Molas are simple yoke-type blouses richly decorated by intricate needlework. Mola can mean the blouse that is daily wear for Guna (previously spelled Kuna or 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 Guna 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 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, Guna 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. Guna 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 Gunas 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 Guna women. Regardless of their design – political, genre, flora and fauna, abstract, illustrational, etc. – their primary interest to the Guna is visual and decorative.
The Molas of San Blas Islands: A Historical Perspective
Home to Gugna Indians, the San Blas Islands stretch along the Atlantic coast of Panama from Colon to Colombia. In 1938 the islands and adjacent coastline, the Comarca de San Blas, became an autonomous state within Panama with a Panamanian governor on the island of Porvenir as a liaison between Guna village chiefs and the national government. Isolated for much of their history, the Guna only grudgingly accommodated to some aspects of Western civilization. Contact with the Guna has increased dramatically since the 1930’s and during and after World War II; today, cruise ships anchor off the islands on a regular basis.
Most of our knowledge of the early history of the Guna is drawn from the English surgeon-cum- pirate, Lionel Wafer, whose shipmates left him in Panama in 1681 to recover from a gunpowder accident. He was cared for by isthmian natives knows as the Guna, who preferred the English to the Spaniards, the latter whom they took great honor in killing. Wafer carefully chronicled the lives and customs of the tribe and accurately described animal and plant life. He wrote of a matrilineal society, where property was passed through the female line. The woman’s family chose her mate, who then moved into her household. Wafer was astounded by what he called “white Indians” living among the Guna. Actually they were albinos; perhaps the world’s highest incidence of albinism is found on the San Blas Islands. Male albinos were, and still are, treated as women.
Wafer was also intrigued by the custom of body painting: “They made figures of birds, beasts, men, trees, or the like, up and down every part of the body, especially the face.... The women are the painters and take great delight in it.” This is the likely origin of the colorful mola, literally “clothing”, “dress”, or “blouse”. Today the term has come to mean the appliqued panels of a Guna woman’s blouse, which have gained renown as a distinct form of folk art. The transition from body painting to the mola, in the words of Ann Parker and Avon Neal, “could never have developed without the cotton cloth, needles, thread, and scissors acquired by trade from the ships that came to barter for coconuts during the 19th century”, or, it might be added, from the insistence of missionaries that the Guna wear clothing.
For Guna women, the range of themes for body painting was diverse; the range of themes for their molas appears endless. While designs of the earliest molas tended to be geometric abstractions, by the 1940’s Guna women had kindled an interest in the recreation of traditional themes common to body painting, e.g., the animals, trees, and men mentioned by Wafer, and had introduced new designs such as circus posters, comic book characters, United States Navy blimps, and advertising logos. The appearance of themes from “western civilization” does not automatically imply, however, that the indigenous culture of the Guna is somehow doomed. On the contrary, the Guna have made significant choices that simultaneously preserve the traditional and cater to the modern. Viewed from the perspective of the historian, the body painting of the 17th century and the fabric creations of today show how Kuna women, through their designs, capture unique images of the world in which they lived.
Karin Tice’s excellent study of Kuna Crafts, Gender, and the Global Economy, notes that the “shift from sewing molas for personal use to producing them for exchange on the global market has affected mola sewers and their relationship to their craft profoundly”. In the 1960’s, molas became a commodity and those actually worn by Kuna women became especially prized. Growing world demand for their creations convinced Kuna women to produce molas for the global market. As acknowledgment of their commercial importance, by the 1980’s Kuna women who have kurgin, defined as special gifts and talents in design, achieve positions of high prestige in many communities.
In the 1990s, wholesale buyers tried to impose constraints on the producers, demanding color combinations more appealing to Europeans, different size and shapes, and themes that would cater more to “western” tastes. Because of the need for revenue, the Guna have complied. For example, one buyer wanted snowmen. Although the women had no idea of what a snowman was, where he lived, or what he ate, they sewed snowmen. In Tice’s words, “These molas produced specifically for sale were not worn by Guna women’ they were valued because they generated income”.
Unfortunately, the popularity of molas has stimulated a large industry that churns out copies of Guna designs on everything from fake molas, i.e. not sews by Guna Indians, to shopping bas and coasters. Unauthorized reproduction threatens what the Gunas’ greatest source of revenue. Despite Panamanian legislation passed in 1984 to protect its folk art, imitations of Guna molas and design continue to flood the market.
But the marketing of molas should not obscure their real purpose as an expression of cultural identity. Tice observes that “wearing molas symbolically expresses Guna ethnic identity and...a desire for autonomy from the non-Kuna world”. Some Guna communities insist that women wear molas as an “important way of upholding and valuing their traditions and therefore their identity as Kuna people”. Women sew molas to generate revenue, but they wear them to express something specific, from social or political commentary to the depiction of an event. A favorite political candidate and the party’s logo and slogan might appear on one mola, and a child being eaten by an alligator might grace another. Tice states that, in the latter example, the Guna mother wanted to impress on her children the dangers posed by certain animals. Despite their production for the world market, molas are still sewn for personal use and serve an important role within KGna society as “a medium for social commentary, for personal creativity, and for fashion”.
Although molas as a commodity found strong markets in Europe, the United States, and Japan, until recently Panamanians did not buy them in large part because they viewed folk art as “inferior”. However, the purchase of molas by Panamanians became significant after the invasion of Panama by the United States in 1989. While many in Panama detested Manuel Noriega and his henchmen, most resented the United States’ solution to the problem. Buying and wearing molas, which represented something that was indisputably Panamanian, became a quiet form of national protest against the forceful foreign policy of their northern neighbor. And, in the 1990s, what had been an expression of national pride became acceptable as fashion. Responding to the high praise for molas outside Panama, the upper classes of the country have also accepted them as fashion.
Molas, then, have historically served a variety of purposes. They have expressed Guna traditions and independence and have protected Guna culture; they have commented on Guna society and expressed opinions about Panamanian politics and politicians; and they have expressed the national pride of all of Panama in the face of an interventionist United States. Although many are still intensely personal, most are now rather impersonal items for sale abroad; for the outside world as well as for Guna women, they have become fashionable. But to appreciate fully and understand them, we must see them first and foremost in the traditional
context of the community.
Professor Emeritus Paul B. Goodwin
University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT