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School of Fine ArtsThe William Benton Museum of Art

View Molas

Textile Designs of the Kuna Indians of Panama, c. 1940-1980 

The Elisabeth Hans Collection
A Gift of Theodor Hans in Memory of his Wife Elisabeth Hans

The term Mola most often refers to the hand-stitched panels done by the Kuna (sometimes spelled Cuna) women of Panama. It can also mean the simple yoke-type blouse that is daily wear of the women. Each panel is constructed of multiple layers of cloth of contrasting colors.  The layers are carefully snipped, peeled back to reveal the underlying colors and stitched together to create the pattern. It takes many hours of sewing to create even the simplest mola.

The molas in this web exhibition date from the 1940s to the 1980s.  Many of them, particularly from the earlier years, are rare.


Music and Dance

On special occasions the whole Kuna community celebrates with music and dance. There is a very formalized foot-stamping, quick-turning dance with men lined up on one side and women on the other. Women shake rattles and stamp bare-footed rhythms while the men play reed pipes. These occasions are often the subject of molas.

Ceremonial Dancers: Women Playing Maracas [1997.1.81] There are many occasions for ceremonial dances on the San Blas Islands. Traditionally the women shake rattles and stamp bare-footed rhythms while the men play reed pipes of Pan. This shows women playing the maracas. This is one of a pair of molas (see 1997.1.80) that is the front and back of the same garment. The pair shows how the woman making the mola would stay within a theme yet change the subject from man to woman. This pair of molas date from the 1950s or 1960s.
Ceremonial Dancers: Women Playing Maracas [1997.1.81]
There are many occasions for ceremonial dances on the San Blas Islands. Traditionally the women shake rattles and stamp bare-footed rhythms while the men play reed pipes of Pan. This shows women playing the maracas.
This is one of a pair of molas (see 1997.1.80) that is the front and back of the same garment. The pair shows how the woman making the mola would stay within a theme yet change the subject from man to woman. This pair of molas date from the 1950s or 1960s.
Ceremonial Dancers: Men Playing Pipes of Pan [1997.1.80] The mola shows various Kuna men playing the reed pipes of Pan during a ceremonial dance on the San Blas Islands. The artist who created this mola must have had in mind a recent festivity because she specifically names the dancers who are probably her friends. She humorously named the piece "Cha Cha Cha de Nookopa", with "de Nookopa" possibly being a ceremonial dance of the island. The maracas and the panpipe are also shown as major elements of the design. There are many occasions for ceremonial dances on the San Blas Islands. Traditionally the women shake rattles and stamp bare-footed rhythms while the men play reed pipes of Pan. This is one of a pair of molas (see 1997.1.81) that is the front and back of the same blouse, both depicting the ceremony. The pair of molas show how the woman making the mola would stay within a theme yet change the subject from man to woman. This mola date from the 1950s or 1960s.
Ceremonial Dancers: Men Playing Pipes of Pan [1997.1.80]
The mola shows various Kuna men playing the reed pipes of Pan during a ceremonial dance on the San Blas Islands. The artist who created this mola must have had in mind a recent festivity because she specifically names the dancers who are probably her friends. She humorously named the piece "Cha Cha Cha de Nookopa", with "de Nookopa" possibly being a ceremonial dance of the island. The maracas and the panpipe are also shown as major elements of the design.
There are many occasions for ceremonial dances on the San Blas Islands. Traditionally the women shake rattles and stamp bare-footed rhythms while the men play reed pipes of Pan.
This is one of a pair of molas (see 1997.1.81) that is the front and back of the same blouse, both depicting the ceremony. The pair of molas show how the woman making the mola would stay within a theme yet change the subject from man to woman. This mola date from the 1950s or 1960s.

A Musical Combo of Animals [1997.1.182] This mola depicts a musical combo of animals. There is a lion playing a piano or a keyboard. The central figure is an elephant playing a violin. He has the bow in one foot/hand and the violin in the other. Meanwhile, in front of him is a parrot on a perch that is the singer of the quartet. To the right side is a monkey playing either a base or a cello with both his hands and his feet in quite an amazing way-one foot and one hand on the frets while the other hand and foot are using a bow. The monkey is wearing glasses. This amusing mola with animals might have been created for a child by a master craftsperson with a great sewing talent and good sense of design. It is a marvelously conceived and carefully worked piece. Sometimes Kuna women will work months on a mola that is original such as this rather than copying from something. This might be the case when it is a special gift for a child's birthday or other special celebration.
A Musical Combo of Animals [1997.1.182]
This mola depicts a musical combo of animals. There is a lion playing a piano or a keyboard. The central figure is an elephant playing a violin. He has the bow in one foot/hand and the violin in the other. Meanwhile, in front of him is a parrot on a perch that is the singer of the quartet. To the right side is a monkey playing either a base or a cello with both his hands and his feet in quite an amazing way-one foot and one hand on the frets while the other hand and foot are using a bow. The monkey is wearing glasses.
This amusing mola with animals might have been created for a child by a master craftsperson with a great sewing talent and good sense of design. It is a marvelously conceived and carefully worked piece.
Sometimes Kuna women will work months on a mola that is original such as this rather than copying from something. This might be the case when it is a special gift for a child's birthday or other special celebration.

Two Musicians and Two Maracas [1997.1.144] This is an old mola probably from the 50s. It shows musicians at the bottom and two abstract maracas. The large forms ar ethe maracas that look somewhat like plant forms but seem to have handles. It is unknown what the artist meant with the words.
Two Musicians and Two Maracas [1997.1.144]
This is an old mola probably from the 50s. It shows musicians at the bottom and two abstract maracas. The large forms ar ethe maracas that look somewhat like plant forms but seem to have handles. It is unknown what the artist meant with the words.
Parade of Musicians [1997.1.200] This mola shows two musicians with a flag bearer. The musicians seem to be playing tambourines and all the characters are in costume. This is one of a pair of molas (see 1997.1.201) that is the front and back of the same garment. The two panels represent a parade taking place on one of the holidays possibly in Panama City. The panel on the back continues the procession of musicians.
Parade of Musicians [1997.1.200]
This mola shows two musicians with a flag bearer. The musicians seem to be playing tambourines and all the characters are in costume. This is one of a pair of molas (see 1997.1.201) that is the front and back of the same garment. The two panels represent a parade taking place on one of the holidays possibly in Panama City. The panel on the back continues the procession of musicians.
Continuation of Parade [1997.1.20] One figure in this mola is playing percussion while the other is playing a trumpet. Note the animal and bird in the background. This is one of a pair of molas (see 1997.1.200) that is the front and back of the same garment. The two panels represent a parade taking place on one of the holidays possibly in Panama City. Note the threads on the mola where it was sewn onto the blouse.
Continuation of Parade [1997.1.20]
One figure in this mola is playing percussion while the other is playing a trumpet. Note the animal and bird in the background. This is one of a pair of molas (see 1997.1.200) that is the front and back of the same garment. The two panels represent a parade taking place on one of the holidays possibly in Panama City. Note the threads on the mola where it was sewn onto the blouse.
Two Costumed Native Dancers [1997.1.218] “Guatemalan native dances” appears in reverse English lettering in this work. It depicts two very ornately costumed Guatemalan dancers with masked faces and interpretive detailing. There are also a couple of small figures. Note the molas shown on the clothes worn by the dancers. This beautifully sewn mola, nicely conceived and unusual in content, dates from the 1970s or early 1980s.
Two Costumed Native Dancers [1997.1.218]
“Guatemalan native dances” appears in reverse English lettering in this work. It depicts two very ornately costumed Guatemalan dancers with masked faces and interpretive detailing. There are also a couple of small figures. Note the molas shown on the clothes worn by the dancers. This beautifully sewn mola, nicely conceived and unusual in content, dates from the 1970s or early 1980s.
Three Guitars [1997.1.289] This early mola is most likely from the 1940s or 1950s. It shows three guitars that are quite primitively organized and executed. The workmanship on early molas rarely has the finesse of work that was done later in 60s and 70s on some of the islands.
Three Guitars [1997.1.289]
This early mola is most likely from the 1940s or 1950s. It shows three guitars that are quite primitively organized and executed. The workmanship on early molas rarely has the finesse of work that was done later in 60s and 70s on some of the islands.

