There are no coincidences.
Just over five years ago, while I was in Spain organising an exhibition of “molas” - small embroidered panels worn by the women from the Kuna tribe who live in Colombia and Panama - I read a book filled with emotions and sensations that beautifully described the city of Panama in the 1950s (Panama Split, Ernesto Endara, Ediciones Contrabando).*
My friend Berna in Panama usually introduces me by saying that it was a book that led me there, and that is indeed how it all started. I closed the book and soon after, I went there to see for myself.
I am indebted to a kind-hearted Panamanian writer, Neco Endara, for welcoming me and for helping me discover the secrets of his beloved city. Thanks to him, I also made real friends in Panama and he supported me in this slightly crazy project. And yet he too, using all his storytelling powers, later tried to dissuade me when I decided to travel alone to the forest in search of the masks. To distract me from my ideas, he would tell me that giant bats, crocodiles and head shrinkers were going to eat for breakfast the woman he later kindly nicknamed: “la reina del Darién”!
While organising my exhibition, I contacted ethnologist Michel Perrin, who is an expert in “molas” and the Kuna Indians. Fascinated by those handicrafts and curious about this country, I simply felt the urge to work with the indigenous people who created these wonders. I decided to undertake my first journey.
With the help of the panamanian Ministry of crafts and exports and embassy support, everything was arranged during that first trip. I met the artisans and economic stakeholders, and discovered the work involved in making the molas and other remarkable artworks and handicrafts.
However, Ethic & Tropic was not born through formal networks. The adventure really started through the support of the network of the real friends I made in Panama.
Over the course of my travels in Panama, I met extraordinary people with whom I thought I would work with. I will mention just a few of them. Gladys, head of the largest crocodile breeding farm in Central America; Gladys, a brave and sensitive woman with whom I have maintained a beautiful friendship. Hélène, who has been living in Panama for 40 years, and left the world of French luxury behind to become an emblematic figure of Panama’s indigenous fashion and culture. Michel, a French adventurer who has also been living in Panama for forty years, is the only person who knows and deeply loves the forest. It is thanks to him that I realised everything was possible.
I wandered around Panama city and was invited to many artistic and literary circles, exclusive exhibitions opening, brunches and lunches in all sorts of locations. So many discoveries and encounters!
I spent time in private circles, held meetings in the lobbies of luxury hotels... I met extraordinary people, I learned a lot and made friends, but that is not where I built Ethic & Tropic.
One day, at the Old Town market, I stumbled upon four masks which I took back to Paris. They fascinated me and many others. So I decided to trace their history, I took a bus - one of those small dusty, regular buses - and I went to the end of the line where the road runs out and the dense forest truly begins, to meet the tribes who make these objects.
Among my acquaintances, there was no one who could accompany me, no one to guide me, I just had to take the local bus service used by the tribal people when they go to the city.
My friends tried to dissuade me, saying you just don't go into the forest because it is dangerous, very dangerous, that nobody goes there, and certainly not foreigners. In town, no one knows what goes on there. Just mention the word “Darién” and everyone gives you a startled look. A special pass was required to go to this high risk area.
Still, I enjoy this game a lot, every time I take a taxi in the city and the driver, out of curiosity, asks me what I am doing here, for business or leisure... I look at his face in the mirror before uttering the word “Darién”, and wait for the same reaction of sheer disbelief, every single time.
When I got on that small bus for the first time, I had absolutely no idea where I was going.
There were a few indigenous Kuna women with their children, waiting for the bus to depart. Then little by little, as we left the city behind, local farmers, with their tanned skin, dirty hats firmly on their head in their work clothes, got on. They got off again after a few hours, with the bus endlessly stopping here and there at the everyone's request. People got off, others got on and I kept wondering where they were going and where they came from because all around me, I could see nothing but the surrounding forest. A street vendor would occasionally reach us and I even saw an evangelical preacher got on in one of the rare villages we drove through. He was tossed about by the bumps in the road but was still able to hang on as he stood in front of us, subjecting us to his prayers and threatening us with the wrath of God, while everyone listened to his sermon and repeated "Amen".
In the course of my travels, I showed these masks to my Panamanian friends who had never seen them before. Without my little spark of madness, I believe the masks would have remained hidden deep in the forest, perhaps doomed to disappear.
Another time I leave the bus behind and go off in a pick-up truck with Jesús, a kind-hearted person, my driver who has become a friend, and it is always an adventure. Jésus arrives on time before dawn. Throughout our trip, we talk happily about the latest news (we are both very chatty). Five or six hours later, we reach the very last village at the end of the Pan-American Highway. After that, the only way to continue is in by canoe.
Where I go, there is no running water, no electricity, no road, and not even a path. So it takes long hours of travel in a 4WD, then by canoe in the humid, overwhelming heat and sometimes in a tropical storm. We need frequent stops to make good progress.
I sometimes sleep in a hammock or wherever I am asked to sleep. The mosquito net protects me from mosquitoes and other flying or crawling insects. I fall asleep to the sound of the flapping wings of bats.
I am awoken before dawn by the screams of monkeys in the forest or by the roosters crowing and stray dogs barking in the villages, and all around, by the multitude of birds. Mosquitoes often torment us, together with the "morongolls" in the rainy season, tiny insects that get everywhere despite the protective clothes we wear; all precautions are pointless.
I sometimes have sting marks for months.
After five years, I now feel I have a family there. When I am not in the forest with the tribes, I am at my friends'.
I have my room at Irina’s, with my big trunk where I keep my mosquito nets, hammocks, sleeping bag. I also have boots, rainproof bags and rain gear for the wet season, those dreadful months when the tropical rain never seems to cease, flooding rivers and uprooting trees. There are also anti-mosquito lotions, even though we no longer believe in them, and the essential head flashlight to move around at night. I even have the plastic cutlery I bought a long time ago when I was told about a cholera outbreak, and which, in the end I didn't dare use out of courtesy towards the tribal people with whom I share my meals. In a nutshell, this trunk contains a treasure trove of useful objects which I knew nothing about until a few years ago when I started organising my expeditions on my own. Before that, I had never even set foot in a campsite!
When I come back from the forest and find myself back at the house in Panama City, I go straight to the shower and rejoice in the luxury of hot, running water. I promise to relate my latest adventures the following morning around the breakfast table on the terrace with friends, family and hummingbirds.
Berna, my dear friend Berna, the most delightful person in Panama, allowed me to use her flat from the very beginning of my story as a storage place for the masks. Berna is the most wonderful person I know, both educated and smart, with a great sense of humour and now aged 80, without a doubt the most beautiful woman in the city. During my visits, the yellow pick-up truck registered in the Darién runs back and forth between the forest and her house to transport the hundreds of masks I bring back. She has to explain this odd business of her French friend to her neighbours.
All my friends are happy about what I do and their unconditional support from the beginning was essential to firmly establish my project.
Gradually all the logistics then gradually fell into place with people I could trust. I no longer use a middleman between the artisan women and myself, because I am on site every three months. After a few mishaps and especially the expèrience of using an intermediary who was tempted to keep the money meant for the women's work, I decided that I was the best person to buy from the artisans and pay them. Although the logistics of Ethic & Tropic are now properly established in Central America, I am the only person in direct contact with the artisans.
Approximately 9,000 kilometres from Paris, several days away from major capitals ... One speaks of a “gap” when referring to this part of Central America because it is impossible to drive there due the total absence of roads and tracks.
It is the largest reserve on the entire American continent, one of the best preserved places in the world, a pristine and wild region sometimes considered the most dangerous place in Central America because of tropical diseases, wild animals, and because of the omnipresence of drug trafficking.
Picture the American continent, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego... The Pan-American Highway, one of the longest roads in the world, runs through this huge continent for approximately 30,000 kilometres, connecting people from the north of Alaska to the south of Patagonia. It is only interrupted once, for a stretch of one hundred kilometres in Central America.
On this small strip of land of 160 kilometres between the Pacific and the Atlantic ocean, just on the border between Panama and Colombia, there is an area that remains completely undisturbed, where no vehicle has ever entered: el “Tapón del Darién”, in other words the Darién Gap. This part of the continent, sometimes referred to as the “green hell”, has remained intact since the arrival of the Spanish.
Here, with no connection to urban life, no tracks or paths, one simply has to give up the idea of travelling by car and get on board a flimsy boat, namely a small canoe carved from the trunk of a tree: the “cayuco”. The only way to journey from one village to another is to follow the many narrow, winding rivers, their courses varying by season.
At best, a small motorised boat runs several times a week between some of the more important villages.
It sometimes takes several days to reach some villages.
Two small indigenous communities among the most unknown and most authentic in the world live in this dense forest and its preserved environment: the Wounaans and the Emberas.
The masks are all made at the heart of the rainforest by the tribal women of these ethnic groups.
These women, who became artisans through working with me, have never known any other environment and speak different dialects depending on the tribe to which they belong.
The masks take shape within this impenetrable forest, inspired both by the tropical environment and its legends, and by the collective unconscious of its inhabitants.
I often speak of “villages”, and this deserves an explanation.
What I refer to as a village is a gathering of huts on stilts, the “chozas”, built out of wood and palm leaves.
These houses, raised up as a protection against flooding, comprise a floor and a roof made out of dried palm leaves. Access is possible via a ladder sometimes carved directly inside a tree trunk.
Most of the time, there is no water or electricity, and a wood fire is used for preparing food using a tripod.
Hammocks made from nets are used during the day; at night, people sleep on the floor.
A village might consist of ten or more houses.
The consistent feature is that all these villages or hamlets are built along the rivers, since they are the only way to access them. The canoe is the main means of transport between villages.
Not only is the river the only means of communication, but it is also the source of water for daily consumption, the place where people wash and do their washing. It is where they clean up the game and fish that they eat.
It is also where children play, laughing and jumping in the water all day long.
I remember arriving at a village after hours in a canoe under the hot sun, drenched in sweat, and asking if I could cool down before I started working; I was naturally invited to go to the river because there was no other water around. My question seemed strange to the villagers: I came from the river and I was asking for a source of water.
Every village generally has at least one “tienda”, a place where one can buy some staple foods, rice, sometimes an egg or two, as well and slightly more elaborate products such as soft drinks, sweets, biscuits, products imported from Panama City and delivered by canoe, with the obvious difficulties and slow pace of this mode of transport implies.
Invariably, there is also a police station. The police are present everywhere and I must register wherever I go, declare the reason for my travels, where I am going, when and with whom. It provides a measure of safety as drug trafficking is extremely common in the region. The police force assigned to patrol and monitor the border area between Colombia and Panama is specially trained.
One evening, as I arrived in a village for the night, the police who had been aware that I was coming for several hours, were already looking for me. They knew my full name, what I looked like, and they were looking for me.
After dark, I am asked not to go out, not to walk in the village but I feel protected because I am staying with the tribal people.
I have to stay in constant contact with the police who closely monitor my movements, and must present myself at the station when I arrive in the village and when I leave. Sometimes, at times when tensions are running high, I must call the police every hour and they call me to check where I am.
The Wounaan and Embera tribes that I spend time and work with live in harmony with nature and perpetuate their rites and traditions, which they pass on orally from one generation to the next.
These tribes are animist and call upon the shaman to communicate with the spirits of nature, the “hais”, which are found in trees, plants and animals.
The rainforest is impenetrable. It is the isolation of the small villages built along the rivers, days of travel from the city and the richness of the tropics that has allowed these people to preserve their traditions while maintaining self-sufficiency.
When I first arrived several years ago, women were still walking around topless, with their breasts covered in body paints and with a Paruma fitted around their hips. Now they increasingly cover their breasts with a light and modern piece of clothing, often decorated with English writing, which is rather anachronistic in such remote places. Even if these tribes do not feel the need to migrate to the cities, the contacts they have with other people immediately leave their marks. The presence of tropical timber companies, the recent but growing influx of people from the interior, called “settlers”, who rear livestock on the edge of the forest and the small extension of the Pan-American Highway, the arrival of city workers on the outskirts of these territories, are all factors of change. The way others view them has contributed to changes in their behaviour.
These regions live at their own pace, tribes celebrate their traditional festivals and apply their own laws. The cacique, the village chief, enforces the law. I have a vivid memory of the wooden beams in the village square, where those who violate the rules are chained.
At the same time, the special police force assigned to this region watches over everyone's safety, which is under genuine threat from drug trafficking. Revenge attacks using machetes or guns is quite common.
These tribes, which are so alike in their rites, their beliefs, their clothing, their physique and even in their organisation, have the odd peculiarity of not speaking the same dialect. The two dialects I am familiar with, the Wounann and the Embera, will likely disappear before long, because they are languages only passed on orally and to my knowledge, apart from some lexicons, no other work has been done that would allow them to preserve them on in a sustainable way.
Here is a brief glimpse of the sounds of the Wounann language:
ANTUMIÁ: female demon (hai) of water
TACHIZETSÉ: supreme creative God
ANCORÉ, CARAGABI: secondary gods
HAIBANA: the one person who communicates with the spirits, i.e. the shaman
KIMÁ: husband / wife
BACURÚ: tree, wood
DAMÁ / TAMÁ: snake
CORÉ SAKÉ: lizard
BAGARÁ: guacamaya / ara macaw
The Indians divide the world into two: a visible world and a parallel, invisible world. “The great superiority of this parallel world, this universe of shadows, is that they can see man while man cannot see them”, wrote Jean-Marie Le Clézio. So they create ways to communicate with this parallel world.
Each village has one shaman ( man or woman) who holds powers, wich are sadly increasingly challenged by our modern way of life, by religion and by modern medicine. This spiritual knowledge is passed on orally from one generation to the next. The shaman himself who chooses the person to whom his secrets will be passed on.
Michel Perrin wrote: “Being a shaman does not mean professing certain beliefs but rather resorting to a certain mode of communication with the supernatural world”, in other words, communicating with the invisible world.
The shaman plays a therapeutic role: he cures diseases that are thought to steal souls or to be spirits entering and tormenting the body. He also heals evil spells, helps the dead find their way to the afterlife, and may play a role in divination. He will explain evil because he is the link between this world and the afterlife. He ensures the general balance of the world, or worlds... He is a person just like any other in the tribe, but when he is called upon, he devotes himself to the service of others. Everyone knows him.
Shamans can equally be men or women. The shaman can do good or evil, and it is a well known fact that that some shamans cast spells. In such cases of “brujería” (which translates as witchcraft), another shaman will be called upon to provide the cure.
It seems that not all shamans are good people, and I have been told that some of them are just spellcasters, meaning they cast evil spells. I have never been able to prove this, and I doubt I would want to.
During a recent trip, some of the indigenous women told me that one woman, whom I knew, had gone missing and since my previous visit, she had been sick and unable to work. When I asked why she was sick, they told me that it was a case of “brujería”, or a spell. She had sought the help of the shaman from the neighbouring village for her treatment, and not a doctor.
In this region, indigenous people are known to cast many spells among themselves, another reason why they remain isolated. In a village, a non-native will never build his house amidst a native neighbourhood.
you can just imagine how the shaman is feared or revered in the villages but he is also increasingly cast aside by western society and the Christian religion, as they gain ground.
And becoming a shaman is hard work: the initiation is a long process that can take years and sometimes requires the person to leave the village to be initiated elsewhere, in the company of other shamans. Nowadays, candidates are rare.
The masks derive from shamanic rites. For the tribal peoples "there is no such thing as a useless creation, art for the sake of art does not exist, there are just functions" (Le Clézio).
These masks perform a specific function.
Rituals take place at night because that is when the invisible world manifests itself and and when they can communicate with its spirits. The "mesas” (rituals) last all night.
These rites involve the absorption of plants and decoctions, songs, occasionally dances and often drinking the alcoholic drink “chicha”, made from fermented corn.
Prior to the ritual, the body of the shaman and the person who asked for his help can be painted.
The work performed during the “mesa” takes a long time. The shaman follows the ritual with his accessories, including carved wooden sticks, which are always used. To communicate with the spirits or to deceive them, he sometimes uses representations which, to our greatest delight, are these masks, or “nemboro” (“head” in Embera).
As Teresa, the shaman from Bamsu, explained to me one day, each shaman keeps watch all night, sometimes for several nights, and connects with their guides, their helpers, and the spirits that help them in his work as a healer.
According to the ancestral beliefs, “hai” spirits are found in nature, in animals or in plants. The mask, or “nemboro”, allows its bearer to take the appearance of a spirit from the invisible world and to communicate with this world.
The struggle with evil spirits is long and brutal. It involves removing them from the sick person's body and during that exchange. The spirits learn to recognise the face of the shaman who is fighting them, just as they recognise the face of the patient they are tormenting. So the shaman wears a mask, when needed to deceive the spirits. The patterns painted on their bodies before the ritual play a similar role.
In the forest, we now use the word mask, “máscara”, but I soon realised that it was a mistake on my part: I was the one referring to these objects as masks, from my Western perspective, and now everyone has taken up this term. In Embera, one says “Nemboro” when talking about the “masks”. “Nemboro” means head. This is no trivial matter, because it has nothing to do with dressing up; it is not a carnival. By using the nemboro, the shaman actually takes on the appearance, the soul and the energy of the beast or spirit represented. The term mask is too weak.
These remarkable objects are much more than masks, they are indeed spirits, souls.
The particular feature that attests to their power is that nemboros are destroyed as soon as the “mesas” are completed, so there are no old nemboros. They are not made to last, like African masks made of wood or metal. After the ritual, the mask can be easily burnt and disappears because I guess that once a piece has “danced” and been “energised”, it cannot be touched by anyone other than the shaman.
A mask that has danced continues to live. It has deceived the evil spirit that tormented the patient, it played an active role in healing, it is animated. Is it now animated by its own energy or is it pursued by the spirit it deceived coming back for revenge?
Whatever the truth, just like the shamans' sticks, the mask is now “energised”.
So while the shamanic sticks are kept for future rituals (guarded by each shaman), the masks are always destroyed.
I would never touch a shaman's stick without being invited to by the shaman himself, because if the stick is energised, the spirits might attack me, putting my health and my life in danger.
The sticks, usually four or five in number, belong to the shaman and are sometimes bequeathed by his mentor. The shaman will keep them throughout his life. After his death, if he has not handed them down, they are destroyed.
The sticks are fabulous pieces of carved tropical wood, beautifully aged by the hand of the shaman who makes them dance.
Some sticks I saw represented the shaman himself, a man and a woman, a woman and a baby, an animal, a man and an animal. The shaman will use them in different ways dependingeach case.
Once, I decided to go way up the Río Membrillo to visit three new remote villages.
I am always seeking out new and different techniques and new inspirations.
I understood very quickly that the tribal people have no urgency to produce masks and little solidarity between them. On each trip, I have to work with several villages and many people to be sure to find a good variety of masks, made with diverses tecniques and colours.
It was the rainy season and twice, the river was blocked by huge fallen trees, uprooted in the tropical rains. Our flimsy canoe couldn't pass the trees lying across the full width of the river.
We managed to pass under the first tree by lying down in the canoe.
But when we encountered the next tree blocking the river, we came to a complete stop and I thought this was the end of the journey.
Someone had cut throug the huge tree trunk to open up a corridor for the canoes but the passage was so narrow that a small boat with three passengers was stuck in the middle and unable to get out.
At risk of capsizing our own boat, we towed the boat free and they went oof up the river. Our narrow canoe passed through the tree trunkt without any problem.
A canoe is the only way to get around the dense forest. There are no paths through the jungle.
Later, we arrived at the first village. I saw a tree trunk and someone told me that they would carve a canoe in a single piece from this trunk.
I could tell so many stories from this trip. Of incredible encounters with people who had all heard of me and were waiting for me in these villages in the middle of nowhere. Villages that no one visits. The difficult conditions. Vicious mosquitoes biting through our clothes. Sticky humidity and sweltering heat. Exhaustion. But what I want to tell here is this particular conversation.
When we arrived in Saba, I first went to the nearest house and asked a woman if she could prepare us something to eat. It was almost 1 p.m. and we had been up since four in the morning and the journey had been long and tiring. I knew it would take this woman some time to organise lunch. Her daughter took me further into village to buy eggs and some chicken for my crew, so that she could cook them for us with the costumary rice and “patacones” (fried bananas). Since I don't eat meat, my meals consist of rice and bananas, day in and day out.
While the woman prepared the food, I talked with her husband. Our presence had sparked the man's curiosity and he was eager to talk. As soon as I saw the opportunity, I asked about the village shaman and wondered if they could help with my mosquito bites.
From what I know about shamans, they heal the mind and body. Combining their deep knowledge of plants with deep wisdom and cultural knowledge, they carefully prepare ointments to cure the evils inherent in the environment they live in.
Every village has a shaman, but the man told me that this village had turned to evangelisticchristianity and abandoned shamanism.
Little by little, he told me that his grandfather was the original shaman of the village, but the old man had been hospitalised recently in the town.
I talked to him about plants, about his grandfather's remedies. Yes, he said, the old man knew how to relieve many evils and heal using plants. He had cured many people, but now, no one wanted to carry on the witch doctor’s work. Why not?
Because it is the shaman who talks to the spirits. He holds sacred and mysterious knowledge he does not share with anyone else.
Once again, I was dismayed at how the centuries old beliefs of an entire people are being swept away because, if what this man said is true, no one wants to inherit this knowledge.
Nowadays, the shaman is being cast aside by the new christian religion that is gradually conquering every village. The shaman portrayed as a sorcerer, promoting ignorance from the past, backward, no longer respected.
Evangelical christianity is gaining ground and wants to eradicate shamanic practices. The belief in an invisible world populated by spirits that interacts with humans is inimical to the beliefs of this new church that wants to reign over the jungle. The pastors quickly persuade their new flock to renounce their ancestral beliefs. I won't go into great depth but these are the facts.
When I hear these new believers, indigenous or not, talking about spirits, shamans and bewitchments, I realise that the fear of bewitchment remains extremely powerful. On every trip, I hear about the supernatural. Most local peoples I know do not mix with indigenous people precisely because they fear evil spells.
