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 the reading of 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 in this slightly crazy project. And yet he too, using all his storytelling skills, 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 reducers were going to eat for breakfast the one he later kindly nicknamed: “la reina del Darién”!
While organising my exhibition, I contacted ethnologist Michel Perrin, who is an expert in “molas” and Kuna Indians. Fascinated by this handicraft and curious about this country, I simply felt the urge to work with the indigenous people who created these wonders and on that basis, I decided to undertake my first journey.
From the Ministry of crafts and exports to embassies and embassy attachés, everything was arranged during this first trip to meet the artisans and economic stakeholders, and discover the work involved in the making of molas as well as other remarkable artworks and handicrafts.
However, Ethic & Tropic was not born through formal networks. The support of a network of genuine friends and embarking on an actual adventure is where everything actually started.
Over the course of my travels in Panama, I met extraordinary people with whom I thought I would work. I will simply mention 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, who 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 40 years, is the only person who knows and deeply loves the forest and thanks to whom I understood that everything was possible.
I wandered around and was invited to many artistic and literature circles, exhibitions, 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 posh hotels... I met extraordinary people, I learned a lot and made friends, but that is not where I built Ethic & Tropic.
One day, while at the Old Town market, I stumbled upon four masks which I brought back to Paris. They fascinated me and many others. So I traced back their history, I took a bus - one of those small dusty buses that runs the regular service - and I went to the terminal where the road stops and the dense forest truly begins, to meet the tribes who make these objects.
Among my acquaintances, there was no one to accompany me, no one to guide me, I just had to take the local bus service used by the natives when they go to the city.
My friends tried to dissuade me, saying one simply does not 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. At the sole mention of the word “Darién”, everyone gives you a startled look. And then a special pass was required, since it is a high risk area.
I still 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”, which leads to the same reaction of sheer disbelief, without fail.
When I got on the 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 hat firmly sat on their head and wearing work clothes got on then off again after a few hours, with the bus seemingly stopping here and there at the everyone's request. Some 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 as the forest gradually surrounded us. A street vendor would occasionally reach us and I even saw an evangelical preacher get on in one of the rare villages we drove through, tossed about by the bumps on the road but still able to hang on as he stood in front of us, subjecting us to his prayers and threatening us with the vindication of God, while everyone listened to his sermon and repeated the word Amen.
In the course of my travels, I showed these masks to my Panamanian friends who had never seen them and, without my little spark of madness, I believe they would have remained hidden deep in the forest, probably doomed to disappear.
Today I left the bus behind and we are off in a pick-up truck with Jesús, a kind-hearted person, my driver who also became a friend, and it is always an adventure. Jésus arrives on time before dawn. Throughout our trip, we happily talk 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 a 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 in a canoe under a humid, overwhelming heat and sometimes under a tropical storm. Frequent stops are necessary in order to make progress. I sometimes sleep in a hammock or wherever I am invited to sleep. The mosquito net protects me from mosquitoes as well as other flying or crawling insects, and 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 crow 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 keep sting marks for months.
I am often told that I was very brave. I do not think so; I reply by saying that courage implies overcoming one’s fears. But I was never afraid. I sometimes believe that the masks themselves called me.
After five years, I now consider 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, these dreadful months when the tropical rain never seems to cease, flooding rivers and uprooting trees. There are also anti-mosquito lotions, even if we no longer believe in them, and the essential head flashlight to move at night. I even have plastic cutlery I bought a long time ago when I was told about a cholera outbreak, and which I finally do not dare to use out of courtesy towards the natives with whom I share my meals. In a nutshell, this trunk contains objects, the usefulness of which I was not aware of up until a few years ago, before 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, I go directly in the shower and rejoice in the luxury of running water and a hot shower. I promise to relate my latest adventures the following morning around the breakfast we take 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 place of storage 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 stays, 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 had to explain the 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.
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, since I am on site every three months. After a few mishaps and especially an intermediary who was tempted to keep the money intended for the women's work, I decided that I was the only person entitled to buy from the artisans and pay them. Although the logistics of Ethic & Tropic is now properly set up 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 of the entire American continent, one of the most preserved places in the world, a pristine and wild region sometimes considered as the most dangerous place in Central America because of tropical diseases, wild animals, and also 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 men from the north of Alaska to the south of Patagonia, barely interrupted over a hundred kilometres in Central America.