Sports

The Kunas have a special interest in sports contests. The Kuna men go to the cities to watch a sports competition and carry home graphics of the various sports. The Kuna women may then use these designs on their beautifully stitched blouses. Team sports such as basketball, baseball, volleyball and soccer become the subject of a mola.
Much time is spent on the ocean, fishing or journeying back and forth to the mainland or from island to island in dugout canoes. These water activities are shown on many molas.
Sometimes a sports pattern is unique but more often it will have been copied from another woman's original design.

A Fisherman Hooks a Large Flying Fish [1997.1.88] This mola is a very nice rendition of a fisherman hooking a flying fish. It is prettily sewn and has nice vibrant colors and a well coordinated design.
A Fisherman Hooks a Large Flying Fish [1997.1.88]
This mola is a very nice rendition of a fisherman hooking a flying fish. It is prettily sewn and has nice vibrant colors and a well coordinated design.
Fish Caught in Net [1997.1.102] This mola shows a very large fish caught in a very large, beautifully decorated net. The top center section of the mola depicts a native fisherman hooking the fish in the mouth. Note that the net itself is depicted with a type of crisscross pattern as found on top of a pie. This technique is not common but is sometimes used. On many molas the rickrack of the line going into the fish’s mouth would have been hand-sewn and tucked. The rickrack here is of the commercial variety, which is easier to put on and less time consuming to sew. Note the crosses on the top right of the mola and around the neck of the fisherman indicating he is a Christian.
Fish Caught in Net [1997.1.102]
This mola shows a very large fish caught in a very large, beautifully decorated net. The top center section of the mola depicts a native fisherman hooking the fish in the mouth. Note that the net itself is depicted with a type of crisscross pattern as found on top of a pie. This technique is not common but is sometimes used. On many molas the rickrack of the line going into the fish’s mouth would have been hand-sewn and tucked. The rickrack here is of the commercial variety, which is easier to put on and less time consuming to sew. Note the crosses on the top right of the mola and around the neck of the fisherman indicating he is a Christian.
Sailboat and Sailfish [1997.1.92] This old mola says "Panama" in backward lettering at the top. It shows the very popular sailfish and a sailboat. The fish has been hooked right in his sharp toothed mouth. This mola would date probably to the 1960's.
Sailboat and Sailfish [1997.1.92]
This old mola says "Panama" in backward lettering at the top. It shows the very popular sailfish and a sailboat. The fish has been hooked right in his sharp toothed mouth. This mola would date probably to the 1960's.
Four Basketball Players [1997.1.154] This mola shows four basketball players; one is sitting while the other three toss a ball. You can see their numbers, Team M with 12 and 22 and Team SL show 23 and 24 embroidered on them. The red and green color choice for the background and foreground is unusual in a mola. The basket is nicely depicted and although a rather crude mola, it has a lovely vitality to it. Two unfinished figures represent spectators.
Four Basketball Players [1997.1.154]
This mola shows four basketball players; one is sitting while the other three toss a ball. You can see their numbers, Team M with 12 and 22 and Team SL show 23 and 24 embroidered on them. The red and green color choice for the background and foreground is unusual in a mola. The basket is nicely depicted and although a rather crude mola, it has a lovely vitality to it. Two unfinished figures represent spectators.
Basketball Game [1997.1.153] This mola depicts a basketball game between two teams. Basketball is a very popular sport in the San Blas Islands and occasionally becomes the inspiration for a superb illustrative mola. Distilled into this primitive design is the essence of the game.  Most islands have a cleared area where the game can be played. It is interesting to compare the differences among molas of the same subject. Although patterns may be basically similar, they can according to the individual mola-maker’s whim, vary widely in style and treatment.
Basketball Game [1997.1.153]
This mola depicts a basketball game between two teams. Basketball is a very popular sport in the San Blas Islands and occasionally becomes the inspiration for a superb illustrative mola. Distilled into this primitive design is the essence of the game.  Most islands have a cleared area where the game can be played. It is interesting to compare the differences among molas of the same subject. Although patterns may be basically similar, they can according to the individual mola-maker’s whim, vary widely in style and treatment.
Large Flying Fish Hooked by Fisherman in Boats [1997.1.91] This is a large mola probably dating from the 1950's. It shows a popular design of that period which was often copied. It is a very neatly conceived version showing a large fish which has been hooked by one fisherman in a boat, while in another boat there is a man paddling close and about to launch a harpoon at the fish. The lettering "Pes Canoa" at the top mean fishing boat.
Large Flying Fish Hooked by Fisherman in Boats [1997.1.91]
This is a large mola probably dating from the 1950's. It shows a popular design of that period which was often copied. It is a very neatly conceived version showing a large fish which has been hooked by one fisherman in a boat, while in another boat there is a man paddling close and about to launch a harpoon at the fish. The lettering "Pes Canoa" at the top mean fishing boat.
Boxing Match: "Robinson Comes of Age" [1997.1.155] The design for this mola originated during “Sugar Ray” Robinson’s reign as the world’s boxing champion. The caption indicates that the source was probably a news photo from an English language publication. It is interesting to note that much of the action-packed contest has been preserved in this appliquéd handiwork. Although gentle people by nature, Kuna men take a keen interest in prizefighting and are seen regularly in attendance at boxing matches in Panama. The Kuna men’s fascination with boxing influences the Kuna women artists on the island. Molas depicting boxing matches were extremely popular in the 1970s.
Boxing Match: "Robinson Comes of Age" [1997.1.155]
The design for this mola originated during “Sugar Ray” Robinson’s reign as the world’s boxing champion. The caption indicates that the source was probably a news photo from an English language publication. It is interesting to note that much of the action-packed contest has been preserved in this appliquéd handiwork.
Although gentle people by nature, Kuna men take a keen interest in prizefighting and are seen regularly in attendance at boxing matches in Panama. The Kuna men’s fascination with boxing influences the Kuna women artists on the island. Molas depicting boxing matches were extremely popular in the 1970s.


Religion

In the wake of the Conquistadors, Christian missionaries came to the San Blas Islands. While not directly responsible for the mola, they certainly introduced one of its most exciting pictorial themes, that of biblical stories. The Christian views were a radical departure from traditional Kuna mythology. From the very beginning, mola-makers were attracted to the visual forms of religious symbolism in Christianity and were quick to incorporate them into their stitchery. The cross, for example, which had previously been no more than a natural design element carried over from the Kuna's love of body painting, soon took on a new Christian meaning.