Doctors act very much like preachers, while pharmaceutical companies greedily seize the knowledge of the tribal peoples and plunder natural reserves, local healthcare workers condemn people, perhaps sometimes understandably, for calling on the shaman.
The all-encompassing culture of the shamans is passed on orally from each shaman to their successor, and when the shaman disappears, there is a void. And the rich culture that has been passed on from generation to generation is immediately erased, abruptly swept away.
Underlying beliefs stay rooted as knowledge and history disappear. Communication with the spirits is under severe threat, and only fear remains.
Fortunately, there are some people like Teresa.
If I tell you about Teresa, you will feel the urge to meet her one day. But reaching the village where Teresa lives is not easy.
The place is so remote it requires at least four to five full days to go to see her. We rarely have that many days available for a visit. And you have to consider the hazards of the journey. Indeed. It's not rare for boats to capsize in that area because first you have to venture out to sea before entering the long sinuous river which leads to the heart of the forest... And if the boat capsizes, then it’s goodbye to all the packages, camera, phone... and of course, the masks.
If the weather is bad and the rain is too heavy, it could take an extra day or two for the boat to reach this small village and then berth in order to let passengers get on and off. The river is unpredictable. Here, nature is in control, not people.
There used to be a small airstrip where light planes could fly in from Panama city. But I have only ever seen this deserted strip of tarmac overrun by tropical vegetation, with a few cows grazing peacefully, together with hungry stray dogs. The route was suspended several years ago and very quickly, nature reclaimed what was once hers and no one ever came back this way.
Teresa is the shaman of the Indian village. I deliberately write "Indian village" because like many other villages, it is made up of two clearly defined hamlets: “el pueblo indio” and “el pueblo negro”. Everyone stays where they belong and the inhabitants of each village very rarely cross the border that separates them.
Teresa is a kind-hearted person, a genuine shaman and a wonderful woman.
After leaving my shoes at the bottom of the ladder, I climb the steps and enter in the living room. There, I sit on the floor or in the hammock, and I give a little money to her son who quickly runs off, happy to go buy us some coffee.
I am welcome at her home at any time. She always invites me to settle in, have a coffee and stay a few days with her.
Everyone feels at ease with Teresa and she speaks freely about her art. Spending time with her is always wonderful, our words creating an invisible bond. Her gestures are soothing, her gaze and her smile are comforting.
She explained to me how masks and shaman sticks are used. Unlike the masks, which are usually destroyed after the “mesa”, the sticks belong exclusively to the shaman. They are “energised” and I may not touch them; she alone can handle them. Her grandfather passed them on to her, and she will hand them down to her successor.
Anyone who takes them uninvited would fall seriously ill and could die as a result. I have been told many dreadful stories on that subject.
Using her sticks, herbal potions, masks and body paints, the shaman always works at night. she remains at the patient’s side throughout the night. With the help of incantations and litanies, she summons his guides, her spirits, to guide her in her work and help her drive out the evil spirits hidden within the patient's body and tormenting them.
All night long, the shaman fights evil spirits. It is a long and gruelling task. She speaks with them and exhorts them, with the help of the “chicha”, the traditional alcohol made from chewed up, fermented corn, she goes into a trance and communicates with the invisible world.
At a precise moment in this struggle, she will use the masks to change her appearance and deceive the evil spirits who recognise her face.
Once used, the masks must disappear, which is why there are no old pieces. They are not made to last but to be useful at a specific moment in time.
They are helpful and ephemeral pieces, never to be seen by the uninitiated.
At Teresa's, there are small wooden statues, bunches of dried plants hanging from the roof, old plastic bottles containing decoctions; one of which is actually very effective against my sunburns.
I never leave Teresa’s empty handed: she usually offers me what she has harvested that day: maybe a bunch of aromatic herbs or her daily picking of “aji”, small orange sweet peppers.
Teresa owns nothing and yet, she is the epitome of generosity. She always invites me to sleep at her place and to share her everyday life; she likes having visitors.
And there is a special bond between us, which I felt immediatly and the memory of which I hold deep within me. Her words on my first visit moved me to the core of my being.
How can I explain the role of the shaman? Healer, sorcerer, I would add that of psychologist… because he is all these things simultaneously.
I once stayed in a village where a little boy aged about ten, called Villanor, often stayed by my side. An anxious child, nervous, rather withdrawn, very smart and curious, he sought out my company. At first, he would follow me and watch me in silence. Then, little by little, as the days went by, he would start to talk, asking me questions and smiling. He was always by my side.
I felt in this child a strong need for companionship and tenderness. He was different from the other children, who usually only think about playing and are indifferent to my presence.
Seeing the interest I had taken in him, someone explained to me that his father had died a little under a year before and the little boy had found him dead.
His father had hanged himself and the child came in just as he was dying. In vain he frantically tried to save his father, and watched him die right in front of his eyes.
Since thenVillanor, like his eighteen-month-old sister had since been behaving strangely. He was very nervous, sometimes aggressive. His little sister had insomnia and would wake up in tears every evening at nightfall, the time when the spirits manifest themselves.
A few months later, I met again with the person who had told me this story, she turned out to be their aunt. She told me that he family had asked a shaman to come and perform a “mesa” for the two children and their mother, because the father's spirit was tormenting them.
The role of the shaman was to intercede with the spirit to let his widow and children get on with their lives peacefully and free them from their torment.
I did not attend this “mesa” and I have not seen these people since, but I am sure they are fine now. I was told that a good shaman was dealing with their case.
I have been going to the forest regularly for several years now, with fifteen trips in just over five years.
Every time I travel, I stay in the villages where the people expect my visit. I buy the masks they have been made for me over the previous months, and I explain and I provide some direction for the next pieces. I marvel with the women at their audacity, at the new ideas that come to life.
