Weaving & Wounaan Economy
Eliria Mepaquito sits on a concrete slab raised off a dirt floor in her sister’s cement-block house and stitches her way to an income she never dreamed possible. Her goal is to do for her sister’s family what she did for her own—transform their lives financially. She is doing that by sharing her financial resources and her skills.
Television has shown Eliria another side of life than poverty—the side where pristine kitchen appliances sparkle in a home with real floors. For now, getting her sister’s family out of the dirt happens by teaching the young woman to be as fine a basket weaver as she is, and, hopefully, as well collected.
The collection of RainforestBaskets Wounaan Hösig Di (‘Finest Baskets’) represents the works of weavers whose basket enterprise bolsters not only individual, but also collective economies within the Darién Rainforest of Panamá.
The Wounaan Hösig Di collection has been gathered by establishing a patron relationship with master weavers of the craft. This relationship assumes a responsibility to help alleviate poverty, not only at the individual and family level, but also at the community level. The three- and even high four-figure American dollar prices that fine weavers ask and receive for their basketry—far greater than virtually all other Third-World artisans—is a direct result of patronship and Panamá’s mandatory education. When literacy is high, even in remote villages, knowledge empowers.
Weavers’ increasing awareness of the collectability of their fine basketry—which museum curators have credited as rivaling the finest Native American baskets—empowers (and emboldens) them to price their work closer to that which artists in the U.S. might ask for working taking comparable time, effort and artistic skill. Indeed, weavers may even raise the price of their work significantly from one piece to the next. Experience is also a great teacher. These factors contribute to creating the Wounaan’s well-compensated, non-co-op craft- and art-production environment, which may be unique among indigenous artists.
First-time buyers new to this painstaking art form should not expect that artists are willing to part with the fruits of one-, two- or three-years’ intensive labor for $400 or $500- the prices for pieces of this magnitude are in the thousands. Talented weavers most always get their asking prices. Increasing collectability of Hösig Di translates into a stable and primary income source for Wounaan families, who use basket money for a myriad of expenses that may surprise the casual buyer.
It’s difficult enough to identify with a rainforest lifestyle, much less conceive of the expenses its dwellers might have. No driving the kids to soccer practice in the SUV or taking a family vacation at Disney World. But everything is relative. One of the largest cash outlays pays for outboard motors (and the gas to propel them), making small boats and dugout canoes more time-efficient transportation. Peek into an open-sided hut, and you’ll likely see an expensive outboard sheltered from the rains, hanging from the rafters or tucked under the raised floor.
Villagers also need money for their children’s education (which the government requires), for expenses such as books, uniforms, paper, pencils, medicine, trips to the city to the doctor or dentist, surgical procedures, clothes and shoes (flip-flops, sneakers and even street shoes are increasingly prevalent in villages). They also need money for food not grown or gathered, wheelbarrows, concrete, modern conveniences for huts (such as scrubable fiberglass outhouses, real kitchen sinks, dishes or tables), lanterns, flashlights (it gets black in the rainforest at night), plastic tubs for doing laundry at home instead of in the river. Villagers also need to purchase PVC pipes for bringing water to the huts and even “chunga” fiber for making baskets if she doesn’t have the time to gather, process and prepare her own, even gold to fill her cavities.
Basket making is a precise, tedious, task requiring extreme patience. Yet it is far from “sweat-shop” work. Weaving—though a solitary task—has long been a communal activity. Women gather—as quilters once did in the U.S. generations ago—in each other’s welcoming homes during the late morning or early afternoon hours, when the children attend first-session school or play among the huts.
Baskets nestled on their laps (often babies at their breasts), weavers laugh, tell stories on their husbands, complain about the heat or the rain, wish, dream, coach each other, innovate. Like artists everywhere, some have the innate talent to excel and create for their families a substantial income stream. Once mired in desperate poverty, the Wounaan and Emberá continue to raise their standard of living, perhaps more rapidly than many other indigenous peoples who have learned to produce a salable product.
The vital monetary infusion from basket weaving helps not only to preserve Wounaan culture, but also encourages the community support necessary to nurture master artists.