On this small strip of land of 160 kilometres between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 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, no connection with urban life, no tracks or paths, one simply has to give up the idea of moving with a car and get on board a frail boat, namely a small canoe carved from the trunk of a tree: the “cayuco”. The only way to communicate from one village to another is to follow the many narrow, winding rivers, the course of which varies depending on the season.
In the best case scenario, 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 while 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 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, one sleeps on the floor.
A village may 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 will be eaten.
It is also where children are found playing, laughing and jumping in the water all day long.
I remember arriving in a village after hours of canoeing under the sun, drenched in sweat, and asking if I could cool off before I started working; I was naturally invited to go to the river because there was no other water supply. 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 as slightly more elaborate products such as soft drinks, sweets, biscuits, any product imported from Panama and delivered in canoes, with the obvious difficulties and slow pace 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 each of my travels, where I go, when and with whom. It provides a measure of safety as drug trafficking is extremely important 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 was arriving in a village where I had to stop overnight and work the next day, the police, informed of my arrival for several hours, were already looking for me. They had my name, my first name as well as my description, and they were looking for me.
After dark, I am asked not to go out, not to walk in the village and I feel protected because I stay with the natives.
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 run high, I must call them every hour and they also call me so as to always be aware of 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, the isolation of small villages built along the rivers and days of travel from the city and the richness of the tropics have allowed these people to preserve their traditions while maintaining a self-sufficient living.
When I first arrived a few years ago, women were still walking around topless, with their breasts covered in body paints and a Paruma fitted around their hips. They increasingly cover their breasts with a light and modern piece of clothing, often 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 companies that export tropical timber, 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 look at them contributed to these changes in behaviour.
These regions live at their own pace, tribes celebrate their traditional festivals and apply their own regulations. The cacique, in other words the village chief, enforces the law and I have a vivid memory of the beams on the village square, to which 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 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 passed on orally and to my knowledge, apart from very few short lexicons, no work has been done that would allow them to be preserved and taught in a sustainable manner.
Here is a brief glimpse of the sounds used in 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 in 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. They will therefore create ways to communicate with this parallel world.
challenged by the way of life of our civilisation, by religion and by modern medicine. Again, all this knowledge is passed on orally from one generation to the next. It is 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”, i.e. communicating with the invisible world.
The shaman plays a therapeutic role: he cures diseases that are generally considered as soul thieving or as 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 the evils because he is the link between this world and the afterlife; he thus 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 appears that not all shamans are good people, and I have been told that some of them are essentially spellcasters, meaning they cast evil spells. I was never in a position to verify this, and I doubt I would want to.
During a recent trip, the women explained that one of them, whom I knew, was missing that day because since my last visit, she had been sick and unable to work. When I asked what she had, I was told it was a case of “brujería”, or a spell. She had therefore sought out the help of the shaman from the neighbouring village for her treatment, and not a doctor.
In this region, tribal peoples are known to cast lots of spells among themselves and this is also one of the reasons they remain isolated. In a village, a non-native will never build his house amidst a native neighbourhood.
One can thus imagine to what extent the shaman is feared or revered, but he is also increasingly cast aside by western society and Christian religion, which are gaining ground.
Furthermore, 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.
Masks are derived from shamanic rites. For the Indians “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 function...
Rites take place at night because that is when the invisible world manifests itself and that one can communicate with its spirits. The "mesas” (name given to the rituals) last all night.
The rites involve the absorption of plants and decoctions, songs, sometimes dances and often the ingestion of alcohol, namely the “chicha”, which is produced by fermenting corn.
Prior to the ritual, paints are sometimes applied on the body of both the shaman and the person who asked for his help.
The work performed during the “mesa” takes a long time. The shaman follows a ritual for which he needs accessories; his carved wooden sticks are always present during the rite. 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, the shaman keeps watch all night, sometimes for several nights, and connects with his guides, his helpers, and the spirits that help him 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 their removal from the sick body and during that exchange, the spirits learn to recognise the face of the shaman who is fighting them, just as they know the face of the patient they are tormenting. The shaman will thus wear a mask, when he deems it appropriate, to deceive the spirits. The patterns painted on the body 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 who referred to these objects as masks, with my Western perspective, and everyone has taken up this term. In Embera, one says “Nemboro” when talking about the “masks”, and “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, one actually takes on the appearance and the soul, the energy of the beast or spirit represented. The term mask is 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 once the “mesas” are completed, so there are no ancient pieces; they are not made to last, unlike African masks made of wood or metal. After the ritual, the mask can be burnt very easily and will disappear because I suppose 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. Does one consider that it is animated by its own energy or that it is pursued by the spirit it has deceived and which will come back for revenge?