Christ on the Cross [1997.1.294] This mola shows Christ on the cross. This is a theme that, among Kuna women who have become Christian through missionary influence on the islands, is often chosen as one of the more important subjects to depict. There are usually figures to the right and left. In this case we see two figures beautifully sewn. Very often the Christ molas have orange or red as the foreground color. Here you can see the fingers and toes of the figure of Christ as well as the crown of thorns and the nails in his feet.
Christ on the Cross [1997.1.294]
This mola shows Christ on the cross. This is a theme that, among Kuna women who have become Christian through missionary influence on the islands, is often chosen as one of the more important subjects to depict. There are usually figures to the right and left. In this case we see two figures beautifully sewn. Very often the Christ molas have orange or red as the foreground color. Here you can see the fingers and toes of the figure of Christ as well as the crown of thorns and the nails in his feet.
Christ Carrying the Cross [1997.1.295] This mola shows Christ on his way to Calvary carrying the cross. It shows that moment when he stumbled and Simon of Cyrene was forced by the soldiers to also take up the cross. The colors used for the cross seem to make it sand out from the picture. It is a nicely sewn mola and, because of the subject matter, it is extremely unusual.
Christ Carrying the Cross [1997.1.295]
This mola shows Christ on his way to Calvary carrying the cross. It shows that moment when he stumbled and Simon of Cyrene was forced by the soldiers to also take up the cross. The colors used for the cross seem to make it sand out from the picture. It is a nicely sewn mola and, because of the subject matter, it is extremely unusual.
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden [1997.1.177b] The Old Testament story of Adam and Eve has broad appeal for mola-makers. The use of colors and layering in this mola has created a three-dimensional quality to the picture. Note the neck-hole still attached, because only the sleeves were removed from this piece which was not completely disassembled as most are.
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden [1997.1.177b]
The Old Testament story of Adam and Eve has broad appeal for mola-makers. The use of colors and layering in this mola has created a three-dimensional quality to the picture. Note the neck-hole still attached, because only the sleeves were removed from this piece which was not completely disassembled as most are.
Infant Jesus in Manger [1997.1.300] This mola shows Jesus in the manger and an angel hovering over and looking down at the baby Jesus. It is a nicely done mola dating from around the 1970s.
Infant Jesus in Manger [1997.1.300]
This mola shows Jesus in the manger and an angel hovering over and looking down at the baby Jesus. It is a nicely done mola dating from around the 1970s.
Moses Found by the Pharaoh's Daughter [1997.1.297] At the top of the mola we see the caption “El Babe Moses,” or, “The Baby Moses.” The mola depicts the baby Moses in his little basket afloat among the reeds just as the Pharaoh’s daughter discovers him. During the time that Moses was born the Pharaoh had ordered the death of all newly born Hebrew males. In an attempt to save their son’s life, Moses’ parents placed him in a wicker basket and hid him in some reeds along the Nile river. (Ex 2:10) Note the wonderful bird depicted in this mola. X’s are used for the background of the mola. One interesting feature of this mola is how much fine needlework is included in the form of embroidery. The color is fresh and interesting, and thematically it is very important.
Moses Found by the Pharaoh's Daughter [1997.1.297]
At the top of the mola we see the caption “El Babe Moses,” or, “The Baby Moses.” The mola depicts the baby Moses in his little basket afloat among the reeds just as the Pharaoh’s daughter discovers him. During the time that Moses was born the Pharaoh had ordered the death of all newly born Hebrew males. In an attempt to save their son’s life, Moses’ parents placed him in a wicker basket and hid him in some reeds along the Nile river. (Ex 2:10) Note the wonderful bird depicted in this mola. X’s are used for the background of the mola. One interesting feature of this mola is how much fine needlework is included in the form of embroidery. The color is fresh and interesting, and thematically it is very important.
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden [1997.1.299] This mola shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is a beautifully conceived and sewn mola. Note the interesting depiction of fig leaves on Adam. Eve is demurely hidden behind Adam. The Garden of Eden is depicted with the flora and fauna, one parrot and another bird. Viewed from a distance, this mola has a wonderful overall quality and although nothing really stands out the design elements go together well. This is a very unusual mola done by a master mola-maker.
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden [1997.1.299]
This mola shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is a beautifully conceived and sewn mola. Note the interesting depiction of fig leaves on Adam. Eve is demurely hidden behind Adam. The Garden of Eden is depicted with the flora and fauna, one parrot and another bird. Viewed from a distance, this mola has a wonderful overall quality and although nothing really stands out the design elements go together well. This is a very unusual mola done by a master mola-maker.
A Church or Cathedral [1997.1.296] This is a vivid and marvelous depiction of a very fancy church or cathedral. Perhaps it is the Cathedral of Panama City or maybe it is intended to depict a church in Italy. There are seven small figures peeking out from the towers of the church and birds flying around. Quite often in the Kuna mythology, birds represent souls. However, birds are also often added into a mola to fill up space. Cathedral molas are very unusual and any collection should have one in it.
A Church or Cathedral [1997.1.296]
This is a vivid and marvelous depiction of a very fancy church or cathedral. Perhaps it is the Cathedral of Panama City or maybe it is intended to depict a church in Italy. There are seven small figures peeking out from the towers of the church and birds flying around. Quite often in the Kuna mythology, birds represent souls. However, birds are also often added into a mola to fill up space. Cathedral molas are very unusual and any collection should have one in it.
Saint Francis of Assisi and Birds [1997.1.231] The theme of Saint Francis of Assisi with birds is very popular with the Kunas who, through missionaries, are very familiar with the Christian story. However, molas based on Christian teachings are not purely biblical in origin. Considering the Kuna’s love of bird forms in their designs, it is only natural that they would be drawn to the story of Saint Francis. This endearing mola, an ornithologist’s delight, portrays the venerable saint compassionately preaching the gospel to a congregation of birds and beasts.
Saint Francis of Assisi and Birds [1997.1.231]
The theme of Saint Francis of Assisi with birds is very popular with the Kunas who, through missionaries, are very familiar with the Christian story. However, molas based on Christian teachings are not purely biblical in origin. Considering the Kuna’s love of bird forms in their designs, it is only natural that they would be drawn to the story of Saint Francis. This endearing mola, an ornithologist’s delight, portrays the venerable saint compassionately preaching the gospel to a congregation of birds and beasts.
St. Michael, the Devil and the Scales of Justice [1997.1.307] This mola depicts the scales of justice and Saint Michael in confrontation with the devil, an extremely unusual theme. The stitching is exquisite so we assume that it was created by an artist of major importance. For example, note the fine embroidery of the hair on Saint Michael. The embroidery all over the mola is carefully and evenly done as is the tucking and stitching. Also the colors used work very well together. Sometimes a mola is created that is rare in subject matter, correctly depicted, intricately sewn, and artistically important. This is such a mola.
St. Michael, the Devil and the Scales of Justice [1997.1.307]
This mola depicts the scales of justice and Saint Michael in confrontation with the devil, an extremely unusual theme. The stitching is exquisite so we assume that it was created by an artist of major importance. For example, note the fine embroidery of the hair on Saint Michael. The embroidery all over the mola is carefully and evenly done as is the tucking and stitching. Also the colors used work very well together. Sometimes a mola is created that is rare in subject matter, correctly depicted, intricately sewn, and artistically important. This is such a mola.

Kuna Culture

Nearly all scenes of Kuna daily life have appeared as mola panels and now provide historic information about Kuna life and culture.

Elderly Kuna woman with two fire fans [1997.1.86] This mola show an elderly Kuna woman with two fire fans.
Elderly Kuna woman with two fire fans [1997.1.86]
This mola show an elderly Kuna woman with two fire fans.
Kuna Indians Gather Fruit from Tree [1997.1.98] This image could have been taken from an illustration or is a scene of Kuna life. The size and technique of this work indicate that this is probably an old mola. Although this type of scene is often represented in molas, this particular work is unusual and uniquely done. This mola may even be the original from which others were copied.
Kuna Indians Gather Fruit from Tree [1997.1.98]
This image could have been taken from an illustration or is a scene of Kuna life. The size and technique of this work indicate that this is probably an old mola. Although this type of scene is often represented in molas, this particular work is unusual and uniquely done. This mola may even be the original from which others were copied.
A Kuna Woman Making a Mola [1997.1.223] One of the more commonplace scenes in any San Blas village is that of a Kina mother sewing a mola as she swings her infant child to sleep in a hammock. Dressed in all her finery, including colorfully beaded arm and leg bands, golden nose ring, necklace, and earrings, she is depicted here surrounded by other members of her family inside their bamboo hut. Also shown are her sewing baskets and baby’s bottle, indicating that she has begun to accept modern ways.
A Kuna Woman Making a Mola [1997.1.223]
One of the more commonplace scenes in any San Blas village is that of a Kina mother sewing a mola as she swings her infant child to sleep in a hammock. Dressed in all her finery, including colorfully beaded arm and leg bands, golden nose ring, necklace, and earrings, she is depicted here surrounded by other members of her family inside their bamboo hut. Also shown are her sewing baskets and baby’s bottle, indicating that she has begun to accept modern ways.

