Emberá basket 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 artifacts or the artist's natural environment.
A Emberá basket starts with harvesting the basket materials. Decorative baskets are made from two types of plant fiber although utilitarian baskets may utilize other plant fibers as well. For the decorative coil baskets made to sell to the outside market Wounaan and Emberá women harvest their materials from 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. Many areas surrounding indigenous villages have been deforested by commercial logging operations making materials scarce. To make harvesting expeditions even more arduous harvesters are often attacked by roving delinquents. Civil unrest in Colombia is spilling over the border into the Darien province of Panamá making life difficult for the indigenous residents of the area.
Many villagers have even migrated to Panama City fleeing violence in the Darien. Ill-suited for city life and urban jobs, women migrants depend on the sale of baskets to support their families but are increasingly finding it difficult to obtain the raw materials to continue their work. They often have to travel back to their villages to buy materials to bring to the city. Scarcity of raw materials is becoming a serious problem as more and more women make and sell baskets. Fortunately, reforestation projects of chunga and nahuala are starting as the economic importance of these trees is recognized.
Processing the Materials
Once the palm fibers have been obtained they must be processed. First they are dried and bleached in the sun and split to the appropriate thickness. The chunga fiber used for the sewing material is then colored with natural plant dyes. Decorative baskets require fibers of many colors and the Wounaan and Emberá artisans are continually developing new and vibrant colors from rainforest plants. Some women have gardens of dye plants while others must search in the forest for leaves, roots, bark and other materials to color the palm fibers. Urban women usually buy fibers that have already been processed back in the Darién villages and are ready to be made into baskets. Fiber 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 fibers involves complex recipes to obtain the desired colors. Black requires boiling fibers with shavings of cocobolo wood, then burying them in mud for several days. The mud from mangrove wetlands is said to give the best results. Yuquilla root (tumeric) provides shades of yellow 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 colors. 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 colors such as blue, green, purple and gray. 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 color. The bark of "jobo" (Spondias) has been discovered to produce a pleasing tan.
Emberá women utilize many different plants and recipes to produce the colors and shades of their decorative basketry. It seems that there is no color that can't be found with natural plant dyes although occasionally store-bought dyes might be used for an elusive but necessary shade in a particular basket's design. Store bought dyes are the exception rather than the rule however as the artisans realize that collectors value natural plants dyes over commercial dyes. They are actively researching new plant dyes to add more shades and colors to their palette.
Sewing the Basket
Although Wounaan and Embera women know a variety of basket making techniques, they are best known for their elegant and artistic coiled baskets. Coiling is defined by Virginia Harvey in The Techniques of Basketry as:
the technique of stitching over a foundation and attaching rows of work together as the stitching progresses to form the basketry structure. The two elements used are the foundation, or core, and the sewing material. The foundation forms the base over which the stitching is done, and the stability of this element holds the shape of the work. Successive wraps over the foundation are made with the sewing material which fastens back into or around one or more of the foundations or catches into the stitches of the former row to hold the work together.
In Emberá basketry the fibers of the nahuala plant are used for the foundation while strands of the finer chunga palm are used as the sewing material. A basket begins at the bottom with the artisan forming a spiral shape with the nahuala and chunga fibers. Baskets often have complex bottoms and the artisan might put her "signature" design there, perhaps a turtle or butterfly, that will identify the basket as her work. Some baskets have such beautiful bases that they are best displayed upside-down or hanging on a wall so that this part of them can be appreciated.
As the artisan adds rows to the basket she must pay careful attention to the shape and emerging design of her work. 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 colored chunga fiber as she counts stitches and chooses the appropriate colors at the appropriate times so that her design develops according to the pattern she has in her head.
The finest baskets incorporate a foundation of very thin nahuala with slender strands of chunga sewn very tightly around the nahuala. Other baskets, although still attractive, use fibers of larger diameter. If a woman needs money she might make a quick basket of coarser weave to sell immediately while a finer basket in progress waits until she has more time to complete it.
Emberá basket makers employ two types of coil stitching. In the "diente peinado" stitch the chunga strands are sewn to the top two foundation coils in such a manner that the surface of the basket has a smooth, silky finish. In the "escalera" weave the coils have an attractive corrugated surface with each coil appearing well defined. Both stitches require patience and skill with the finest baskets crafted from the thinnest materials. Basket borders, the finishing touch, are evolving from simple horizontal lines of one or two colors to complex patterns that complement the main design of the work. Most baskets are made in some variation of a vase shape but plate baskets and wall plaques are also made using the same coil techniques