The various decisions on the use of bamboo reflect the concepts and practices that communities observe when it comes to their environment and how they can adapt to it.
When Pottery Barn, an international furniture shop, features a winnowing tray as a centerpiece, (yes, that bilâo which costs a whopping 15,000 pesos) it shows how local materials are seen as resourceful organic art in other parts of the world. Imagine how something utilitarian in the lives of the Filipinos can be treated as art, hung on the wall, and displayed to be admired.
But that is precisely what is happening, now that their use has relatively dwindled in our everyday lives. How often do the people who buy their rice in the giant supermarkets actually use the bilâo? When was the last time we’ve actually used one? Do we even have the skills to make these baskets?
In many ways, these organic materials have become a craft that showcases a cultural practice long past (just a friendly reminder that the 1980s was 40 years ago!). These wickers are still around, woven by master craftspeople whose knowledge and skills are being replaced by other common materials, primarily plastics. In this case, what was once an essential skill to survive has changed to become marketable artistic products. And like any craftspeople, basic knowledge of their materials—in this case, their environment and the plants they bear—is fundamental to their knowledge. Like anything that takes time, plants and people are entwined to produce skills and knowledge that are passed down through generations.
The sturdy grass of the bamboo is a familiar sight to many gardens and forests. They belong to either the family Gramineae or Poaceae and are steadily abundant throughout Southeast Asia, most of all in the Philippines. As a member of the grass family, it produces several canes called the culm. These connect to their roots which are attached in what botanists call the leptomorph rhizome. The Bambusa sp. can be planted and harvested within 2 years, as depending on some species they can grow up to around 120 cm per month. Each section of the stem is separated by nodes, which contributes to the sturdiness of the plant.
The hollow branch of the bamboo is called a culm and is very practical for producing furniture, housing construction materials, and of course, baskets. Their incredibly strong tensile allows the bamboo to be flexible. On top of this, the bamboo also produces leaves that are good for cooking. Recently, new technology has shown that bamboo can be used to make cooler fabrics. It’s not surprising that bamboo is certainly one of the most important plants in the Philippines!
The bamboo is also a popular material for basket-making, although Celine Kerfant, an archaeologist who worked on plant properties of basket weavers in Batanes, pointed out that some communities believe that the bamboo is too brittle for many of the baskets they choose to make. In a roundtable talk hosted by the Nayong Pilipino last 27 April 2021, she amusingly mentioned how her expectations on bamboo use in Batanes Islands were dashed because the people from Itbayat knew that the bamboo fibers cannot withstand the shapes they have in mind for their traditional baskets. Nevertheless, they will still use bamboo to make the main body of the bilâo/bilaw, alongside the rattan which is used for its edges.
This is different for other communities, where even as early as the 1900s Philippine educators wrote about production suggestions for an increase of basket production demand in the United States, and bamboo is indeed one of the widely used materials available.
The Batak basket weavers of Palawan commonly use bamboo for their basket weaving. Calderon mentioned that the basket-makers, primarily women, use lawas (Schizostachyum lumampao), and sabsaban (Dinochloa palawanensis) alongside other plants such as rattan and nitu for their baskets. When preparing the bamboo, these are cut with the choices for the baskets being the ones with the longest internodes. The outside green layer is scraped off before preparing the bamboo for blackening, which is the preferred color of the basket. Fixative for the black color—which uses burnt soot from bark resins—is applied to the bamboo to encourage their binding. Once this is done, the basket weaver rubs the dark soot of a burning resin (bagtik) over the bamboo stem three times to ensure that the black color will cling to the stem. It’s only when the bamboo is sufficiently black that they will begin to cut and produce splits from the bamboo stems.
Novellino also demonstrates the concept of the Batak people when it comes to their method of making the basket. They initially make the basket at the bottom part and slowly make the way for the body. They then construct the four upright corners of the basket called “the breasts” or dudu. The bottom part is called “the child,” which may be woven on top of another basket to emulate its form, called “the mother basket”. The bamboo is essential for this type of weaving, since the longer the cane is, the bigger the basket that the weaver will be able to make.
The various decisions on the use of bamboo reflect the concepts and practices that communities observe when it comes to their environment and how they can adapt to it. And as one of the most versatile plants in the world, bamboo is certainly building its reputation as a plant that can be used without waste!
Knowing the hundreds of varieties of baskets throughout the Philippines helps us appreciate the skills and scientific knowledge of the people, honed primarily by their observation and practice. Aside from being tradespeople dedicated to their craft, they are true scientists by weaving information on flora and applying them to an end product. This skill is particularly honed by continuous practice and experience perfected with the help of generational knowledge passed down through centuries. Baskets produced by these experts show how they critically entwine the discipline of understanding plant anatomy and characteristics to produce beautiful and soothing art. Basket art not only deserves to be placed on a wall to be admired, but art that is used and relevant to our culture, identity, and daily lives.
Calderon, Mary Jane. “The Basketry of the Batak.” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 14, no. 2 (1986), 128-136.
Hugo, Miller M. “Some Commercial Notes on Baskets.” In The Philippine Craftsman, 485-505. Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2015. Original edition, 1913.
Novellino, Dario. “FROM MUSEUM COLLECTIONS TO FIELD RESEARCH* An ethnographic account of Batak basket-weaving knowledge, Palawan island, Philippines.” Indonesia and the Malay World 37, no. 108 (May 2009), 203-224. doi:10.1080/13639810902979404.
Roxas, Cristina A. Handbook on Erect Bamboo Species Found in the Philippines. Laguna: Department of Environment and Natural Resources- Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau, 2012. http://erdb.denr.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/handbook_bamboo_species.pdf.