Kuna Woman Stirring Cauldrons and Fanning Fires [1997.1.100] This mola has to do with a very important aspect of Kuna life, the ceremonial feast, in which the whole community generally participates. Chicha, a potent drink made from sugarcane juice mixed with herbs and corn, is consumed in great quantities at all important festivals. The pipe-smoking women stir the brew in huge cauldrons as their men fan the log fires. The logs are very plainly shown in this mola. The ladles are used to transfer the boiled liquid into wide-mouthed jars where it will ferment in about two weeks. Note the ornate ceremonial costumes on the women. The stitching on this mola is extraordinary.Kuna Woman Stirring Cauldrons and Fanning Fires [1997.1.100]
This mola has to do with a very important aspect of Kuna life, the ceremonial feast, in which the whole community generally participates. Chicha, a potent drink made from sugarcane juice mixed with herbs and corn, is consumed in great quantities at all important festivals. The pipe-smoking women stir the brew in huge cauldrons as their men fan the log fires. The logs are very plainly shown in this mola. The ladles are used to transfer the boiled liquid into wide-mouthed jars where it will ferment in about two weeks. Note the ornate ceremonial costumes on the women. The stitching on this mola is extraordinary.
Blouse with Scorpions [1997.1.2a] This blouse is done against a foreground of black. It shows two scorpions. It is very natural for the Kunas to depict various insects, some of which are dangerous and bite or are unpleasant to deal with, but they like the form. Insects make interesting shapes and are commonly found subjects for molas. There is a beautifully done little decorative strip with birds above the mola on the blouse. The overall color scheme used for this blouse works very well aesthetically. Also note the hand stitching on the band of the sleeve. This is a nice example of a mola blouse in its entirety
Blouse with Scorpions [1997.1.2a]
This blouse is done against a foreground of black. It shows two scorpions. It is very natural for the Kunas to depict various insects, some of which are dangerous and bite or are unpleasant to deal with, but they like the form. Insects make interesting shapes and are commonly found subjects for molas. There is a beautifully done little decorative strip with birds above the mola on the blouse. The overall color scheme used for this blouse works very well aesthetically. Also note the hand stitching on the band of the sleeve. This is a nice example of a mola blouse in its entirety.

Abstract and Geometric Designs

These semi-based molas probably represent the bulk of the designs made by the Kuna women. Many of these molas are done with geometric forms or repeat patterns of animals or flowers, but do not specifically present scenes of daily life or advertisements. Women make them knowing that they will look wonderful viewed from across an island or when a woman is paddling a cayuco (dugout canoe) toward shore. Molas were often are designed to be viewed from a distance.

 
Abstract - Geometric: Simplified Maltese Cross [1997.1.12] This mola has a yellow background and black foreground with red introduced. It has a basic geometric design depicting a very simplified cross.
Abstract - Geometric: Simplified Maltese Cross [1997.1.12]
This mola has a yellow background and black foreground with red introduced. It has a basic geometric design depicting a very simplified cross.
Abstract - Four Coils [1997.1.4] OThe foreground color of this large mola is black. There are four shapes that could be representations of sea worms with a center that is square shaped. Pink colors are used against reds in the coloring of this mola. The artist has very carefully cross-hatched and layered the material to get a vertical and horizontal pattern that is quite uncommon. It is a technique not used frequently but is found in molas particularly from around the 1960s.
Abstract - Four Coils [1997.1.4]
OThe foreground color of this large mola is black. There are four shapes that could be representations of sea worms with a center that is square shaped. Pink colors are used against reds in the coloring of this mola. The artist has very carefully cross-hatched and layered the material to get a vertical and horizontal pattern that is quite uncommon. It is a technique not used frequently but is found in molas particularly from around the 1960s.
Abstract - Spoke Wheels [1997.1.36] This is an unusual mola because it depicts a spoke wheel pattern. Generally molas are created using curvy patterns. Note that patterned fabric uses in this mola.
Abstract - Spoke Wheels [1997.1.36]
This is an unusual mola because it depicts a spoke wheel pattern. Generally molas are created using curvy patterns. Note that patterned fabric uses in this mola.
Abstract- maze

Abstract - Maze [1997.1.24]

Abstract - Front and Back of Blouse [1997.1.6] This pair is the front and back panels of the same blouse. The foreground color is orange, which is unusual, the more usual colors being red or black. The abstract design is repeated four times on each side with a little figure in the center. The pattern is slightly suggestive of Kuna earrings.
Abstract - Front and Back of Blouse [1997.1.6]
This pair is the front and back panels of the same blouse. The foreground color is orange, which is unusual, the more usual colors being red or black. The abstract design is repeated four times on each side with a little figure in the center. The pattern is slightly suggestive of Kuna earrings.
Abstract [1997.1.71] This mola is faded with orange and red playing against black and green with a yellow outline all around. The pattern is probably organic in origin.
Abstract [1997.1.71]
This mola is faded with orange and red playing against black and green with a yellow outline all around. The pattern is probably organic in origin.
Abstract - Jungle Vine [1997.1.32] The design is probably based on a sort of jungle vine. In the top center there is an odd little cutout that is quite atypical. It looks like it was an afterthought or maybe a hole that was patched later.
Abstract - Jungle Vine [1997.1.32]
The design is probably based on a sort of jungle vine. In the top center there is an odd little cutout that is quite atypical. It looks like it was an afterthought or maybe a hole that was patched later.
Abstract - Cat Form: Pine Trees [1997.1.30] There are many molas made with variations of this pattern. This one has a cat form in the lower center and figures that are suggestive of pine trees, which do not grow on the San Blas Islands. It is a good example of what a Kuna woman can do with shapes. The mola has very even stitching with a black background, red foreground and other colors introduced.
Abstract - Cat Form: Pine Trees [1997.1.30]
There are many molas made with variations of this pattern. This one has a cat form in the lower center and figures that are suggestive of pine trees, which do not grow on the San Blas Islands. It is a good example of what a Kuna woman can do with shapes. The mola has very even stitching with a black background, red foreground and other colors introduced.

Abstract Animals, Birds, and Insects

The rich wild life of San Blas has been a major source of artistic expression of the Kuna for centuries. Exotic birds from their jungle, insects, fish and other marine life are all popular themes for mola artists.

