament that basketry is becoming more lucrative than carving and many forms of menial labor.
In fact: Panamá weavers appear to be the most highly compensated of Third World craftspeople and artists. Weavers set their own prices. American dollars are the currency of exchange in Panamá, even in remote villages. Weavers now command and receive thousands of dollars for highest-quality baskets. Rainforestbaskets.com® believes that the artist-patron relationship goes beyond “fair trade” and is a humanitarian way to work.
What is the history of the Panamá baskets?
Briefly, the Wounaan are believed to have made utilitarian, undecorated baskets since earliest times, perhaps as long as a thousand years. But no one knows for certain, as fibrous archaeological material does not survive rainforest climates. However, the fine Hösig Di (as the Wounaan call their baskets) created from chunga, the black palm fiber, with decorative motifs are a fairly recent phenomenon.
Missionaries and linguists Ron and Kathy Binder, sent to live with the Wounaan and study their language, Panamá gallery owner Llori Gibson (with several partners), and Stuart Warner (earliest full-scale exporter of their basketry) should be credited for encouraging development of a salable craft about 25 years ago as a way to help the Wounaan become economically viable and self-sufficient. This powerful catalyst of the 1980s is directly responsible for the creation of the art form so coveted today. Those of us who work closely with the Wounaan do convey the tastes and desires of the Western collector when we specially commission works. But mastery of the art form belongs to the Wounaan.
I think I’ll just take a vacation in Panamá and save a lot of money by buying baskets directly from the weavers.
In Panamá City, you can visit galleries and department stores, such as “Gran Morrison,” that carry baskets. Darién baskets are offered in several artesania centers of Panamá City as well as by vendors in the Canal Zone. You will notice, however, that the high-quality artworks aren’t there. The finest pieces are spoken for in advance. You might call them “pre-sold.” They are specially commissioned and never see the shops and booths where small- and medium-sized baskets may be purchased.
The RainforestBasket Collection consists of authentic, museum-quality and collector-quality works that are pre-sold and come directly from the artist to Rainforestbaskets.com®. There is a Latin phrase we like to share with anyone who would make purchases in Panamá, “caveat emptor.” Simply put, “Buyer beware.” There are a growing number of fakes and knock-offs sold in these places, and even an expert would be challenged to recognize the difference. Kuna Indians and Panamanian colonos are pushing their imitations, and vendors are profiting shamelessly from this deceptive practice. They’re that good!
There are also buyers from the States who frequent these artesanias to make their purchases, and they, in turn, are introducing fakes and knock-offs into the various markets here, on eBay, and even in galleries unfamiliar with the origin of a given work. If authenticity concerns you, be especially cautious of the phrase,”unknown weaver.” That’s precisely why we go to such great lengths to document our artworks‹ creation from inception through completion. In the art business, this is known as “provenance.”
If you’re contemplating a trip to the Darién, first check travel warnings issued by The U.S. Department of State. Many remote villages have been for quite some time and remain off limits to non-indigenous peoples because of recurrent and violent Colombian guerrilla activity. Raids into villages have resulted in rape, kidnapping and murder. Guerrillas do not discriminate, and the Wounaan and Emberá are at risk as much as foreigners who make international news when taken as hostages across the border. A gallery owner from the States was recently murdered in Panamá.
Because the Panamanian government does not want to risk more international incidents and bad press, and casual visitors to the Darién are closely monitored and prohibited from areas of high risk. There are several villages (one of them Emberá) that are safe and welcome tourists brought by tour or adventure-travel companies, such as ANCON.
Weavers are not pushovers. They recognize the value of their work. Don’t expect to pay $10 for a basket for which the weaver has put in $1,000 worth of work, or $300 for a basket for which the weaver’s been guaranteed $3,000. The artist-patron relationship that we prefer has demonstrated to weavers that long-time sponsorships with personal representatives who pre-buy their works offer far more security than the lure of a one-time sales pop.
Will my basket be worth more in the future?
Purchase art because you love it, not because you anticipate it will increase in value. That said, since demand is increasing for Wounaan Hösig Di basketry and supply is necessarily limited, prices are also increasing. You may have noticed that these increases from year to year have been substantial.
We may have some insights into the future of Wounaan Hösig Di by looking at what has happened with vintage and antique Native American basket values. They continue to astonish, fetching thousands to tens of thousands for even small, collectible pieces. What makes a work of art collectible has much to do with what the market perceives as valuable now and in the future.
There are only so many fine Panamá weavers. There are even fewer masters. If successive generations lose the skill and supply becomes even more limited, previously made baskets may become more valuable. If current conservation efforts to protect the resources are ignored, the raw materials for baskets will diminish or, worse, vanish.
Today, only the Japanese and a few Native American weavers compete with the Wounaan in the production of world-class basket art. Beautiful Japanese basketry focuses on form, including abstractions and simplicity, whereas complexity of motif and fineness of weave are qualities that make Wounaan Hösig Di highly sought after. Indeed, a number of museum curators and collectors contend that Wounaan Hösig di rival the finest in the world.