In any case, just like the shaman sticks, the mask is “energised” according to the expression used.
While the sticks will be used for future rituals (they belong exclusively to the shaman), the masks are destroyed.
I would never touch a shaman's stick without being invited to do so by the shaman himself, because if the stick is energised, the spirits would attack me and this could put my health and my life in danger.
The sticks, usually four or five in number, belong to the shaman, are sometimes bequeathed by his mentor, and 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.
I saw some that 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 depending on the case to be treated.
We decided to leave for one day and go up the Río Membrillo to visit three new villages far away.
I am always seeking new techniques, different ways to elaborate the pieces and especially new inspirations.
I learned very quickly that there is no desire for productivity among the natives and no solidarity either between them. For each of my trips, I have to work with several villages and a large number of people to be sure to find a fine variety of masks, with a good diversity of techniques and colours.
It was the rainy season and our frail canoe was stopped twice by huge trees that had fallen across the river after being uprooted by tropical rain, thus completely obstructing the way from one bank to the other.
The first time, we passed under the uprooted tree by lying inside the canoe.
But when we encountered another tree blocking the river, we came to a complete stop and I thought this was the end of the journey.
A cut had been made in the huge tree trunk in order 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.
We decided to tow it, at the risk of capsizing our own boat, to free it from the trunk where it had embedded itself and, since our canoe was narrower than theirs, we would be able to get past the obstacle without any problem and leave the other boat to its fate.
Using a canoe is the only way to get around; there is no path in this dense forest, so the river is the only practicable way for man.
A little later, in the first village where we stopped, I saw a tree trunk and someone explained to me that a canoe would be carved from this very trunk in a single piece.
I could tell many stories from this trip, such as these incredible encounters with people who had all heard of me and were waiting for me in these villages in the middle of nowhere, where one finds no activity and no visitors; I could describe the particularly difficult conditions, the mosquitoes that kept biting us despite our clothes, the sticky humidity and the sweltering heat, the tiredness, but what I want to recount here is a particular conversation.
When we arrived in Saba, I first went to the nearest house and asked a woman if she would prepare us something to eat. It was almost 1 p.m. and we had been up since four in the morning; the journey had been long and tiring, and I knew it would take this woman some time to get organised. Led by her daughter, I then went a little further up the village to buy a few eggs and some chicken for our crew, so that she would cook them for us with rice and “patacones” (fried bananas), as is customary. Since I do not eat meat, my meals consist of rice and bananas, every day.
While she prepares the food, I start a conversation with her husband. Our presence has sparked the man's curiosity and he is eager to talk. As soon as I see an opportunity, I turn the conversation to the shaman of the village, arguing that I would like some form of relief for my mosquito bites.
From what I know about shamans, they heal both the mind and the body. Combining their deep knowledge of plants with all the wisdom and culture of their people, they carefully prepare ointments aimed at relieving the evils specific to the environment in which they live.
Each village has a shaman, but the man I am speaking to soon explained to me that the village had turned to evangelism and, as a result, had abandoned shamanism.
Little by little, he tells me that his grandfather was the shaman of the village, and that the old man had to be hospitalised in town recently.
I talk to him about plants, about the remedies of his grandfather and he nods in agreement; yes, the old man knew how to relieve many evils and heal using plants. He cured many people, but no one wanted to carry on the witch doctor’s work these days...
Because the shaman is also the one who talks to the spirits. He holds sacred and mysterious knowledge he does not share with anyone else.
I am once again dismayed to see how the beliefs of an entire people are simply swept away because, if I believe this man, no one has inherited this knowledge.
Nowadays, the shaman is being cast aside by the new religion that is gradually conquering very village. He is the sorcerer, the man from the past, he is poorly regarded and ill considered.
Religion is gaining ground and wants to eradicate shamanic practices. Since the belief in an invisible world populated by spirits that interact with humans does not correspond to the beliefs of this new church, which seems intent on reigning alone, the pastor will very quickly persuade his flock to renounce their ancestral beliefs. I do not feel the need to go into the details, it is a fact.