Abstract - Octopi [1997.1.8] While this mola looks at first to be completely abstract, closer study shows it could possibly be a pair of octopi. It is a very pretty mola particularly when seen from some distance. It is interesting that around the sea forms there is the traditional one color but within the forms are triangles of many colors. This is a carefully thought out mola. The reverse side molas are varied. The stitching is fine and the reverse of the mola is done with extreme care, as many good molas are.
Abstract - Octopi [1997.1.8]
While this mola looks at first to be completely abstract, closer study shows it could possibly be a pair of octopi. It is a very pretty mola particularly when seen from some distance. It is interesting that around the sea forms there is the traditional one color but within the forms are triangles of many colors. This is a carefully thought out mola. The reverse side molas are varied. The stitching is fine and the reverse of the mola is done with extreme care, as many good molas are.
Abstract - Spider Web [1997.1.56] This is a small mola indicating that it was probably from the 1970s. It could possibly be a flower form, but it is more probably a spider web because there are molas similar to this that have the form of a spider introduced in the center. This one shows no spider.
Abstract - Spider Web [1997.1.56]
This is a small mola indicating that it was probably from the 1970s. It could possibly be a flower form, but it is more probably a spider web because there are molas similar to this that have the form of a spider introduced in the center. This one shows no spider.
Abstract Birds [1997.1.15] This somewhat abstract design of birds seems at first glance to have only an orange background and a red foreground, but note the purplish fabric between the two colors. The two larger birds have their wings raised in flight and seem to be feeding the smaller baby bird. There is a bit of embroidery for the faces and feet of the birds, but otherwise is rather plain. Although the mola is quite elaborate by design, there is a sense of economy in the use of fabric.
Abstract Birds [1997.1.15]
This somewhat abstract design of birds seems at first glance to have only an orange background and a red foreground, but note the purplish fabric between the two colors. The two larger birds have their wings raised in flight and seem to be feeding the smaller baby bird. There is a bit of embroidery for the faces and feet of the birds, but otherwise is rather plain. Although the mola is quite elaborate by design, there is a sense of economy in the use of fabric.
Repeat Pattern of Small Birds [1997.1.63] This mola has a repeat pattern of small birds. There are probably ducks within a pattern of orange crosses. A young girl might have done this mola. It is a good practice mola and very sweet in its own right.
Repeat Pattern of Small Birds [1997.1.63]
This mola has a repeat pattern of small birds. There are probably ducks within a pattern of orange crosses. A young girl might have done this mola. It is a good practice mola and very sweet in its own right.
Repeat Pattern: Cat-Like Animal [1997.1.79] This is a repeat pattern animal design with a black foreground and orange as the predominant color. It appears to be a cat-like creature with the suggestion that it is climbing a tree.
Repeat Pattern: Cat-Like Animal [1997.1.79]
This is a repeat pattern animal design with a black foreground and orange as the predominant color. It appears to be a cat-like creature with the suggestion that it is climbing a tree.
A Six-Headed Dragon [1997.1.167] This mola shows an interesting six-headed dragon with fine workmanship. The Kunas seem to like mythical creatures such as dragons. Whenever they find illustrations for them, they like to incorporate them into a mola design. It is interesting to note the unusual shapes that fill in the background; little crosses or abstract floral rather than the more typical stripes or dots.
A Six-Headed Dragon [1997.1.167]
This mola shows an interesting six-headed dragon with fine workmanship. The Kunas seem to like mythical creatures such as dragons. Whenever they find illustrations for them, they like to incorporate them into a mola design. It is interesting to note the unusual shapes that fill in the background; little crosses or abstract floral rather than the more typical stripes or dots.
Pelicans Feeding on Frogs and Fish [1997.1.106] The subject matter of this is birds- probably pelicans with frogs in their mouths. There is also a scorpion, a crab, lobsters and one little Kuna figure down in the bottom center. There is crudeness in the way the patterns are cut out and in the stitching which is typical of the molas from earlier years. While making the early molas, the women did no seem to take as much care to math the color of the thread with the color of the cloth. In fact, they seemed to use a white thread on a pink cloth as an extra texture. This is very apparent in this mola. Even through the sewing and cutting is crude the overall quality of the mola has a unity and is done with care in one style. The mola probably dates from the 1950s or 60s. A patterned material is used as half of the backing, which is a strong indication of age. It might have been put on later as a patch. The black material underneath might have also been put there to strengthen the top part of the mola. Another indication of age is the patterned material on the back, which is a very old style.
Pelicans Feeding on Frogs and Fish [1997.1.106]
The subject matter of this is birds- probably pelicans with frogs in their mouths. There is also a scorpion, a crab, lobsters and one little Kuna figure down in the bottom center.
There is crudeness in the way the patterns are cut out and in the stitching which is typical of the molas from earlier years. While making the early molas, the women did no seem to take as much care to math the color of the thread with the color of the cloth. In fact, they seemed to use a white thread on a pink cloth as an extra texture. This is very apparent in this mola. Even through the sewing and cutting is crude the overall quality of the mola has a unity and is done with care in one style. The mola probably dates from the 1950s or 60s. A patterned material is used as half of the backing, which is a strong indication of age. It might have been put on later as a patch. The black material underneath might have also been put there to strengthen the top part of the mola. Another indication of age is the patterned material on the back, which is a very old style.
Two Kangaroos [1997.1.176] This design was possibly based on a newspaper advertisement for a clothing store describing what fashions are in and what are out. It is a very curious story mola. It shows two kangaroos each with a baby in their pouches. One of the kangaroos is wearing a tie and there is a little figure with its hands raised in the middle. The lettering is unusual. It says, “Estos fuera de moda ahora los posilos,” and then there is a world that cannot be translated, and then it ends with, “aqui.” This translates as, “these went out of fashion, now the pockets (blank) here.” It would indicate the pocket placed high up perhaps went out of fashion and is now found lower or vice versa. While there is a group of letters impossible to decipher, this mola certainly is a comment on a changing fashion style using the suggestion of a boxing match so favored by the Kuna men.
Two Kangaroos [1997.1.176]
This design was possibly based on a newspaper advertisement for a clothing store describing what fashions are in and what are out. It is a very curious story mola. It shows two kangaroos each with a baby in their pouches. One of the kangaroos is wearing a tie and there is a little figure with its hands raised in the middle. The lettering is unusual. It says, “Estos fuera de moda ahora los posilos,” and then there is a world that cannot be translated, and then it ends with, “aqui.” This translates as, “these went out of fashion, now the pockets (blank) here.” It would indicate the pocket placed high up perhaps went out of fashion and is now found lower or vice versa. While there is a group of letters impossible to decipher, this mola certainly is a comment on a changing fashion style using the suggestion of a boxing match so favored by the Kuna men.

 

Bird Catching a Snake [1997.1.117] This mola shows a bird catching a snake. The mola-maker used a wonderful crosshatching technique but held back on the colors. It is primarily orange, red, green and black and then only on the wings of the bird did she introduce several other colors. Although it is simple, the colors are well coordinated to be striking from a distance. It is an unusually fine piece of work.
Bird Catching a Snake [1997.1.117]
This mola shows a bird catching a snake. The mola-maker used a wonderful crosshatching technique but held back on the colors. It is primarily orange, red, green and black and then only on the wings of the bird did she introduce several other colors. Although it is simple, the colors are well coordinated to be striking from a distance. It is an unusually fine piece of work.
Abstract - Insect or Butterfly [1997.1.37] This abstract form is based on an insect design, perhaps a butterfly. Sometimes older Kuna women, who no longer have very good eyesight, sew molas using an old style but with less fine stitching. This appears to be that type of mola. The colors used are very vivid and not much fading, and so possibly not used much. Although workmanship is important, in a case like this, it is a mola that when viewed from afar is absolutely a stunner.
Abstract - Insect or Butterfly [1997.1.37]
This abstract form is based on an insect design, perhaps a butterfly. Sometimes older Kuna women, who no longer have very good eyesight, sew molas using an old style but with less fine stitching. This appears to be that type of mola. The colors used are very vivid and not much fading, and so possibly not used much. Although workmanship is important, in a case like this, it is a mola that when viewed from afar is absolutely a stunner.
Turtle Forms [1997.1.69] The mola shows two main forms suggestive of turtles with some smaller turtles. Some vivid patches of color were added, which seem to interrupt the overall pattern. Perhaps these patches were added later, because they seem rather randomly sewn, and could have been used to cover holes or stains. Usually Kuna women have a sense of overall pattern, so it’s indeed surprising to see this in a mola.
Turtle Forms [1997.1.69]
The mola shows two main forms suggestive of turtles with some smaller turtles. Some vivid patches of color were added, which seem to interrupt the overall pattern. Perhaps these patches were added later, because they seem rather randomly sewn, and could have been used to cover holes or stains. Usually Kuna women have a sense of overall pattern, so it’s indeed surprising to see this in a mola.

Political Themes

Kunas participate in Panamanian elections, and campaign materials often inspire molas. They may depict one or more candidates, political party symbols or satirical commentaries. Sometimes Kuna blouses will have two panels, portraying an office seeker on the front panel and his party's symbol on the back panel as are the first two molas shown.