In my absence, I do my best to keep in touch with a coordinator in each village and all the women have my phone number. But it is not always easy to communicate over the distance, often due to a lack of telephone network. I must admit though, that being able to call every now and then with a little persistence, is quite remarkable. Here I am in Paris, dialling a phone number for a several days without any luck then suddenly someone answers. I hear “hellooo” at the other end of the line, from a voice deep within the wildest forest in the world, with the background noise of children shouting, roosters crowing and dogs barking in the village. At that moment, I am as surprised as anyone would be, like using a phone for the very first time in the history of telecommunications.
They expect me. To everyone, I am Corina, the stranger (both strange and a stranger) who visits them so often that she has become like family. My arrival is a cause for celebration, the promise of money, and the prospect, for the women, of shopping, the opportunity to buy for themselves and their children.
It is also a celebration because my arrival breaks their routine. They come together in the village for several days, gather around me, comparing their work, talking animatedly to one another.
When I am there happily surrounded by the women and children. I cannot help but reminisce about the village fairs of my childhood (I grew up in rural France, in a very small village in the countryside). That sense of excitement so particular to places where nothing ever happens.
When I leave after visiting and staying in several villages, I make sure that the women know when I will be back and how many masks I will need. I give them ideas for future work, colours, dimensions, and so on but no one ever does what I ask and, in the end, it is a lot more fun this way. Anyway, everyone knows that I will buy their entire production, regardless of my requests, so they continue to do what they want!
The artists who possess this traditionnal know-how are always women, with very few exceptions. They live with their families in the rainforest and they are fascinating.
At first reserved, even wary, now they trust me because I have shown good faith and they can sense my sincere admiration for their work.
They gradually became aware of the value of their work and traditions. They usually weave the same material to make very fine baskets for themselves, which are especially used for storing jewellery worn during festivities. But until relatively recently, very few masks were made in these villages.
If you arrive in a village, you will not see any masks. Ever.
But when I arrive, they show up one after the other and walk towards me with their relaxed gait, a small cloth bag in hand and groups of children in front or behind them. A colourful and smiling crowd approaches slowly and, once gathered together, they begin to spread before me the wonders they have prepared for me since my last visit.
I recognise the work of talent of those with a genuine gift and I also recognise work from particular villages with local techniques and colours.
When was weaving first used? No one can tell me ... They learned it from their mothers and grandmothers. But each woman adds her personal weave, her own visions and her interpretation of nature.
True artists produce such unique work, that, for me, it seems as if the piece were signed with their name.
Techniques vary widely from village to village and I can't tell why. It would be equally difficult to catalogue them because I sometimes notice a blend between one technique and another.
When I come from another village, the women are always very curious to see the masks from their neighbouring villages. They are curious about the shapes, designs, details, and they also want to assess the quality of work other villagers.
The chief of the village, or “cacique”, often played an important role and it is through him that new artisan women are brought together and informed of our interest in their work.
An “artisan tutor” sometimes teaches the tribal women how to improve the work they have learned and practised since childhood. All the women know how to weave masks, but to become a true artist, they must master the technique, be creative and perhaps have the gift of seeing the afterlife.
This know-how belongs only to these women and is passed on between them, within their family.
Today, hundreds of women wait for me on every visit.
Being a woman is definitely an advantage here.
If I were a man, I would never have had access to such an experience.
Because this work is done solely executed by women. At times, they weave while breastfeeding their babies. Sometimes, a mask lays there, half finished, put down carefully while they prepare a meal then go back to weaving a little later. And the work gradually progresses, the mask slowly takes shape amidst the duties of family life.
They work together among the children who play, laugh and run about. The women are seldom found alone, and where they work is always a place full of animation, conversations, laughter. Solitude has no place in the tribe, people come and go from one house to another. I never know which family the children are from. They are everywhere and no one really seems to care for them once they are old enough to stop breastfeeding.
Women talk and laugh with me. I am given a place to stay and I live there, I am just another woman in the group and I have never felt like a stranger among them. There is little curiosity about me, which has always surprised me. From the very first time I arrived, I felt at ease. I was accepted openly despite my quirks: for example, I have red hair, which the children find amusing and the women surprising. And it is cut short, which is clearly bad taste, and they tell me so.
I stay there with them, I come and go without really drawing any attention. Nobody looks at me with curiosity and no one asks me questions. Once the workday is over, we stay together and I meddle in all their conversations. Usually, the woman I am listening to, the one I am talking to might feel flattered, but talking to me, capturing my attention, even if it pleases them, is not an end in itself. I am part of the group.
I wear the Paruma too, which turns out to be the most convenient outfit. In the rainy season, villages are infested with mosquitoes and I have to wear protective clothing. When I travel by canoe, I also prefer wearing trousers. But when I am sitting around, I dress like them and also walk barefoot in the house out of respect for their customs; because in the “choza”, everyone eats and sleeps on the floor.
Men are seldom present and rarely spend time with us. They usually leave at dawn for the day, sometimes for several days, to work on small plots of land high in the mountains, where they grow bananas for village consumption and sale. For their families, they produce rice, yams and some coffee.
If we need them, they are there to help us with the logistics, carrying bags, taking the canoe from one village to another. But we are generally left alone, since my work does not concern the husbands.
The women immediately established a sense of complicity with me.
We talk, laugh and work without anything hindering our simple companionship. No social code and no distrust. When I have time, they explain to me how they dye their hair with the juice of “jagua”, the same fruit used for dying the masks chunga in black, and they paint my body as they do among themselves with that same “jagua”.
Sometimes in the evening, I join them while the children are sleeping on the floor or on their laps. I sit down on the floor and meddle in their conversation. I never ask questions yet I learn so much.