And yet when these same believers, whether indigenous or non-indigenous, start talking about spirits, shamans and bewitchments, I realise that the fear of bewitchment remains extremely strong. On every trip, I hear about supernatural facts and most of the non-natives I know do not mix with natives, precisely for fear of evil spells.
Doctors act much like clergymen: while pharmaceutical companies greedily seize the knowledge of the natives and plunder natural reserves, local healthcare teams condemn people, understandably, for calling upon the shaman.
The all-encompassing culture of the shamans is passed on orally from one shaman to his successor, and when the shaman disappears, a void ensues. All the culture passed on from generation to generation is immediately erased, abruptly swept away.
Thus, the belief stays rooted, but the knowledge and the history disappear, communication with the spirits is under 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 free days to go see her. We rarely have that many days available for a visit. Besides, one has to take into account the hazards of the journey. Indeed, it is not rare for boats to capsize in that area because one has to venture out to sea before entering the long sinuous river which leads to the heart of the forest... And when the boat capsizes, it’s goodbye packages, camera, phone... and masks as well!
If the weather is bad and the rain is too heavy, it may take an extra day or two for the boat to reach this small village and berth in order to let passengers get on board. The river is unpredictable. Here, nature is in control, not man.
There used to be a small airstrip that allowed light aircrafts to fly in from Panama. I personally have only ever seen this strip of tarmac overrun by tropical vegetation, with a few cows grazing peacefully, together with hungry stray dogs. The line was suspended a few 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 purposely write Indian village because similar to many other villages, it comprises two well-differentiated 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 land 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 may arrive at hers at any time; she invites me to settle in, have a coffee and stay a few days with her.
One feels at ease with Teresa and she speaks freely about her art. Spending time with her is always wonderful, as if an invisible bond was forming with the words exchanged. Her gestures are soothing, her gaze and her smile are comforting.
She explained to me how masks and 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 handed them to her, and she will hand them down to her successor.
Anyone who seizes them uninvited would fall seriously ill and could die as a result. I have been told many dreadful stories on that subject.
Using his sticks, herbal potions, masks and body paints, the shaman always works at night. He remains at the patient’s side throughout the night. With the help of incantations and litanies, he summons his guides, his spirits, to guide him in his work and help him drive out the evil spirits hidden within the body of the patient they are tormenting.
All night long, the shaman fights evil spirits. It is a long and gruelling task. He speaks with them and exhorts them, with the help of the “chicha”, the traditional alcohol made from chewed up, fermented corn, he reaches a trance and communicates with the invisible world.
At the right moment in this struggle, he will use the masks to change his appearance and deceive the evil spirits who recognise his face.
Once used, the masks disappear, which is why there are no ancient pieces. They are not made to last but to be useful at a precise moment in time.
They are helpful and ephemeral pieces, invisible to the uninitiated.
At Teresa's, one also finds small wooden statuettes, bunches of dried plants hanging from the roof, old plastic bottles that contain decoctions; one of them is actually very effective against my sunburns.
I do not leave Teresa’s empty handed: she offers me what she harvested that very same day: 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 her and me, which I immediately felt 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 does one explain the role of the shaman? Healer, sorcerer, I would add that of psychologist… because he is all that at the same time.
I once stayed in a village where a little boy aged about 10, named Villanor, very often stayed by my side. He was looking for my company, he was a anxious child, nervous, rather withdrawn, very smart and curious. At first, he would follow me and watch me in silence. Then, little by little, as the days went by, he started talking, 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 earlier and that it was the child who had found him.
His father had hanged himself and the child had come in just as he was dying. He had frantically tried to help his father, in vain, and saw him die right before his eyes.
Villanor, much like his younger sister, aged 18 months, had since been behaving strangely. He was very nervous, sometimes aggressive, and his sister had insomnia and would wake up in tears every evening at nightfall, when the spirits manifest themselves.
A few months later, I met again with the person who had told me this story, who turned out to be their aunt. The 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 all three of them must be fine today. I was told that a good shaman was dealing with their case.
I have been going to the forest regularly for a few years now, with fifteen trips in just over five years.