Galindo for President: 3PN Party (front panel) [1997.1.1a] This is a good example of a blouse that displays a political mola. The front side depicts the candidate Galindo running for president and shows he belongs to the 3PN party which is shown on the little flag on the upper right corner. Human depictions are often shown in a stylized fashion but these political faces do have a very good likeness to the politician. Political candidates are very often depicted with glasses to show how wise the candidates are. It could be tongue in cheek or maybe many of them do wear glasses. The hair of Mr. Galindo is very finely embroidered and makes a nice pattern on the mola. He has white teeth, a ties and one hand raised to show strength and leadership. There is a second flag at the bottom left which is the national flag of Panama, and a second name at the bottom—Carlos Rowe, the deputy running on the same ticket. Frequently two names appear on political molas, one being the deputy, the other being the candidate for president. Typically there is a band above the mola, often sewn with additional material but in this case it is patterned. When women really care about a blouse they do this strip by hand and give it an ornate or decorative patter, not usually linked to the subject of the mola. The pattern is also repeated on the band on the sleeves and there is a littler patterning by the neck. All this work is done by hand—no commercial rickrack was included except on one part where the sleeve meets the body of the blouse. The blouse is of a pink material unlike the usual practice of using a bright material for the sleeves and a yoke of the blouse. This is a small mola and would date back to the 1950s or 60s.
Galindo for President: 3PN Party (front panel) [1997.1.1a]
This is a good example of a blouse that displays a political mola. The front side depicts the candidate Galindo running for president and shows he belongs to the 3PN party which is shown on the little flag on the upper right corner. Human depictions are often shown in a stylized fashion but these political faces do have a very good likeness to the politician. Political candidates are very often depicted with glasses to show how wise the candidates are. It could be tongue in cheek or maybe many of them do wear glasses. The hair of Mr. Galindo is very finely embroidered and makes a nice pattern on the mola. He has white teeth, a ties and one hand raised to show strength and leadership. There is a second flag at the bottom left which is the national flag of Panama, and a second name at the bottom—Carlos Rowe, the deputy running on the same ticket. Frequently two names appear on political molas, one being the deputy, the other being the candidate for president.
Typically there is a band above the mola, often sewn with additional material but in this case it is patterned. When women really care about a blouse they do this strip by hand and give it an ornate or decorative patter, not usually linked to the subject of the mola. The pattern is also repeated on the band on the sleeves and there is a littler patterning by the neck. All this work is done by hand—no commercial rickrack was included except on one part where the sleeve meets the body of the blouse. The blouse is of a pink material unlike the usual practice of using a bright material for the sleeves and a yoke of the blouse. This is a small mola and would date back to the 1950s or 60s.
Reverse of Galindo Blouse (back Panel) [1997.1.1b] The reverse side of the blouse shows Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid who is a well-known political personage in the history of Panama. He was president several times and this mola was done for a re-election campaign. At the bottom we see the phrase, “volveramos,” or, “We will come back; we will win again,” at the bottom of the mola. He has his hand raised but he is orating with one finger raised up and the other tucked down and appears quite animated. Again the flag of Panama appears. The details of the teeth are wonderful as are the embroidery on the hair and the tie. Note the details: he is wearing glasses and has wonderfully embroidered white fingernails.
Reverse of Galindo Blouse (back Panel) [1997.1.1b]
The reverse side of the blouse shows Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid who is a well-known political personage in the history of Panama. He was president several times and this mola was done for a re-election campaign. At the bottom we see the phrase, “volveramos,” or, “We will come back; we will win again,” at the bottom of the mola. He has his hand raised but he is orating with one finger raised up and the other tucked down and appears quite animated. Again the flag of Panama appears. The details of the teeth are wonderful as are the embroidery on the hair and the tie. Note the details: he is wearing glasses and has wonderfully embroidered white fingernails.
Voting/Polling Depiction [1997.1.274] This mola creation is taken from the Panamanian television logo. This is an old and widely used television standby logo in the Americas. However, this Kuna artist’s interpretation of the central Indian figure is freer in form and glowing with its own naïve charm as a mola design.
Voting/Polling Depiction [1997.1.274]
This mola creation is taken from the Panamanian television logo. This is an old and widely used television standby logo in the Americas. However, this Kuna artist’s interpretation of the central Indian figure is freer in form and glowing with its own naïve charm as a mola design.
Political Propaganda Cartoon [1997.1.280] This is an absolutely fascinating mola probably from the 1950s. It is based most likely on a political cartoon. The party is represented by a man with a machete (bottom center) trying to cut the tentacles off of the octopus that is the other party. The man with the machete has a flag that says, “liberalism.” Octopi along with devils symbolize evil to the Kuna. This octopus has tentacles labeled with campaign issues to characterize the candidate in question. For example, “la ti fundio transporte autobus,” says the transportation didn’t work. Another says, “the mores of estranjeros,” which means the customs of foreigners. Note the mention of radio but not of television indication that this was not a major form of communication at the time the mola was created.
Political Propaganda Cartoon [1997.1.280]
This is an absolutely fascinating mola probably from the 1950s. It is based most likely on a political cartoon. The party is represented by a man with a machete (bottom center) trying to cut the tentacles off of the octopus that is the other party. The man with the machete has a flag that says, “liberalism.” Octopi along with devils symbolize evil to the Kuna. This octopus has tentacles labeled with campaign issues to characterize the candidate in question. For example, “la ti fundio transporte autobus,” says the transportation didn’t work. Another says, “the mores of estranjeros,” which means the customs of foreigners. Note the mention of radio but not of television indication that this was not a major form of communication at the time the mola was created.

 


National Emblem of Panama [1997.1.188] This is the national symbol of Panama, the Escudo. The mola was probably never on a blouse, as there appears to be no stitching that would indicate this. It may have been made to be sold to tourists or could have been specifically ordered by someone. Collectors or buyers occasionally suggest saleable designs to the Kuna women.
National Emblem of Panama [1997.1.188]
This is the national symbol of Panama, the Escudo. The mola was probably never on a blouse, as there appears to be no stitching that would indicate this. It may have been made to be sold to tourists or could have been specifically ordered by someone. Collectors or buyers occasionally suggest saleable designs to the Kuna women.
A Bell: Robles Political Symbol [1997.1.272] This mola creation is taken from the Panamanian television logo. This is an old and widely used television standby logo in the Americas. However, this Kuna artist’s interpretation of the central Indian figure is freer in form and glowing with its own naïve charm as a mola design.
A Bell: Robles Political Symbol [1997.1.272]
This mola creation is taken from the Panamanian television logo. This is an old and widely used television standby logo in the Americas. However, this Kuna artist’s interpretation of the central Indian figure is freer in form and glowing with its own naïve charm as a mola design.
Panama's Television Logo [1997.1.242] This mola creation is taken from the Panamanian television logo. This is an old and widely used television standby logo in the Americas. However, this Kuna artist’s interpretation of the central Indian figure is freer in form and glowing with its own naïve charm as a mola design.
Panama's Television Logo [1997.1.242]
This mola creation is taken from the Panamanian television logo. This is an old and widely used television standby logo in the Americas. However, this Kuna artist’s interpretation of the central Indian figure is freer in form and glowing with its own naïve charm as a mola design.
Political Symbol: Bull (CPN party) [1997.1.277] This political mola shows two candidates in the top corners and flags in the lower corners but the dominant, central figure is a bull, the symbol of the CPN party. The lettering that seems clear at first glance is rather hard to decipher. Sometimes letters on molas may appear backwards or confused to us. The Kunas often copy letters directly from a poster or newspaper they are working from, but as most are illiterate, the primary purpose of the letters becomes part of the design element, and so the words related in the mola are not as important.
Political Symbol: Bull (CPN party) [1997.1.277]
This political mola shows two candidates in the top corners and flags in the lower corners but the dominant, central figure is a bull, the symbol of the CPN party. The lettering that seems clear at first glance is rather hard to decipher. Sometimes letters on molas may appear backwards or confused to us. The Kunas often copy letters directly from a poster or newspaper they are working from, but as most are illiterate, the primary purpose of the letters becomes part of the design element, and so the words related in the mola are not as important.

Children's Themes

Traditional children's stories from Europe have made their way around the world through picture books. European children's stories as well as traditional Kuna children's stories are common subjects for mola blouse pieces.

