Weaving The Scarlet Macaw:
Hösig Di Rainforest Baskets of Panamá
By Charlotte Meares and Lorran Meares
Foreword by Peter T. Furst, Ph.D.
Weaving the Scarlet Macawis the only publication officially authorized by the governing body of the Wounaan to introduce and highlight the Hösig Di art form.
Lushly illustrated and comprehensive, Weaving the Scarlet Macaw is the first book to offer anyone who loves and collects basketry an insightful and in-depth perspective into the creation of Panamá’s Hösig Di. These palm-filament works of art take their Wounaan weavers many months and as much as three years to complete.
Weaving the Scarlet Macaw showcases the breadth of creativity and skill that these Panamanian artists have mastered over generations and forthrightly places their artistic achievements within the historical context of a shamanic culture caught in the vice grips of a geopolitically and environmentally turbulent time and place.
The Wounaan live mostly in the Darién Province of eastern Panamá, which places them squarely in harm’s way, between a rock and a hard place. Raiding villages, kidnapping and murdering inhabitants and leaving them terrorized are factionalized Colombian militant groups and human and narcotics traffickers linked to the most-powerful drug cartels. Throwing billions of dollars into the war on cross-border narco-terrorism are the U.S., Panamá and Colombia.
The Wounaan remain imprinted by ancestral earth-based mythologies, reflected in their body painting and basketry motifs. Like many indigenous peoples who have been recently Christianized, they balance atop a tightrope stretched precariously between a 21st century technologically driven, commodities-oriented global society and the drum-chant pulse of traditions born out of dark forests and swirling rivers.
In his Foreword to this book, Peter T. Furst, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Anthropology and Latin American Studies at the State University of New York at Albany and a Research Associate in the American Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, corroborates that within Darién symbology there can be found the ever-ubiquitous and archetypal anaconda linked to stories of Creation, fertility, life and death.
The Wounaan’s attenuated cultural identity is as threatened as their fragile rainforest ancestral lands. Not yet within the purview of the Wounaan are the forms, functions and machinations of Panamá’s and international governments to manipulate the biodiverse environment from which they emerged. Somehow, from this polylemma, they weave the loose strands of tension and frustration into a colorful and dynamic framework that defines their artistic sensibilities.
The resulting world-class Hösig Di basketry, which has become the primary income source for hundreds of Wounaan families, now plays a significant role not only in their individual and community economic development, but it also has contributed to their empowerment, raising the volume of their collective voices loudly enough to make it difficult for government
For collectors of increasingly scarce antique Native American basketry or ethnographic art as well as beginning collectors, Hösig di are assuredly poised to assume their place among the finest expressions of humankind.
Color photographs by award-winning fine-art photographer Lorran Meares document the labor-intensive processes involved in basket-making—from gathering the raw materials for basket construction, including vegetal-dye stuffs, to weaving complex patterns into existence.
Measuring time not by hours or days, but in finished rows on her basket, the Wounaan weaver exemplifies skillfulness and epitomizes patience. The master of pre-visualization, the artist stitches her thoughts into being upside down—from the bottom of a basket to its rim.
Birds, butterflies, flowers as well as jaguars, monkeys and sloths, are all conceived in her mind’s eye and are ingeniously constructed feet to head or tail feather to beak. Examples of baskets in all sizes, shapes and motifs represent millions of minute stitches over tens of thousands of man-hours.
Weaving the Scarlet Macaw explores the realm of possibility within the confines of a historical reality and current events. It satisfies our curiosity about and appreciation for the culture and its place in an ever-more complex society. Still, these insights beget new tough questions.
How does an art form respond to global enterprise and exploitative industry? What happens to indigenous cultures whose ancestral stories and myths grow fainter and increasingly irretrievable with time? How does a people’s mindset change when its curanderos can no longer cure, or when the shamans’ apprentices are lured to the city?
Weaving broaches these questions and offers an extensive selected bibliography for further exploration into the geopolitical climate that has shaped and continues to shape the Wounaan’s destiny and the survival of Hösig Di.