Views of Panama

Wondrous Hands

From July 30 to August 2 Panama will once again host the Handicrafts Fair, an event that brings together artisans from every region of the country to exhibit textiles, pottery, sculptures, and basketwork, among other crafts.

Por Ana Teresa Benjamín
Fotos: Carlos E. Gómez

Before becoming a potter, Germán Ruiz tried his luck as a bartender, musician, and tile layer. As a very young man, he thought he might earn a living with his machete, but he soon realized that he could earn more playing the guitar than clearing fields; he ended up making pots by the age of thirty. “This work is like sewing: you don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it,” says Ruiz, sitting at an old potter’s wheel in the middle of a dark room of a house on the “potter’s street” in La Arena, near Chitré.

The town of La Arena in Herrera province is renowned for its clay artisans, pastries, and sweets. The main street is lined with shops selling finished decorative items, but the simple shop fronts—unmarked by neon signs—hide workshops behind the scenes where the pots, multi-color bells, frogs, figures of drunken farmers, and mushroom-shaped garden ornaments are actually created.

All the clay used by Ruiz comes from the area around Santa María, another town in Herrera. It is the same clay used by Antonio and Venancio Calderón, members of a family of seven brothers who grew up around the potter’s wheel, and whose products still sell very well, as noted by Denis Esther Batista as he shapes a miniature house.

But what is so special about Santa María clay? Like any good artisan, those in La Arena understand that everything depends on the raw material. For Herrera potters, Santa Maria clay is the only kind that can withstand high temperatures, allowing for problem-free “glazing” of the clay.

While La Arena has a long tradition of pottery, other parts of the province are known for their seamstresses and leather workers, and yet other regions of the country abound in carvers, weavers, metalsmiths, and handicrafts enthusiasts who keep traditions alive and add innovations from their rich stores of knowledge.

From Clay to Cloth

A little beyond the Divisa crossing— the point marking the fork between the roads to the Azuero Peninsula and the provinces of Veraguas and Chiriquí, the westernmost in Panama— stands the town of Ocú, also in Herrera province.

Some fifteen years ago, a local group of women formed Artesanías Ocueñas (Ocú Handicrafts) to promote Ocú weaving and increase sales. “We are women from Rincón Santo, San José, and Los Llanos,” says Catalina Serrano, a member of the guild. “Since we started, we have trained five or six groups, and some young women are still with us,” she adds proudly, because the idea is not just to promote the craft and sell products now, but also to create new generations able to carry on these traditions.

Ocú boasts a wonderful special-occasion pollera (traditional Panamanian dress) and another one (generally with trimmed edges) for everyday use, and a very distinctive men’s outfit: the Ocú montuno, consisting of a shirt and short trousers in either plain or embroidered drill cloth. These garments were made to be sold, but after one was purchased, years could pass before another outfit was needed. As for the polleras, the usual practice was to buy one for a regional celebration or use with a folklore group, but the outfit was not in much demand beyond that.

In order to promote their work, the women of Artesanías Ocueñas decided to diversify their products by fashioning blouses, outfits, and sweaters with Ocú embroidery. The idea was to create everyday garments featuring the popular Ocú embroidery designs in cross-stitch. “The best-sellers are men’s traditional shirts, skirt sets, and full outfits, especially for national days,” explains Serrano.

Something similar occurred with the women of Cerro Sombrero in the indigenous Ngäbe Buglé district. Thanks to advice from the non-profit group Pro Artesanas, six years ago they decided to unite to try to generate more publicity for their work. “Before, each person sold products on her own. Now, as an association, it is easier for us,” explains Rosa Saldaña, coordinator of the Association of Women Fighting for Progress (ASMUL).

Cerro Sombrero is a mountain community in the Tolé area of Chiriquí province. The highway to the women’s shop is easy to access, but further on, the road becomes rough and impossible to drive without a 4×4 vehicle. Despite the difficulties of being an indigenous woman in Panama and living in an area that lacks even potable water, the women of ASMUL work to help provide household income, mostly through subsistence agriculture.

Ngäbe women make their own outfits—called naguas—and sew characteristic designs of different colored triangles on the fabric. They have always done this by hand, but in an effort to improve the finishing and work more quickly, they now use sewing machines donated by Pro Artesanas. “They held a sewing course on improving the finishing and calculating costs,” ASMUL secretary Linca Elia Miranda tells us.

The association includes thirty-four women, although not all of them work in textile crafts. Santa Jiménez, for example, makes chácaras, or bags woven of vegetable fiber. They were traditionally made of hemp, but now she also uses flax and wool, “because I want to see how that works out.”

A Chance to Exhibit at the Fair

The slogan of this year’s Handicrafts Fair is “We innovate for you.” The goal of this year’s event, put on annually by the Panamanian Ministry of Trade and Industry (MICI), is to promote innovation among artisans. “The handicrafts being shown this year are intended to be items that can be used in everyday life,” explains Víctor Manuel Pinillo, director of the Handicrafts Fair.

According to MICI data, the country is home to 8,640 handicrafts artisans, from hat makers in Coclé and Azuero to wood carvers and Emberá and Wounaan masters of tagua art. While the Fair will provide a space for traditional handicrafts, which are always popular, the MICI seeks to encourage innovation that could create larger markets for national products.

“For example, the idea is to offer Ngäbe naguas with better colors, or blouses and sandals with Ngäbe appliqués. They are also making slim skirts, swimsuits with Ngäbe or Guna appliqués, and baskets in innovative colors,” notes Pinillo.

So save the date (July 30 to August 2) if you want an opportunity to admire and purchase the many beautiful items that showcase the ingenuity and creativity of Panamanian artisans.


Traditional Secrets

The book Plants with Traditional and Folk Uses in Panamá, by biologists Carla Chízmar, Allys Lu, and Mireya Correa (director of the University of Panama Herbarium), was published in 2009.

The publication, which features thirty-seven plants and trees, lists the family and scientific and common names of each plant, describes the species, its distribution, and its artisanal or traditional uses, and also names sources.

Flipping through the pages reveals photographs of painted trays, which are very popular in certain provinces of Panama, and readers learn that the trays are made of wild cashew wood, which is also used for mortars, saddles, and boats.

There are photographs of the baskets found in various Coclé markets; the baskets are woven from the pearl laceleaf vine, which is also used to make the containers and carrying baskets used by farmers to hold the crops they harvest.

The palm fibers known as chunga, chonta, or coquillo are woven into plates and masks by the Emberá people; the fruit of the calabash tree is used to make gourds, maracas, and decorative items; the hemp plant provides fibers for traditional straw hats, hammocks, and the well-known fiber bags of the Ngäbe people; wild cane is formed into cages, blinds, and decorative objects, as well as being used as a building material by the Guna people.







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