Children's Book Illustration: King on Cat [1997.1.202] The size and technique indicate that this mola dates back to the 1950s or 60s. It is taken from a children’s book illustration of a king riding a cat. The mola is very carefully done and, although it now shows some fading, that is not critical. It is a good example of an old, well-done mola that would probably not be found in the shops today. The rickrack patterning, which outlines much of the mola, is all done by hand. It is laborious work that has to be snipped, tucked in and then sewn. In later molas, quite often the women would just apply store-bought rickrack, which takes much less time to complete. The stitching here is invisible which is always the sign of a quality mola.
Children's Book Illustration: King on Cat [1997.1.202]
The size and technique indicate that this mola dates back to the 1950s or 60s. It is taken from a children’s book illustration of a king riding a cat. The mola is very carefully done and, although it now shows some fading, that is not critical. It is a good example of an old, well-done mola that would probably not be found in the shops today. The rickrack patterning, which outlines much of the mola, is all done by hand. It is laborious work that has to be snipped, tucked in and then sewn. In later molas, quite often the women would just apply store-bought rickrack, which takes much less time to complete. The stitching here is invisible which is always the sign of a quality mola.
Three Baby Rattles [1997.1.2220] Decorative plastic baby rattles are often seen in the San Blas. The maker of this mola elaborated on the usual rattle design, adding faces with glasses and other patterns on them such as a horse and crab. This common toy has been transformed into an exquisite work of art. The figures on the rattle’s usual doll-like features have been elaborated upon in this mola with the glasses and the horses jumping over the moon have become horses and crabs. The actual toy in this same shape, a baby’s plastic rattle imported from Hong Kong, was found in a Kuna hut and inspired many versions of this design.
Three Baby Rattles [1997.1.2220]
Decorative plastic baby rattles are often seen in the San Blas. The maker of this mola elaborated on the usual rattle design, adding faces with glasses and other patterns on them such as a horse and crab.
This common toy has been transformed into an exquisite work of art. The figures on the rattle’s usual doll-like features have been elaborated upon in this mola with the glasses and the horses jumping over the moon have become horses and crabs. The actual toy in this same shape, a baby’s plastic rattle imported from Hong Kong, was found in a Kuna hut and inspired many versions of this design.
Cinderella [1997.1.207] This mola was likely taken from a children’s book illustration. It shows a coach with a female figure inside. A coachman is driving the horse and two footmen bring up the rear. The female figure could be Cinderella from the children’s tale, or an image of the Queen of England as seen in a magazine or newspaper. Or it could have been copied form a label of Gilbey’s Gin or some English alcoholic beverage. The mola is evenly stitched, not extremely intricate, but carefully done and depicting an unusual subject.
Cinderella [1997.1.207]
This mola was likely taken from a children’s book illustration. It shows a coach with a female figure inside. A coachman is driving the horse and two footmen bring up the rear. The female figure could be Cinderella from the children’s tale, or an image of the Queen of England as seen in a magazine or newspaper. Or it could have been copied form a label of Gilbey’s Gin or some English alcoholic beverage. The mola is evenly stitched, not extremely intricate, but carefully done and depicting an unusual subject.
Cats and Mice [1997.1.206] This mola’s design is probably based on a children’s book illustration. It has the definite look of being copied from something else, possibly a book of nursery rhymes. The words, “raton y rata y gato,” translated as cats while away the time with mice. Images of cats and mice are repeated all over the piece. Of the two main cats in the middle, one has actually caught a mouse in its mouth. Note the fish on the bottom, either added as a design element to fill a space, or to indicate the likes of cats.
Cats and Mice [1997.1.206]
This mola’s design is probably based on a children’s book illustration. It has the definite look of being copied from something else, possibly a book of nursery rhymes. The words, “raton y rata y gato,” translated as cats while away the time with mice. Images of cats and mice are repeated all over the piece. Of the two main cats in the middle, one has actually caught a mouse in its mouth. Note the fish on the bottom, either added as a design element to fill a space, or to indicate the likes of cats.
Boys in School Uniforms [1997.1.221] This mnola depicts boys in their uniforms probably from the Canal Zone of Panama. This image is most likely copied form a newspaper picture, as Kuna children did not have these opportunities at the time. The eight properly attired schooboys have lined up to celebrate a holidy with friendly waves, perhaps representing some sort of parade. The predominant colors used in this mola are red, white, and blue, which may signify the mola-maker’s favorable comment on the close ties between Panama and the Canal Zone.
Boys in School Uniforms [1997.1.221]
This mnola depicts boys in their uniforms probably from the Canal Zone of Panama. This image is most likely copied form a newspaper picture, as Kuna children did not have these opportunities at the time. The eight properly attired schooboys have lined up to celebrate a holidy with friendly waves, perhaps representing some sort of parade. The predominant colors used in this mola are red, white, and blue, which may signify the mola-maker’s favorable comment on the close ties between Panama and the Canal Zone.
Girls in School Uniforms [1997.1.222] This older mola shows schoolgirls in uniform, most of them with a Panamanian flag. This mola is quite faded from wear and sun. The lower part of this mola looks unfinished, but doesn’t matter as a skirt probably hid it from view. As with the previous mola, this image is most likely copied from a newspaper picture, as Kuna children did not have these opportunities at the time. The work on this mola is rather crude and almost abstract and possibly dates form the 1950s.
Girls in School Uniforms [1997.1.222]
This older mola shows schoolgirls in uniform, most of them with a Panamanian flag. This mola is quite faded from wear and sun. The lower part of this mola looks unfinished, but doesn’t matter as a skirt probably hid it from view. As with the previous mola, this image is most likely copied from a newspaper picture, as Kuna children did not have these opportunities at the time. The work on this mola is rather crude and almost abstract and possibly dates form the 1950s.

 


American and Modern Culture

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 brought the influence of the United States to the people of San Blas. The Kuna began to buy manufactured products and these items along with the advertising images became a favorite subjects for mola artisans.

