Unmasking Nemboro craftsmanship
Picture a dense tropical forest in Central America. Monkeys scream overhead, colourful birds flutter and chatter in the trees, the noise of the city forgotten. This is el Tapón del Darién, sometimes called the “green hell”, an area of Panama undisturbed by modern life and home to two indigenous tribal groups, the Wounaans and the Emberás. Here, we can find the makers of nemboros, the inspiration behind our Panamania wallpaper.
The Vale’s creative director, Melinda Marquardt, first discovered these incredible works of art through Corinne Bally, owner of Ethic and Tropic - purveyors of incredible decorative objects from the region. Corinne has been collaborating with the indigenous women of the area for over seven years; sharing her passion for these unknown artists with decorators and art lovers around the world. We were fascinated by her detailed accounts of Emberá culture and the wonderful people of el Tapón del Darién.
Nemboros (or ‘heads’ in Emberá) are traditional ceremonial masks worn by a tribal shaman to communicate with, and become, one of the ‘hais’ - spirits of nature that govern life in the villages of el Tapón del Darién. According to local legend, these spirits come in the form of plants, trees and, more commonly, animals like leopards, monkeys and crocodiles. In the eyes of the people, the shaman ‘transforms’ into the hai, taking on its spirit and energy, making the nemboro much more than a piece of art. Corinne Bally reveals in her own book that each one has its own distinct characteristics and expression, and are used to speak with different hais.
The heads themselves are made by hand - with a needle as the only tool. Their unique texture comes from the chunga palm (Astrocaryum standleyanum) which are dried and left to soak in dew for one night before construction begins. Using their own natural dye recipes made from roots, fruit or wood chips, the women weave strips of chunga through a tough frame of nahuala until the structure is covered. According to Corinne, large mask can take up to a month to make, so it’s common to see the artisans weaving while chatting to family, sitting comfortably in gently swinging hammocks.
Common colours for the masks include anything from pinks and blues from the putchama leaf and jagua juice, but our favourites are the browns and ambers created with cocobolo bark and the striking black of buried chunga. Like the masks, each of the dyes takes days to harvest and produce. The time that goes into the design of each mask is astounding, so we have tried to reflect this level of detail in the hand-drawn masks of the Panamania wallpaper. Another thing we love about the nemboros are their wonderful expressive features. We retain every detail of the physical masks in our wallpaper design, to capture the authenticity and quirky imperfections of the original masks, so you can enjoy a truly unique touch in your home.
Masks are made exclusively by the women of the tribes, using knowledge passed down through generations by word-of-mouth. These women have never known life outside their villages, so the pieces they make are entirely authentic to their unique experience and culture. Each maker uses techniques and dye recipes of her own, and no-one in the tribes knows how long the masks have been made by the Emberá people - even Corinne Bally wasn’t able to find out in her many trips to the area. It seems to have passed out of living memory, the techniques of the craft eternally echoing through the years.
To learn more about nemboros and the people who make them, we recommend you take a look at Ethic & Tropic for the full story from Corinne Bally.
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