Every time I travel, I stay in the villages of the tribal peoples who expect my visit. I purchase the masks that have been made for me the previous months, 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 women have my phone number, but it is not always easy to communicate over the distance, often due to a lack of telephone network. One must admit, however, that being able to call every now and then by insisting a little is quite remarkable. I am here in Paris, I have been dialling a phone number for a few days without any luck, and suddenly someone answers. I hear “hellooo” at the other end of the line, from a voice deep within the wildest forest in the world, covered by the noise of children shouting, roosters crowing and dogs barking in the village. At that very moment, I believe I am still as surprised as anyone who would use 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 familiar. My coming is a celebration, the promise of money, and hence of some shopping for the women, as well as purchases both for them and their children.
It is also a celebration because my arrival breaks their routine. They meet in the village for several days, gathered around me, comparing their work, talking animatedly to one another.
When I am here among these women and children who surround me happily, for me who grew up in France, in a very small village in the countryside, I cannot help but reminisce about the village fair of my childhood and this excitement particular to places where nothing ever happens.
When I leave after visiting and staying in several villages, the women know when I will come back and they also know how many pieces I will need. I provide some direction for future work, colours, dimensions, but no one follows my requests and in the end, it is a lot more fun this way. Anyway, everyone knows that I will buy the entire production, regardless of my requests, so they continue to do what they want!
The artists who possess this 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, they now trust me because I have shown them my good faith and they can perceive 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 keeping the jewels worn during the festivities. But up until then, 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 previous visit.
I recognise the work of many of them if they have a genuine gift and I also recognise the work specific to some villages thanks to the techniques and colours used in each location.
When was weaving first used? No one can tell... They learned it from their mothers and grandmothers. But each of them adds her personal weave, her own visions and interpretation of nature.
True artists produce such particular work that for me, it is as if the piece was signed with their name.
The techniques used vary widely from one village to the next, and I am presently unable to identify the reason for this. It would be equally difficult to index them because I sometimes notice a mix between one technique and another.
When I come from another village, the women are always very curious to see the masks from the neighbouring villages. They are curious about the shapes, designs, details, and they also want to assess the quality of the work produced by others.
The chief of the village, or “cacique”, has 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 tribe’s women how to improve on the work they have learned and practised since their 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 to the women and is passed on among them, within their family.
Today, there are hundreds of women waiting for me on every visit.
Being a woman is definitely an advantage here.
If I had been a man, I would never have had such an experience.
Because this work is solely executed by women. At times, they weave while breastfeeding their baby. Sometimes, the mask is there, half finished, they put if down carefully to prepare a meal, 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 among themselves, amidst the children who play, laugh and run. They are seldom found alone, and where they work is always full of animation, conversations, laughter. Solitude has no place in the tribe, one comes and goes from one house to another. I never know which family the children present belong to, 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 on their part, which always surprised me. From the very first time, I felt at ease, accepted as I was, 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 obviously 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 the conversations. Naturally, the one I am listening to, the one I am talking to will always be 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 sedentary, 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 intended for consumption in the village and for sale. For their families, they produce rice, yams and some coffee.
If we need them, they are there to help us with the logistics, carry bags, take the canoe from one village to another. But we are generally left alone, since my work does not concern the husbands and the complicity was immediately established between the women and myself.
We talk, laugh and work without anything hindering the simplicity of our 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 in their lap, I sit down on the floor and meddle with their conversation. I never ask questions, and yet I learn so much.
Nightfall loosens tongues: puberty rites, stories about the husbands... the conversation jumps from one subject to another. They enjoy talking, recounting and telling each other stories.
These are the magical moments of my work.
The masks are all made deep within the forest and the women work together in each village, freely and at their own pace.
As a family or while talking with neighbours, it is not uncommon to see the artisans working in hammocks, gently rocking in the breeze.
Do I need to tell you that these masks are entirely made by hand, without any machine? It is of course quite obvious because I have no idea where one would get machines in the forest... the only tool required is a needle.
The material used is called “chunga”. It is a type of palm from the Darién (Astrocaryum standleyanum). The palm leaves are harvested, dried, bleached in the sun and must spend at least one night under the moonlight so as to bathe in the morning dew.
Once is the part to be used is selected, stains and other pigmentary defects are removed with boiled lemon water, and the leaves are then dyed using plant-based dyes. This is a great moment: wood fires are lit and the women gather to perform this work together. 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.
Then 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 do not 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 at their convenience.
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 the exact same materials as the ones used for masks, but with techniques much less diverse. From mother to daughter, the tradition of weaving continues to be passed on. We work together, slowly, time is not important.