Western Horseman [1997.1.158] A 1996 cover of Western Horsemen magazine inspired this mola. Many Kunas have never seen a real horse. There is no need for such large animals in the San Blas Islands; the Indian’s “cayuco,” or dugout cone, serves as both transportation and workhorse. Nonetheless, the idea of riding such a beast is daringly romantic and mola-makers have great fun depicting equestrian events. A look at the original magazine cover from which this design was copied proves what liberties a Kuna’s freehand artisan can take with a subject and still keep it within recognizable grounds. All the important elements are here—the elongated horse with its flowing tail, the mounted not-so-tall-in-the-saddle hombre wearing old Spanish-type spurs, and the cluster of foreign flags denoting an international gathering for western horsemen—but the artist’s concept has distorted them. A close inspection also shows that two flags’ escutcheons have been slyly changed into Kuna bird motifs. The lettering here was the surest clue to identifying the source for this pictorial panel.
Western Horseman [1997.1.158]
A 1996 cover of Western Horsemen magazine inspired this mola. Many Kunas have never seen a real horse. There is no need for such large animals in the San Blas Islands; the Indian’s “cayuco,” or dugout cone, serves as both transportation and workhorse. Nonetheless, the idea of riding such a beast is daringly romantic and mola-makers have great fun depicting equestrian events. A look at the original magazine cover from which this design was copied proves what liberties a Kuna’s freehand artisan can take with a subject and still keep it within recognizable grounds. All the important elements are here—the elongated horse with its flowing tail, the mounted not-so-tall-in-the-saddle hombre wearing old Spanish-type spurs, and the cluster of foreign flags denoting an international gathering for western horsemen—but the artist’s concept has distorted them. A close inspection also shows that two flags’ escutcheons have been slyly changed into Kuna bird motifs. The lettering here was the surest clue to identifying the source for this pictorial panel.
A Kewpie figure [1997.1.213] This is a unique mola. It says “Kewpie” and was signed O’Nell 1971. It is obviously a “Kewpie” doll. Whether or not that is the name of the Kuna woman artist or the person for whom it was designed is unclear. It is not truly a mola in that it didn’t come from a blouse, but is a mola in its technique and that a Kuna Indian made it. It was probably done at the suggestion of somebody, possibly the collector, or perhaps the collector just bought it because it was unusual. It is a very direct copy of the “Kewpie” doll design.
A Kewpie figure [1997.1.213]
This is a unique mola. It says “Kewpie” and was signed O’Nell 1971. It is obviously a “Kewpie” doll. Whether or not that is the name of the Kuna woman artist or the person for whom it was designed is unclear. It is not truly a mola in that it didn’t come from a blouse, but is a mola in its technique and that a Kuna Indian made it. It was probably done at the suggestion of somebody, possibly the collector, or perhaps the collector just bought it because it was unusual. It is a very direct copy of the “Kewpie” doll design.
John F. Kennedy with PT-109 Boat [1997.1.251] During his years in office, President Kennedy enjoyed wide popularity in Latin American countries, and even now rich and poor hold his memory in great esteem. His likeness, which had become familiar even in places as remote as San Blas, can still be seen in faded magazine photographs and on souvenir items treasured in native dwellings throughout the Southern Hemisphere. This John F. Kennedy commemorative mola, one of the many similar designs that appeared right after his death, shows him gloriously wreathed in laurels and surrounded by the media-touted images associated with his life—the Chief of State symbol, his rocking chair, and PT boat 109. This artist, obviously impressed by the famous JFK smile, emphasized it with a double row of teeth.
John F. Kennedy with PT-109 Boat [1997.1.251]
During his years in office, President Kennedy enjoyed wide popularity in Latin American countries, and even now rich and poor hold his memory in great esteem. His likeness, which had become familiar even in places as remote as San Blas, can still be seen in faded magazine photographs and on souvenir items treasured in native dwellings throughout the Southern Hemisphere. This John F. Kennedy commemorative mola, one of the many similar designs that appeared right after his death, shows him gloriously wreathed in laurels and surrounded by the media-touted images associated with his life—the Chief of State symbol, his rocking chair, and PT boat 109. This artist, obviously impressed by the famous JFK smile, emphasized it with a double row of teeth.
Two Electrical Fans [1997.1.219] This design is quite obviously two electrical fans taken from a magazine advertisement, as the Kuna’s did not have electricity.
Two Electrical Fans [1997.1.219]
This design is quite obviously two electrical fans taken from a magazine advertisement, as the Kuna’s did not have electricity.
RCA Logo [1997.1.254] This is a very popular mola motif, using the RCA trademark as its inspiration. The missionary brought the phonograph to the islands years ago and the Kuna mola-makers were much impressed by what they saw and heard. So, His Master’s Voice, the logo of RCA Victor Company, became one of the primary illustrations on molas. If a mola design catches on, it is usually copied over and over again. Although most widely used in the 1950s, this motif is still created today. The figures on the bottom are possibly dancing to the music.
RCA Logo [1997.1.254]
This is a very popular mola motif, using the RCA trademark as its inspiration. The missionary brought the phonograph to the islands years ago and the Kuna mola-makers were much impressed by what they saw and heard. So, His Master’s Voice, the logo of RCA Victor Company, became one of the primary illustrations on molas. If a mola design catches on, it is usually copied over and over again. Although most widely used in the 1950s, this motif is still created today. The figures on the bottom are possibly dancing to the music.
A U.S. Navy Blimp [1997.1.263] This great older mola shows a U.S. Navy blimp. It is delicately and exquisitely done as seen in all the small snipped-out areas, the hand done rickrack and the stitching around them. It is a beautiful mola probably dating from the 1950s.
A U.S. Navy Blimp [1997.1.263]
This great older mola shows a U.S. Navy blimp. It is delicately and exquisitely done as seen in all the small snipped-out areas, the hand done rickrack and the stitching around them. It is a beautiful mola probably dating from the 1950s.
A Western-Style Shirt [1997.1.288] Camisa is the Spanish word for shirt and, although it looks more like a jacket, it is a western-style shirt. This is certainly not indigenous clothing. Clothing was a very popular theme in the 1970s and mola-makers often portray western-style clothing on their mola panels. One reason for this might be that Kuna men, returning from mainland cities, bring home more and more maching-made clothing for themselves. A woman, otherwise totally garbed in traditional dress, can share the “modern look” by appliquéing it onto her blouse. But more probably her choice can be credited to the great Kuna delight in portraying something new and different on a blouse. Whatever the reason, the results are eye-catching and often charged with subtle wit and humor.
A Western-Style Shirt [1997.1.288]
Camisa is the Spanish word for shirt and, although it looks more like a jacket, it is a western-style shirt. This is certainly not indigenous clothing. Clothing was a very popular theme in the 1970s and mola-makers often portray western-style clothing on their mola panels. One reason for this might be that Kuna men, returning from mainland cities, bring home more and more maching-made clothing for themselves. A woman, otherwise totally garbed in traditional dress, can share the “modern look” by appliquéing it onto her blouse. But more probably her choice can be credited to the great Kuna delight in portraying something new and different on a blouse. Whatever the reason, the results are eye-catching and often charged with subtle wit and humor.
Santa Claus [1997.1.230] Even Santa Claus manages to visit the tropics during Christmas celebrations, although he is more likely to arrive in San Blas by plane or cayuco (dugout canoe) than by sleigh. Panama is a largely Catholic country, and so Panama City’s store windows are lavishly decorated in observance of the holiday spirit. Colorful advertisements appear everywhere. In keeping with the custom, good children receive a bounty of regalos (gifts), and Kuna mothers adorn their molas with Christmas motifs. This theme became popular during the 1970s. The stitching in this mola is very fine.
Santa Claus [1997.1.230]
Even Santa Claus manages to visit the tropics during Christmas celebrations, although he is more likely to arrive in San Blas by plane or cayuco (dugout canoe) than by sleigh. Panama is a largely Catholic country, and so Panama City’s store windows are lavishly decorated in observance of the holiday spirit. Colorful advertisements appear everywhere. In keeping with the custom, good children receive a bounty of regalos (gifts), and Kuna mothers adorn their molas with Christmas motifs. This theme became popular during the 1970s. The stitching in this mola is very fine.
Statue of Liberty [1997.1.243] This design is taken from an illustration of the Statue of Liberty, which appears on matchboxes or needle book covers. When a Kuna artist copies an advertisement or product label onto a mola panel, she does it because something in the design catches her fancy. Her delight is with the novel idea.
Statue of Liberty [1997.1.243]
This design is taken from an illustration of the Statue of Liberty, which appears on matchboxes or needle book covers. When a Kuna artist copies an advertisement or product label onto a mola panel, she does it because something in the design catches her fancy. Her delight is with the novel idea.
Logo for Singer Sewing Machines [1997.1.236] This mola shows a Kuna woman’s interpretation of the Singer Sewing Machine logo. Sewing machines were introduced to San Blas islanders many years ago, but they proved impractical for the intricacies of fine mola making. Some women do turn out machine-stitched blouses, but they are mostly confined to rather simple linear patterns. On the other hand, men use sewing machines for making their traditional shirts and women find them useful for attaching yokes and flounces to their appliquéd panels. The Singer Sewing Machine symbol, now associated with all kinds of sewing, soon became a popular mola motif that is still used occasionally in one or another of its many versions. On this panel, they stylized “S” imprinted with the company’s totally scrambled name has been reversed to form the other half of an unwieldy serpentine design. Two rigid sewing machine operators are incorporated into the sinuous double “S” as though caught in the coils of a gigantic snake.
Logo for Singer Sewing Machines [1997.1.236]
This mola shows a Kuna woman’s interpretation of the Singer Sewing Machine logo. Sewing machines were introduced to San Blas islanders many years ago, but they proved impractical for the intricacies of fine mola making. Some women do turn out machine-stitched blouses, but they are mostly confined to rather simple linear patterns. On the other hand, men use sewing machines for making their traditional shirts and women find them useful for attaching yokes and flounces to their appliquéd panels. The Singer Sewing Machine symbol, now associated with all kinds of sewing, soon became a popular mola motif that is still used occasionally in one or another of its many versions. On this panel, they stylized “S” imprinted with the company’s totally scrambled name has been reversed to form the other half of an unwieldy serpentine design. Two rigid sewing machine operators are incorporated into the sinuous double “S” as though caught in the coils of a gigantic snake.
A Native American Paddling a Canoe [1997.1.210] This mola shows a Native American in a canoe. He is paddling his canoe, has on war paint and wears a feathered headdress. This image could be from a child’s book of cowboys and Indians, a book of legends, or form an advertisement. The figure has a mustache and a beard strangely done and unusual for an Indian. The cloth on the back of the panel indicates the mola quite probably dates back to the 1950s.
A Native American Paddling a Canoe [1997.1.210]
This mola shows a Native American in a canoe. He is paddling his canoe, has on war paint and wears a feathered headdress. This image could be from a child’s book of cowboys and Indians, a book of legends, or form an advertisement. The figure has a mustache and a beard strangely done and unusual for an Indian. The cloth on the back of the panel indicates the mola quite probably dates back to the 1950s.