It’s the heat of the afternoon, just under 100 degrees and 88% humidity. I sit cross legged on the rough mahogany floor 8 feet off the ground in the small round, palm thatched pole house of Wounaan basket maker Lolea Mejla. She smiles gently and draws a steel needle through the rim of her basket with elegant regularity. There is an aura of peacefulness and yet determination. Nine other Wounaan women also sit cross-legged around the perimeter of this house; the conversation slowed as I entered. There are both giggles and focused work. Each woman holds a basket in progress; four also hold sleeping infants. Drifting through the damp air are the mixed sounds of chickens, wild birds, distant barking thin dogs, and the continual chip, chip, chip of men with chisels on cocobolo or mahogany. A bit of smoke wafts up from a nearly dead cooking log. It carries the heavier sweetness of banana, coconut, and plantain. I am in the village of Rio Hondo in the Panamanian jungle.
I’ve come here to see these baskets, to see them being made, and perhaps to understand a bit of the mind of the women who make them. I watch Lolea work on her basket. It is the finest of the fine, and one of the finest baskets ever produced by human hands! Slowly I take in the consistency of her rhythm; I see the benefit of her discipline and control in the smooth curve and perfect circle of her 17” diameter nearly spherical basket. I cannot but be aware of a powerful intelligence. She breaks new ground with the design, and yet she is totally focused and maintains, with repetitious, mechanical, physical movement of the wrist, arm and shoulder, the perfect rate of stitching required for this most graceful curvature. She has spent one year and has just passed the half-way mark on this basket; there will never be any notes or sketches. While her life will be very much a part of her family and village, she will conceptualize, make and sell this basket entirely alone. She will have selected and dried and split and dyed all the fibers she will use. She will have imagined the size and form, the images, the range of colors, tints, and shades, the size of the stitch and, all inside her head, assembled the surface design patterns so as to fit absolutely perfectly on her three-dimensional form.
The images on this particular basket are more pictorial than geometric. The gracefulness of the composition and the visual balance of figure with field is immediately apparent. She depicts hummingbirds in flight in front of the falling leaves of the rain-forest dry season. The leaves are of graded value and hue. There are three species of rainforest trees, and several of butterflies. Some of the birds are outlined in a very fine black line. And yet all of this design work can only be applied because of an intensity of labor and technique that I find nearly impossible to imagine.