While dyes and plastics quickly become more integrated into basket-making, various groups in the Philippines still maintain their traditional practices of using colors for their work.
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 is passed down through generations.
The Natural Colorants of Baskets
The traditional basket is typically thought to take on the color of the material that makes it. However, basket makers have cleverly managed to integrate various designs into their product and make them more eye-catching. While dyes and plastics quickly become more integrated into basket-making, various groups in the Philippines still maintain their traditional practices of using colors for their work. This is shared with the mat-making practice or the traditional baníg where the weavers may use the same types of plants for their final products. The eye-catching plants can certainly sway the buyers through the striking designs woven by the basket-makers. In 1913, Parker already identified that there are three ways that basket makers put colorful designs on their products, and that was through staining or smoking, coloring or dyeing, or through the interweaving of the strips to form geometric patterns.
For the Batak group of Palawan, part of adding colorants involves the stripping of the green part of the bamboo, then rubbed with leaves or barks of various plants including the camote, balingasag, casuy, and others. Once finished, the almaciga or resin of either bagtik (Agathis philippinensis) or the saleng (Canarium asperum) will be burnt until their ashes are suitable for the basket-weavers to rub against the cane. This allows the raw material of the basket to have a darker color. Occasionally, however, the basket makers may decide to decorate their baskets with a splash of orange-yellow color, which can be achieved by mixing turmeric (Curcuma sp.) and apog or crushed shells made into lime. This method of adding turmeric to the fiber is also present throughout groups in the Philippines. Professor Cris Hannibal from the Mindanao State University – General Santos mentioned that the B’laan groups also use turmeric for numerous practices, including coloring their baskets.
The atsuete or the annatto (Bixa orellana) can also produce yellows, however, varieties of the fruits can also produce a light red or pink. This is especially true for the straw fibers used in Mindanao among the T’boli and the B’laan groups. However, the Morinda sp. is more commonly identified as the source of red, especially for baskets, mats, and fibers. This fruit-bearing tree may be important as a staple food, but it is their red roots in particular that are utilized as a dye for the strips. These must be boiled for a long time under the constant watchfulness of the dyer, adding to the importance of the material.
As for providing the black or dark brown coloring, it is perhaps again the soot that provides a wider story. Although the Bataks of Palawan are noted for deliberately applying soot to the strips of bamboos in preparation for basket weaving, Silvestre notes that for the Kalinga baskets of Cordillera, decorations are mostly focused on the weave and not on the colors. Despite this, in a perhaps accidental fashion, unlike their Batak counterparts, the Kalinga hang their baskets over the ceiling which then tangles with the soot curling upwards into the roof. This produces a black luster that many may attribute to older pieces. In an interview with Dr. Florina Capistrano-Baker, who co-wrote the book “Basketry of the Luzon Cordillera, Philippines”, she muses that the baskets of the Cordillera groups are more commonly monochromatic unlike the lighter and colorful baskets of other groups throughout the Philippines.
This is definitely true in several groups, who achieve strikingly geometric weaves through intertwining different colors of the nitu vine (Lysodium sp.) such as the Mangyan of Mindoro. By coiling the nitu with the buri, the various Mangyan groups produce a dramatic style of dark against light colors that are intrinsic to the design choice of the groups. Other communities may achieve a similar effect, but distinctly different from the weave and color combinations provided by the Mangyan’s patterns. This certainly upholds their identity as masters of producing varied designs through plant weave.
These different techniques, all achieved with the use of plants, shows how the master basket weavers take advantage of their environment. This skill of learning the exact use of plants as colorant and how they will interact with the strips of baskets to produce a pattern of art and identity shows how their indigenous skills weave together scientific knowledge and artistic expertise. This holistic view of the environment shows that for many of the basket makers, knowledge of nature and cultural practices are interwoven to produce the perfect combination of science and art.
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.
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.
Silvestre, Ramon Eriberto Jader. “The ethnoarchaeology of Kalinga basketry: When men weave baskets and women make pots.” PhD diss., Department of Archaeology, The University of Arizona, 2000.