Besides, they cannot tell me how much time they have spent on a piece, but that also happens whenever I take a trip: however many people I ask how much time it takes to go from one village to another, no one really has an idea. I am the only one who is always worried about time and deadlines!
Here, no timetable, no schedule, no one is really subjected to this kind of requirement.
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 the pieces not to be finished when I get there and, seeing my look of disappointment, the artisan shrugs and looks at me with a smile, as one would look at a sulking child, as if to say “What does it matter, I will finish it next time”.
I have never seen the women wearing a watch, even if they have the opportunity to buy one. The rhythm of everyday life is mainly dictated by 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 envisioned and made far from any urban life; this piece 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 spirits of the forest... The origin of the mask remains a mystery and when I sometimes ask what they intended to represent, they evade my gaze and my question by laughing.
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! There are, for example, many representations of monkeys, but no two are alike. Aggressive, funny, gentle, each expression is unique... Their gaze is fascinating, and 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, and it is wonderful to perpetually discover new expressions, new combinations. For my part, I am always surprised and amazed by the work accomplished.
I respect tradition and beliefs, and I encourage the work to be carried out with the utmost respect for traditions.
To complete their work faster and thinking this would be better, some artisans used artificial dyes. With the money they earned, they bought chemical dyes. Others wanted to introduce steel wires to make the masks more rigid, more “beautiful”.
I had to stand firm against these practices and, on a side note, I even worked with a magnet at some point, to detect the presence of metal.
I therefore make sure the authenticity of the piece is preserved, I insist on the use of plant-based dyes like in the early days, and 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 leads me to ponder respectfully over the mastery of the technique, the patience and skill of the person who made this piece.
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 of some pieces, such as small teeth, red tongue, crooked ears or base of the 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.
One cannot 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.
What also gives added value to these pieces is the economic contribution that their sale provides for the families.
When I meet people there and I tell them I work with the natives 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 then look at me, taken aback, and ask me what 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 its recognition. One often considers that the natives live in a world apart and that only social welfare can reach these villages and contribute to their “development”...
I simply believe they possess a wonderful know-how, supported by an extraordinary culture that is in danger of dying out. I adapt to their lifestyle and do not put mine forward as an example. Humbly, I preserve this ancestral know-how on the verge of fading from memory and I allow this unique know-how to be passed on to the next generations, at least for the time being.
I do not ask the women what they do with the money they earn. It is not up to me to make sure running water or electricity facilities are put in place. Besides, do they really want these commodities?
With the money from their labour, they will buy whatever they deem necessary 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 this money because it will improve their daily life and allow them to buy better food, clothing or even mobile phones. Phones are rare and since it can take more than a day to go from one village to the next, imagine the luxury this 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 one late evening in the company of the priest from a “black” village, where I had spent the evening trying to use the church's WiFi by walking all around this religious building at night and in the rain, holding my mobile phone up in the air to try and connect to the network. Unfortunately, that particular time, I ended up spending three days with no connection, no communication, but it left me with a fun memory.
The sale of masks also largely contributes to improving 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. One can quickly settle in a “choza” made of planks, with a roof made of palm leaves.
They manage their earnings as they see fit.
I did not bring any change to the habits of the artisans. I did not 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 or for them to come to me, do not think one can just get on a bus or drive a car; one must also abandon the 4WD and get on board a small boat, often for long hours. This is the only means of communication because there is no road or track.
The two large rivers and their many tributaries connect the villages and ensure their survival.
Here as well, everything takes time, patience... Just imagine!
Before they arrive in their new environment, before they are set for many years on an antique chest of drawers, above a velvet sofa, next to a lithography, surrounded by art and literature books in a designer library, the masks have undertaken on a long journey, using a wide variety of 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 directly from 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. One must embrace it wholeheartedly and give oneself to it, accept the way of life, of communication and the rhythm of the forest.
After hours of an often arduous journey, I land in insalubrious places, but I blend into the existing organisation and that is why they accept me and trust me. I eat, sleep and live in close proximity to the people I work with and although I am different from these women, I do my best to be like them through my behaviour. I respect them.
To be accepted in the forest, one must blend into it and to do so, one must rely on the caciques and be perfectly introduced. One needs a guide who is friends with all the personalities of the rainforest, humans, animals and spirits.
More than a hand-crafted object, it is a unique work of art born deep within the jungle.
And in these masks, one finds 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.
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