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About Chunga Rounds

Posted on January 08 2017

All of our Chunga Rounds are handwoven by the Wounaan/Embera tribespeople of the Darien Rainforest in Panama before they are adorned and turned into wall hangings by our team here in our Byron Bay studio.
Basketry is one of the oldest crafts. It is likely that every culture has used plant fibres to make containers and other utilitarian objects. The Wounaan and Emberá women of Panamá have taken their traditional basketry skills and refined and developed the craft to produce some of the most unique and finely wrought plant fibre art to be found among modern basket artists. 
Each Wounaan or Emberá basket/plate is a one-of-kind piece and is the result of many hours of labor as well as an expression of the artist's own individual talent and artistic vision. The basket is also a repository of cultural information. Basket designs often incorporate religious symbols or representations of cultural artefacts or the artist's natural environment. 
 
Otis Tufton Mason, in his classic work American Indian Basketry,says of the indigenous basket maker: 
Her patterns are in her soul, in her memory and imagination, in the mountains, watercourses, lakes and forests, and in those tribal tales and myths which dominate the actions of every hour.  She hears suggestions from another world.
Recently Wounaan and Emberá women have begun to cater to foreign basket buyers who often prefer non-traditional baskets with bright pictorial designs.  While some of these picture baskets feature animals, plants and birds of the rainforest, others depict scenes that the basket maker has seen only in pictures -  underwater coral reef scenes for example.  These colourful “tourist” baskets usually exhibit great technical skill and are beautiful pieces of art but don’t always reflect Wounaan and Emberá culture. 
Older geometric or simple figure basket designs, on the other hand, have cultural meaning that is often derived from traditional body painting designs used in puberty or curing ceremonies or designs painted on boats and altars to facilitate communication with the spirits.
We worked closely with our weavers to come up with our range. It's rare now to find weavings of the geometric kind - depicting ceremonial body paintings, landscapes, tales and myths. Yet these are the ones we love! The irregularity and unique combinations, a sporadic dot here or cross there. Their beauty yes, but also their status as a cultural artefact! These plates are rich with story. With history. 
A Wounaan or Emberá basket starts with harvesting the basket materials.  Decorative baskets are made from two types of plant fibre. The Chunga or black palm (astrocaryum slandleyanum) and the Nahuala or "panama hat" plant (carludovica palmata). Material harvesting often requires a long and sometimes dangerous trek into the rainforest. 
Once the palm fibre’s have been obtained they must be processed. First they are dried and bleached in the sun and split to the appropriate thickness.  The Chunga fibre used for the sewing material is then coloured with natural plant dyes.  Fibre processing is time consuming and requires a great deal of skill and knowledge as well as access to a variety of dye plants and space to carry out the procedures.
Dyeing the Chunga fibres involves complex recipes to obtain the desired colours. Black requires boiling fibres with shavings of cocobolo wood, then burying them in mud for several days. Yuquilla root (tumeric) provides shades of yellow, mustard and gold. The "pucham" (Arrabidaea chica) leaf is a common and useful dye material since it combines with other substances to produce a variety of colours. The dried leaves of pucham with ashes produce a rust brown; used alone it gives a soft violet-pink shade. The "solimon" plant ( probably a Justicia species) is also used in various combinations to produce colours such as blue, green, purple and grey. Teak leaves give rust with slight cooking and a purple brown with more cooking. Another common dye material is the fruit of the "jagua" tree (Genipa americana) which is used for traditional body painting and provides a blue-black colour. The bark of "jobo" (Spondias) has been discovered to produce a pleasing tan.  
In Wounaan and Emberá basketry the fibres of the Nahuala plant are used for the foundation while strands of the finer Chunga palm are used as the sewing material.
Since the actual form of the basket is a spiral, achieving a symmetrical shape is quite difficult and the mark of a skilled basket maker.  The maker must also keep track of the various strands of coloured Chunga fibre as she counts stitches and chooses the appropriate colours at the appropriate times so that her design develops according to the pattern intended.
We are honoured to be able to work so closely with our Panamanian family in coming up with a range that heralds traditional designs. We are proud to be able to continue working with them, providing them with a living wage and propagating emblems of cultural authenticity.
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