Bonöre means Beautiful | Panama

I am working with an indigenous collective of women artisans called Bonöre in Panama.
Bonöre means beautiful in the Ngäbe language.

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My work is to help them refine their designs and improve their craftsmanship; develop wholesale accounts; and, photograph both the women and their working process for use on promotional and commercial goods, i.e. note cards, prints, as well as wallpaper and large-scale works for exhibition.

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Bonöre is a collective of indigenous women from the Ngäbe ethnic group, working in one of the poorest conditions in Panama. They live in the zone of Finca 51 in Changuinola, an area named 100 years ago when a banana company settled there. The company has since left, but the community continues to label itself with the factory’s identity. The women in the village grew up learning to sew, dye fabrics, and make jewelry.

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In 2014 Margaret Ann started Bonöre to celebrate the traditional arts of the Ngäbe culture, and, to work with the women to create a sustainable practice as ethical producers of designs that could sell in both Panama and abroad.

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Ostina Molina is one of the founding members of Bonöre. Her daughter, Damaris, cuts recycled bicycle tires into shapes inspired by feathers and leaves. She then stitches them together and attaches them to a fabric cord. I photograph Damaris work alongside her mother, Ostina, and grandmother, Dorinda, who watch her create the necklaces and earrings that Bonöre sell.
She works in her home, looking out onto a courtyard where papayas, mangos, and over-sized okra grows.
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It is fascinating to work with the women as they design and produce Bonöre items.
These include clutches featuring trenza, the characteristic appliqué stitch work, that is dyed with
natural pigments such as mangrove bark. The straps are made from recycled bicycle inner-tubes.
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Boli, Bolivia Chichi, perches on a mangrove branch clipping off bark to use in a dye. The bark will be boiled with banana sap, which acts as a mordant or fixer. This dye colors the fabric that will be used to create the ‘dientes’, the ‘teeth’ shaped triangles in the appliqué work on Bonöre’s clutches.
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Filing or chipping of teeth to create sharp points used to be commonly practiced amongst the Ngäbe.
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The women who create the applique work featured in Bonore’s products work in a one-room studio. Margaret and I visit the space where they create the applique work to see the result of our recent redesigns of the clutches and in my case, to meet the women and see the other pieces they produce. Vibrant colors and their signature ‘trensa’ pattern surrounded the room.
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They serve us crackers and orange soda and give a presentation on the current efforts — to sustain their business and find new ways to sell their products. Despite the challenges they confront, they are determined to continue making fashion that speaks to the traditions of Ngäbe art.
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The Jungle

“Did you notice Isle de Bastimentos? This is incredible. You were meant to be here.”
I give Margaret a copy of my book, The Rain Parade, which chronicles my experience working with a women’s empowerment group in Ghana. I unknowingly created the cover image while on an artist residency in Oregon in 2008. I had culled through discarded magazine cut outs in the printmaking department’s recycling bin and found a gorgeous map. This became the random backdrop to an image I took in Ghana of a woman carrying a bowl of oatmeal on her head. I loved the way the lines and text interacted with the daily scene. The location held no meaning until now.
“Of all the places to show up on your book! Now you know you’re in the right place.”
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La Loma is a jungle lodge and chocolate farm located on an island fifteen minutes by boat from Isla Colon, the main island of the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Margaret and I spoke about my work, photographing for the international arts community in Ghana, Kenya, and Europe. I expressed interest in helping to forward her work with Bonöre, and she immediately asked me to return.
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The scent of fresh roasted chocolate beans fills the humid air. Drips of sweat run down my back. Little geckos scurry through my kitchen, leaving drippy balls of poop behind. I am living in the land of critters.
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My house consists of a floor-level kitchen and dining area with concrete floors, a hammock space with wood floors, and two upstairs bedrooms. There is also an open-air shower and small bathroom, which doubles as a sweat lodge during the afternoon.
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Occasionally I receive a social visit from one of their chickens, dogs, or tiny tiger cat. There are days where I speak to no humans, others where I speak little English, a few words of Spanish, or take an unexpected oath of silence.
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Henry and Margaret started the lodge fifteen years ago. The couple met in college in California twenty-seven years ago. After living in California, Colorado, and Brighton in the UK, they bought a plot of the jungle on an abandoned cacoa farm in Bastimentos and called it La Loma. La Loma means the hill. They were “pursuing a dream to live off the grid and to farm and to experience life in a tropical forest.” Margaret laughs when I ask for her story. “It’s not nearly as ‘interesting’ as some of the other expats.”
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 I wake up to the sound of drumming, practice for a festival in November. At lunch there are fresh eggs that the flock of chickens on the jungle produce. Each day dozens more eggs appear. Henry and Margaret have started selling them in Bocas town to manage the overload. A tropical forest of palm trees and wildlife border the back of my wood home, a garden in front. They grow mint, lemongrass, basil, a Polynesian style spinach, bele, and a thin leaf with a nutty taste called kutuk, from Malaysia. I pick and chew on the kutuk when walking on the stone trail to the main lodge, where guests congregate for family-style meals. The lodge is the nucleus of this tiny jungle village. A friendly cat lives on the open-air platform, bathing in the sun and cuddling with willing participants.
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At night I sleep under a mosquito net in a two-story wooden house that was built by two men with Jamaican roots who have worked for Margaret and Henry since they arrived. Kelly and Chappy have long, lean bodies with muscles sculpted on the surface. They share a similar Jamaican accent. What they lack in dental wealth, they gain in positivity, and hard work. Kelly has deep brown skin and thin-wired glasses; Chappy has a mocha complexion and large kind eyes. Now that La Loma’s edifices are complete — four jungle lodges, a main lodge, a former kindergarten cabin, their two separate homes, and Henry and Margaret’s home — Chappy and Kelly maintain the jungle and chocolate farm.
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Henry and Margaret work closely alongside the the Ngäbe men and women they hire from the local area who cook meals for the lodge guests, run excursions, maintain the cabins, work on the jungle, manage the chocolate making process, and conduct chocolate tours.
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BOCAS DEL TORO | The Independence Day (from Colombia) Parade
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