It was this year during a visit to my homeland that the doors to my path finally became clear. Outside the iconic Gold Museum, while taking a casual stroll in the streets of Bogota, I had the pleasure of meeting a group of jewellery beaders from the Embera Chami tribe. I was taken away by the radiant colours and their elaborate beading techniques – I knew I couldn’t walk away from them. At that same moment, I had the mystical epiphany that it was now my life mission to be their advocate and share their unique form of beading with the world.
The Embera are Colombia’s third largest indigenous group with an estimated population of around 71,000. Embera means “people” and chami means “mountains” in their traditional language. They extend across the coastal Pacific basin of the department of Chocó. They are one of the few indigenous communities in the country that continue to practice their unique dialect, cultural expressions and ancestral spirituality.
The Embera are an astonishingly resilient people, and their survival is a matter of international concern. The tribe faces threats of physical and cultural extinction, as declared by the Constitutional Court of Colombia in 2009. They have been detrimentally affected by the armed conflict, extractive policies and extreme poverty. Violent armed groups have targeted community leaders, leaving their people in a highly fragile state. Many Embera communities today lack access to very basic resources such as clean water and vaccinations against preventable diseases.
Handcrafts are one of the main resources of survival for the Embera who are known for their unique beading skills and knowledge, passed from generations to generations. The Embera paint a picture with miniature glass-beads that reflect their ancestral dreamings strongly connected to the earth, their mother. Their beadworks contain unique symbolisms that talk about their natural environment, social codes and spiritual connections. Okamas for the women and otapas for the men, these traditional pieces provide protection and tell the stories of the ones wearing them. The pieces are traditionally handcrafted by the women, they are needle-woven and hand-threaded; a wood loom is used for rectangular pieces from small bracelets to large chestlaces.
Embera handcrafts have gained wide public attention in the recent decades. A considerable effort to support local artisans in the country has seen a wave of love for their products. Recent local government initiatives through partnerships with artisan associations such as Artesanias De Colombia have done a strong effort in promoting unique crafts in Colombia and worldwide. Crafts of the Wayuu and Kogi tribes have reached worldwide attention for their originality and intricacy. Finally we are seeing a shift in appreciation for local talent and preservation of cultural patrimony; however, we still have a long way to go. Western influences such as that of the USA continue to dominate the market in Colombia.
Since I started working with the family of Embera Artisans I met earlier this year, a beautiful relationship has been developing over time. They have shared their unique culture with me and have made me aware of the harsh realities they face on a daily basis. I can confidently say working with the Embera has changed me and has even redefined my own identity as a “Colombian” woman. I purchase the collections of beaded jewellery from the Siagama family, I am in constant communication with them and place orders as I need them. My family ships it over to Australia. It is always such an intriguing surprise before receiving the parcels, every time they surprise me with the most stunning designs. I only order by numbers at a mutually established cost demanded by the artists.
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