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School of Fine ArtsThe William Benton Museum of Art

What is a Mola?

Molas are simple yoke-type blouses richly decorated by intricate needlework.  Mola can mean the blouse that is daily wear for Kuna (sometimes spelled Cuna) women but most often refers to its front or back panel.  They have been made for about a century. The long shifts that were first worn were cumbersome and soon crept up to blouse length, to be paired with a simple sarong.  Early loose-fitting molas gave way to blouses of smaller size.  What inspired Kuna woman to take up the very difficult reverse appliqué technique is unclear.   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.  The technique is sometimes referred to as reverse applique.  Molas can often have as many as four colored layers of cloth with extra color pieces and embroidery accents added.  It takes many hours of sewing to create even the simplest mola.

The first designs that Kuna women developed for mola panels relate to the body painting that had been traditional for centuries.  Mola-makers transformed images of daily life and of the flora and fauna of their islands into mola designs.  As the outside world impinged on the Kunas more and more, book and magazine illustrations, record covers, and other images and objects that the men of the islands brought back from nearby Panama City also attracted Kuna women.

The molas in this collection date from the 1940s to the 1980s.  Many of them, particularly the earlier, are almost never to be found any longer.  Now that the outside world has discovered molas, Kuna women sell many of them and thereby find status and power beyond that provided by their traditional matrilineal society.  The rest of Panama has discovered molas too, and they are worn today as a symbol of national identity.  Kuna women continue to sew molas for themselves and continue to vie with one another, as they long have, to create the most dazzling designs.  Girls sew as soon as they can handle a needle and, like their mothers, spend hours every day of their lives designing and making molas.

A word about the cotton that is used in molas — the cotton is yard cotton from the commercial world.  It is said that the cotton fabric comes from India or more commonly Germany.  The fabric is usually colorfast and is the kind of material that one would find in stores in the United States or in other countries.  There is nothing indigenous about it.  It is brought on the trading boats from Columbia and is one of the main items traded to the Kunas for coconuts.

When looking at the molas in this web exhibition, it is important to remember that they were all part of blouses that are part of the everyday wear of the Kuna women.  Regardless of their design – political, genre, flora and fauna, abstract, illustrational, etc. – their primary interest to the Kuna is visual and decorative.

Thomas Bruhn, Curator of Collections (retired),
The William Benton Museum of Art,
University of Connecticut, Storrs.