Artisan Profile: The Story Behind Our Emberá Masks

Posted June 14, 2017 by Nora Handsher

There’s more to what meets the eye with our Emberá animal masks. Not only are these our favorite whimsical wall addition to playrooms and libraries, but they come with a story of traditional craft and bettering the lives of the artisans who make them.

Deep in the Darien rainforests in southern Panama, the women of the Emberá tribe hand weave one-of-a-kind animal masks from dyed split palm leaves in their homes. The masks were traditionally used by Emberá shamans (religious authorities that link man with the spirit world) in healing and cleansing rituals. The masks are hung on the walls and from the ceiling of the huts where the rituals take place. Originally, these masks were burned during ceremonies. Now, these pieces are made as a commercial product in addition to ritual purposes, but the traditional craft and process is maintained.

The process of creating a mask is long and intensive. Palm leaves are collected from the forest and sun-dried for 3-4 days, which bleaches the pigment of the leaves. The leaves are then naturally dyed with roots and wood before they are woven into the final product: these playful creatures. Each mask is a creation of the individual maker, infused with their own style and perspective. Each piece takes around 2 weeks to hand make.

The production of these masks provides extra income for the community. Most of the women use these funds to send their children to school. Because of the remote location of the village, after age 8, children must travel to other villages and small cities to attend school, requiring the additional cost of travel and board during the school week. Among other purposes, the income from the masks allows families to afford these expenses and provides their children the opportunity for education.

Take a peek at some behind the scenes shots of the process and the skillful artisans who make our Emberá mask collection.

After palm leaves are gathered from the forest, they are hung to dry and bleached by the sun.

Next, the split palm leaves are placed in vats of dye derived from natural plants.

Each individual artist conceives of her design and starts handweaving the leaves to her vision.

The finished products are vibrant masks, each with their own charm and personality.

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