Nightfall loosens tongues: puberty rites, stories about husbands... the conversation jumps from one subject to another. They enjoy talking, recounting different moment, telling each other stories.
These are the magical moments of my work.
The masks are made deep within the forest. The women work together in each village, freely and at their own pace.
It is not uncommon to see the artisans working together as a family or talking with neighbours, all in hammocks, gently rocking in the breeze.
Do I need to tell you that these masks are entirely made by hand, without any machines? In a way it is quite obvious because I have no idea where they would get the machinery in the forest...the only tool they need is a needle.
The material they used to make the masks is called “chunga”. It is a type of palm from the Darién (Astrocaryum standleyanum). The palm leaves are harvested, dried and bleached in the sun. They must spend at least one night under the moonlight so they can bathe in the morning dew.
Once they have selected the part they want to use, the women remove stains and other pigmentary defects are removed with boiled lemon water, and dye the leaves using plant-based dyes. This is a great moment: wood fires are lit and the women gather together to perform this work. The dye is extracted from the pulp of fruits or roots, but also from wood chips, leaves and seeds. Several ingredients are sometimes mixed together.
The skeins are plunged in a hot dye bath, and then dried.
Once dyed, the chunga is ready for the wonderful task of weaving. Rather than basketry, I indeed prefer the term weaving to describe such fine and delicate work.
The structure is made with a different plant, coarser and more rigid: the “nahuala”, which disappears completely once the piece is completed. The nahuala helps create the shape and final size of the head, and in a way acts as the frame.
The colours of our masks are always obtained using natural ingredients, just like in the early days. For that reason, dyes vary from one region to another, and even from one person to another.
The most common dyes are as follows:
Turmeric root, called “azafrán” by the natives, creates a wonderful amber yellow colour, while the putchama (Arrabidae chica) leaf produces a bright pink colour.
Shades of blue are obtained with the juice of jagua, the same extract used for body paints.
Cocobolo is a tropical tree species that provides shades of brown. Burying the chunga for several days turns the brown colour into a deep black.
The achiote (Bixaorellana), a seed also used for cooking, creates a bright red colour.
Very rare hues are sometimes achieved by plunging the chunga in a series of successive baths.
Each artisan makes her own blends to obtain the most extraordinary hues, often very bright and very cheerful.
What is most remarkable is that there is no book or notebook in the forest, no drawing and no plan. The piece is born in the artisan's imagination, and made directly from that inspiration.
When an artisan prepares the “nahuala” frame, I never know what she has in mind and I gradually watch the animal emerge.
Estimating the exact production time is difficult because the artisans do not work in a workshop at set hours, but rather at home, where they organise their daily tasks and the work of creation and weaving around their masks.
Excluding the time needed to prepare the chunga (harvesting, drying and dyeing), the production of a small mask can take one to two weeks, while a large piece will require at least one month.
Great patience is a prerequisite for this meticulous work. Just like preparing meals or taking care of small children, weaving is a domestic occupation. While the manufacturing of masks is rare, baskets or pots, the “Hosig Di”, are usually made using exactly the same materials as the ones used for masks, but with much less diverses techniques. From mother to daughter, the tradition of weaving continues to be passed on. They work together, slowly; time is not important.
The women can never tell me how much time they have spent on a particular piece and that issue of time also comes up whenever I take a trip: No matter how many people I ask about the time it takes to go from one village to another, no one really has any idea. I am the only one who worries about time and deadlines!
Here, no timetable, no schedule, no one is really subjected to these requirements.
For that reason, planning a job is impossible: women work when they have the time and inclination. Even if they are fully aware of the day of my arrival, it is not unusual for pieces to be unfinished when I arrive. Seeing my look of disappointment, the artisan usually shrugs and looks at me with a smile, like you would look at a sulking child, as if to say “What does it matter, I will finish it next time”.
I have never seen any women wearing a watch, even if they have the opportunity to buy one. The rhythm of everyday life is the rythm of nature.
Try and imagine the slow pace at which these objects have been created... Imagine the rocking hammock, the screams of monkeys in the forest and the songs of the multitude of birds. Let this atmosphere sweep you away. It took the artisan time and patience to create this piece. Take the time to feel it.
These pieces are created and made far from any urban life; each mask is inspired by the surrounding environment, and by the individual and collective imagination.
Women observe the forest, the animals around them, but their dreams and beliefs also play an important role.
Animals, but also the spirits of the forest... The origin of the masks remains a mystery and when I sometimes ask the women what they meant to represent, they evade my gaze and laugh off my question.
Each artisan is an artist whose work is inspired by nature and who has a style of her own. Look at the expression of these animals! For example, there are many representations of monkeys, but no two are alike. Aggressive, funny, gentle, each expression is unique... Their gaze is fascinating but also disturbing at times.
Horses, agoutis, leopards, crocodiles and a multitude of tropical birds; the range is infinite because each mask is, and will remain, a unique work of art. It is wonderful to constantly discover new expressions, new combinations. I am always surprised and amazed by the work they do.
I respect their tradition and beliefs, and I encourage the artisans to do their work with the utmost respect for their traditions.
To work faster and thinking this would be better, some artisans used artificial dyes. With the money they earnt, they bought chemical dyes. Others used steel wires to make the masks more rigid, more “beautiful”.
I had to stand firm against these practices and, at one point, I even worked with a magnet at some point, to detect the presence of metal.
I ensure that the authenticity of the mask is maintained. I insist on the use of traditional plant-based dyes. I am fond of pieces with beaks or noses slightly crooked, which I often consider to be more expressive than perfect shapes.
