Corinne Bally, founder of the Ethic & Tropic brand, has relaunched the manufacture of nemboros, traditional shamanic masks of the Panamanian Embera and Wounaan tribes. The complex safeguarding of this know-how may have been guided by good minds… A look back at an exciting adventure.
Behind the masks of Ethic & Tropic hides a love story. The one that unites Corinne Bally, creator of this house specializing in shamanic decorative objects, and Panama. Is it a coincidence or are it the spirits that led this gallery owner settled in Spain to take an interest in the small country of Central America and, more particularly, in the peoples originating from the Darién forest? It’s hard to say… However, a few elements may suggest that, from the beginning of the 2010s, there was magic in the air.
It was, in fact, at this time that Corinne, somewhat by chance, exhibited molas, textile paintings produced by the women of the Kuna tribe who live in Colombia and Panama… She fell in love with this indigenous people and sought to learn more. She contacts the ethnologist, Michel Perrin, an expert on the subject, immerses herself in Panama split, a book by Ernesto Endara which recounts life in Panama City in the 1950s. But Corinne Bally wants more. She packs her suitcase and leaves for Panama, where she also meets Ernesto Endara. The author quickly becomes a friend who opens many doors for him. Behind each of them, she discovers marvels from know how local. But it is far from these interiors, in a market, that she comes face to face, with four masks.
On the trail of the nemboros
No one can tell her about the origin of these masks. No matter: they are magnificent, she buys them. Better, she decides to find where they come from. By dint of research, she ends up following a lead… She gets on a bus which takes her to the edge of a thick forest, the famous forest Darién where the Kuna tribe lives – the one who creates the molas – but also the Embera and Wounaan tribes, probably those who make the masks. Impenetrable, this territory is also dangerous, populated by insects and animals, but also in the hands of drug traffickers. We do not venture there. Especially when you’re foreign. But Corinne didn’t come all this way for nothing. As if pushed by a mysterious force, she manages to enter this labyrinth and meet the women who still master the gestures of making these shamanic masks acquired by chance.
Communicate with spirits
“Initially, these masks are not decorative objects, explains Corinne Bally, who for ten years has forged links with these forest communities and travels three times a year to this territory by pick-up then by canoe, often under escort to ensure their safety. They are ritual objects, made at the request of a family when one of their members goes to consult a shaman. At the end of the session, the mask, which was used to communicate with the spirits, is burned. It is therefore doomed to destruction. And since, in addition, shamanic rituals are tending to disappear, fewer and fewer nemboros – the name of these masks – are made and the know-how was being lost.
Save a tradition
Corinne will then decide to work with the women of these communities in order to safeguard this tradition. “Every gesture is made according to the rules of the art. The women thus go and pick the palms at the waxing moon. Braid them. They learned from their mother or grandmother. But this is quite vague. They then only use natural dyes. And, they have carte blanche to develop their creativity. No size is imposed. Initially the nemboros were the size of a face but today women can make large formats like miniatures. Same freedom in terms of themes: animals, creatures having visited them during the night… Everything is possible. I also recognize the style of each craftswoman in the embroidery, more or less sophisticated details. Every time I come, I am surprised to discover incredible achievements.”
150 women in 7 villages
Corinne Bally’s approach has made it possible to avoid the abandonment and oblivion of this technique while contributing to developing the creativity of these women. “It’s obviously a new source of income for them. I am not an association but a client. I buy their work at the right price, insists Corinne Bally. I sometimes leave them a provision to cover the costs. I tried to structure transmission systems but the spirit is very individualistic, there are rivalries and it was impossible for me to set up, for example, a workshop. Learning happens naturally within the family. Each woman works from home, at her own pace. It was therefore very difficult and long to set up a network. I went through an intermediary but it turned out that he was dishonest. I also got overwhelmed. Indeed, I started my project with a small group. As it was rumored that I was coming to work in a village, women arrived in canoes to see what was going on. But once there, they couldn’t go home because they couldn’t afford the return trip… Today, everything is organised. I work with 150 women in 7 different villages. There is a coordinator in each village. Between each village there is often an 8 hour journey by canoe. Each of my stays is therefore full. Especially since I only stay about twenty days in the forest because the climate, very hot and humid, is particularly hard to bear. But it’s an amazing experience.”
Beautiful and benevolent masks
When we admire the gallery of masks from the Panamanian forest proposed by Corinne Bally, we cannot help marveling at the miracle of this ancestral work that has come down to us. There is a form of bewitchment confirmed by Corinne. “It is not you who chooses the mask, it is he who chooses you, she explains. They all have a dimension benevolent, warm and fascinating, it is therefore difficult to arbitrate. Which one is for me? You have to let yourself go, let yourself be carried towards your nemboro… Naturally beautiful materials and colors, the trace of the hand and the personality of the woman who made it: these masks are works of art apart whole but also magic items.
Ethics & Tropics: ethictropic.com
We would like to say thanks to the writer of this write-up for this incredible material
The incredible adventure of Nemboro shamanic masks brought back to life by a French decorator
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