Selerino Cheucarama, Wounaan, began to mimic his father’s skilled hand movements in 1971, as the patient older man pressed chisels into various tropical woods, as well as carved “vegetable ivory” from the inside of the large nut called tagua, to produce desirable crafts to support his family. At age 6 Selerino delighted his father for having completed—with fingers still intact—his first carving.
Those early years in the Darién village of Arusa gave Selerino time to hone his touch and sharpen his aesthetic eye on easily-worked “Zorro” wood. He carved both representational and stylized figures of mammals, reptiles and birds popular with the tourists who passed through Panamá’s Canal Zone. But it took another eleven years to create his first “real sculpture,” Selerino recalls.
The dense, rich reddish exotic rosewood with penetratingly deep, dark veins that the Wounaan of the Darién Province of Panamá call cocobolo—a hallmark of most Selerino sculptures—has been difficult to find in the Darién for many years, he explains, for it has been desired by many cultures, including foreign timber companies, whose wholesale clear-cutting has made inroads into much of the sacred Darién Rainforest. Increasingly environmentally aware Wounaan leaders encourage not only reforesting, but also cautious harvesting of remaining rare woods. Selerino makes regularly forays into the surrounding rainforest to locate “downed” cocobolo—sometimes stumps protruding from the river or washed up on its banks, or remains of trunks hidden beneath a tangle of jungle growth. Green cocobolo isn’t used.
The size and shape of the raw material for his carvings speak to him about what is to emerge from the wood. Whenever possible Selerino strives to craft a small sculpture from a single piece of cocobolo. Piecing is virtually always required when carving his collectible, tall, stylized los guardienes, anthropomorphic “guardians of the doorway.”
Known to collectors and Panamá City gallery owners as “the first truly fine tagua carver,” Selerino is also credited as the first such artisan to risk pursuing carving as a full-time occupation. Sculpting is important to Selerino, he explains, because it “speaks of the Wounaan culture.” Of the four-footed spirit beings that emerge after chiseling, sanding and polishing tagua nuts, his favorites are the jaguars—magically adorned in spotted, yellow-ochre coats.
In 1984, he demonstrated his carving techniques and exhibited at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. He has also been selected for exhibitions and workshops in Havana, Cuba, Cuenca, Ecuador, and Isla de Tenerita, Spain. Perhaps his most celebrated sculpture is the Cilla de un borracho cacique, “Chair of the Cacique,” now installed in the permanent collection of the Museo de la Naturaleza, Panamá City, which has also acquired a pair of los guardienes, as well as a beautiful, twin-cavern cocobolo bowl flanked by two facing prone tagua-nut jaguars.
In addition to parenting three daughters, Selerino teaches his son to carve, along with several brothers who eagerly learn what they can from the artist in the hopes that they can begin to earn living wages for their families and pass along the art form to their children.