They are all unique and I love them all. At times, I am amazed by the perfection and finesse of a weaving style, which makes me deeply respect the mastery of the technique, the patience and skill of the person who made this piece.
At other times, I am moved because the actual imperfection of a piece gives it a strong character, an unforgettable look.
Sometimes, I find delight in the harmony of colours and I can feel the gentleness or the strength that the artist bestowed upon it.
Have you ever noticed the details in some pieces, such as small teeth, a red tongue, crooked ears or the base of a head beautifully woven with pre-Columbian designs?
I am often mesmerized by the gaze, as though the masks had something to tell me; each expression is unique. There are as many nemboros as there are people and animals in the forest. Each has its own character, its own personality. It may be that each mask is conveying a message.
Keep in mind that it will be with you all your life.
And do not forget that it owes its existence to shamanism and to the spirits from the afterlife. It is the link between the visible world and the invisible world, it invites the soul to venture to the boundaries of these two worlds.
I was told that I had been enchanted by the masks. That may be so.
No one can deny that a great mystery and a great life force radiate from them; they are magical and animated.
Choose your mask or let yourself be “enchanted” by one too.
What also gives added value to these pieces is the economic contribution that their sale provides for the families.
When I meet people in Panama city and I tell them I work with the tribal peoples in the forest, they immediately congratulate me on my social work. So I explain to them that I do not work for any government or NGO. They look at me, taken aback, and ask me what do I do in the forest.
These people cannot imagine that I simply order and pay for a product at its fair value. I pay for magnificent work and I participate in recognizing its worth. People often considers that the tribal peoples live in a world apart and that only social welfare can reach these villages and contribute to their “development”...
I believe that they possess a wonderful know-how, supported by an extraordinary culture that is in danger of dying out. I adapt to their lifestyle. Humbly, I take small steps to preserve this ancestral know-how on the verge of fading from memory and support its transmission to the next generation, at least for the time being.
I do not ask the women what they will do with the money they earn. It is not up to me to make sure the villages have running water or electricity. Besides, do they really want these things?
With the money from their labour, they buy whatever they want for themselves and for their children. I do not lecture them, I am not in a position to know what is good for them. Yes, they are happy to earn money because it will improve their daily lives and so they can buy better food, clothing or even mobile phones. Phones are rare and since it can take more than a day to travel from one village to the next, imagine the luxury a phone represents. Because curiously, even in places where there is nothing, no running water, no electricity, no road, it is often possible to use a mobile phone and sometimes even to send messages via WhatsApp!
I remember late one evening being with the priest from a "pueblo negro", where I had spent the evening trying to use the church's WiFi by walking all around the church in the dark and in the rain, holding my mobile phone up in the air trying to connect to the network. Unfortunately, that particular time, I ended up spending three days with no connection, no communication, but it left me this funny memory.
The sale of masks also helps improves the children’s school attendance, because the women sometimes move to another village for a period of time in order to be closer to school. They can quickly settle down in a “choza” made of planks, with a palm leaf roof.
They manage their earnings as they see fit.
I did not bring any change to the habits of these artisans. I never alter the way things are, and do not wish to. I am the one who adapts to the most peculiar and sometimes difficult situations.
To visit the artisans, don't think you can just get on a bus or drive a car. You must also abandon the 4WD and get on board a canoe, often for many long hours. This is the only means of travel because there is no road or track.
The two large rivers and their many tributaries connect the villages and ensure their survival.
Here, everything takes time and patience... Just imagine!
Before they arrive in their new environment, before they are set up for many years to come on an antique chest of drawers, above a velvet sofa, next to a lithograph, surrounded by art and literature books in a designer library, these masks have been on a long journey, by many means of transport.
They took shape there, in a small wooden hut wide open to the forest, filled with the songs of birds and screams of monkeys, and with the deafening noise of tropical rain. Made on the floor and born straight out of the imagination of a native woman, without any help from sketches or plans, they are imbued with this climate, these images and the laughter of children.
When I travel there, I enter a wild, pristine area. You must embrace it wholeheartedly and give yourself to it, accept the way of life, of communication and the rhythm of the forest.
After hours of an often arduous journey, I arrive in insalubrious places, but I blend into the existing way of life and that is why people accept me and trust me. I eat, sleep and live in close quarters to the people I work with and, although I am different from these women, I do my best to behave like them. I respect them and I show my respect.
To be accepted in the forest, one have to blend in and you must rely on the caciques (chiefs) to be correctly introduced. You need a guide who is friends with all the personalities of the rainforest, humans, animals and spirits.
More than a hand-crafted object, the mask is a unique art work born deep within the jungle.
And in these masks, you find the shadow of the spell for which they are originally intended, the dreams and images that surround the women in their creativity, and all the colours and sounds of the forest where they were born.
“I do not really know how it is possible, but that’s just how it is. I am an Indian. I did not know it until I met the Indians in Mexico and Panama. Now I know. I may not be a good Indian. I do not know how to grow corn or carve a canoe. The peyote, the mezcal, the chicha have no effect on me. But for everything else, the way of walking, talking, loving, being afraid, I would say this: when I met these native peoples, for me, who believed I had no family, it was as if all of a sudden, I had known thousands of sisters, brothers, fiancées and wives”.
Hai by Jean Marie-Gustave Le Clézio
These stories are dedicated to José Antonio Ardila.
I would like to thank the wonderful persons who helped me - in Spain, Panama and in France. They are part of this story. They know who they are.
They have been here for me over the years. They are my totem and a part of me.
Also, thanks to the little lights from the invisible world that have guided me every step of the way.
Our masks are used in a variety of interior design projects. Ritual masks from the Panama and Colombia rainforest bring an authentic and unique touch to modern or classic home decoration.
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