Waja Designs: Part 1

Portal to a parallel world in Makiritare trays

April 29, 2016

Part 1 of 2 of Charles Brewer-Carias’ introduction to the artistry of waja basketry produced in the Amazonas region of Venezuela. The baskets’ seemingly abstract designs are actually expressions of the Watunna, the creation epic of the Makiritare people who weave them.​


Basketry from the Amazonas region of Venezuela constitutes the richest and most attractive artistic expression of all the crafts created by the South American indigenous communities, and among these, the circular baskets and pouches or boxes woven exclusively by men of Makiritare ethnicity stand out for their seemingly abstract or kinetic designs, as well as the complexity of the warp and variety of designs with which they are decorated. The circular trays called Waja (Guapas) offer the most varied designs, although the preparation and weaving of the cases or pouches known as Kangwa and Amatu (Pegall in English) require greater attention by craftsmen.

The Makiritare people

To locate the ethnic group and the environment in which a decorative twilled basketweaving technique was developed, one must first keep in mind that the name “Makiritare” is not a word that exists in that group’s own language within the Carib linguistic family, but is an appellation of Arawak origin meaning "water people" (Barandiarán 1979). However, “Makiritare” is the name by which these Indians have been known throughout Guayana ever since they accompanied Father Manuel Roman as oarsmen in the 1744 river expedition that revealed the existence of the Casiquiare channel, an exceptional waterway that connects the basins of the Orinoco and Amazon.

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Approximate area of the territory of the Makiritare (Ye'Kuana) people. Map by Rafael Santana
Approximate area of the territory of the Makiritare (Ye'Kuana) people. Map by Rafael Santana

In addition, according to our experience, in the Yekuana (Ye'kwana) language, the Makiritare call themselves "So'to" (people), but also identify themselves by the names Yekuana or Dekuana (people of the boats), Ihuruana (people of the headwaters) and Kunuhana (from the river Kunukunuma), depending on their accent when speaking and the location of their villages on the rivers where they make their lives: the rivers Caura, Ventuari, Padamo and Cunucunuma respectively, in the heart of the state of Amazonas. However, due both to their mobility and their extensive trade relations, these Indians have also been known in other parts of Guiana as Mayongong, and by fifty-two other names.

Watunna

Although the evident range of motifs with which these painted baskets (waja tomennato) are adorned seems enormous, the number of characters allowed to be represented in the center of the baskets is limited, because the Makiritare craftsmen do not make these trays for commercial purposes, but to convey in a graphic manner and share the values promulgated by the mythical characters involved in the cosmogonic epic called Watunna. The richness and complexity of this vastly-proportioned oral saga puts it on a par with the most unique creation myths to have ever inspired mankind.

The majority of the episodes that we now know as the Watunna come from the accurate, timely, and detailed transcript made by the geologist—now better-known as an ethnologist—Marc de Civrieux. Beginning in 1950 and continuing over twenty years, de Civrieux occupied himself with transcribing the main stories that comprise the infinite number of episodes of the Watunna. Though he summarized them in 230 pages, the stories are very often told and interpreted with great formality by prestigious singers who have kept the tradition alive for at least one hundred years.

The monkey who unleashed the night

The first intervention by the monkey Yarákadu occurs after Nadei'-umádi, the second demodede (avatar or messenger) of Wanadi (God) had encountered the earth. The "other" Wanadi, who is the son of the Sun, was sent from Kajuña (heaven) with the charge of preventing people from becoming sick or dying because of Odósha (the evil one). This emissary of Wanadi also had a mission to repopulate the earth and brought from Kajuña a large sphere, hollow but hard as a stone, called Húe-hánna, which was filled with new people.

While on earth, the messenger of Wanadi went hunting one day and left his nephew Yarákadu in charge of caring for the Húe-hánna sphere. In his haste to leave, Wanadi forgot his Chákara (satchel), in which he kept his tobacco and other things, like the night, that he used to rest. Odósha perceived this forgetfulness and from afar began to dream, telling Yarákadu to open the Chákara to find out what else besides tobacco his uncle kept there so zealously.

Yarákadu heard Odósha’s order in his dream and then opened the chákara, causing a great disaster for humanity, for the night erupted suddenly and darkness broke out throughout the land, leaving all the people in the hands of Odósha and his Odoshankómo, who were able to see in the dark. Wanadi punished Yarákadu for his behavior, and, ever since, his descendants have just been curious monkeys. In the wajas, the Yarákadu design is always accompanied by Sidícha (stars) which are placed on the monkey’s chest and in a line across its back to remind those who see it of the night and the evil spirits that took over the land.

Kuchi

This mythical character is a man who could transform himself at will into an animal with claws and a prehensile tail known in Venezuela as a Cuchi-cuchi (Potos flavus) but which is not a true monkey. It was he who decided to climb to the sky (Kahuña) where he knew there was a planting of cassava which was previously used to make bread that was sent for people to eat.

But since they did not send more cassava bread from Kahuña and there were no trees on Earth because Atta-Wanadi (the third damodede of God) was hiding from Odosha, people only ate kaolin clay called Madi.

The Watunna legend extensively narrates the adventures and dangers Kuchi had to face in bringing a bit of cassava to bring to earth, stealing a sliver of it and hiding it under his fingernail. Then he spent the night sitting and smoking and thinking where he should plant the first shoot of cassava, until it was decided to put it in the Dodoima hidi (Cerro Roraima) where it budded with only a few leaves.

Because it turned out that the location was too distant for the people of the Cunucunuma River and other places where the Makiritare live, they decided to send an emissary to find a shoot and on the way back they planted it where the Cerro Auyantepui is now, and in other places; but none of them grew well until they planted one nearer, in black earth, where the Cerro Marahuaka is now (Mará-huaká) and where the shoot became a giant tree that produced all the known fruits and vegetables.


Glossary

Chákara: Satchel

Demodede: Avatar or messenger

Húe-hánna: A large sphere

Kajuña: Heaven

Madi: Kaolin clay

Odoshankómo: People of Odósha

Sidícha: Stars

So’to: People

Waja: Guapas

Wanadi: God


Bibliography

Barandiarán, Daniel de. 1979. Introducción a la cosmovisión de los indios Ye'kuana-Makiritare. Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. Caracas

Civrieux, Marc de. 1970. Watunna, Mitología Makiritare. Monte Avila Editores. 236 p. Caracas

Guss, David M. 1994. Tejer y Cantar. Monte Avila Editores. 260p. Caracas

Hames Raymond B. and Ilene L. Hames. 1976. Antropológica No 44 p.3-58,  Fundación La Salle. Caracas

Roth, Walter E. 1924. An Introductory Study of the Arts, Crafts and Customs of the Guiana Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology (1916-17) USA. Washington, D.C., Smithonian Institution