Molas from San Blas Island – a traditional feminine art with a global reach

Molas, a traditional female shirt of the Kuna people of coastal Panama, are an interesting case of a traditional art with a special role in today’s globalized culture. Kuna people have an unique culture that has survived centuries and although their lands are a popular tourist destination, they have kept their traditions and customs, as well as their group identity and unity.

molacuna1

Photo: Rita Willaert

Molas are made of a back and front textile panel stitched together, each of them made of small pieces of colorful strips of fabric, forming an intricate pattern. The designs range from simple to very elaborate and the themes can be abstract, flowers and animals, mythological and political. Actually, even though now they are a from of art identified with Kuna culture, molas’ origin came with colonization and they are in fact a colonial tradition. They came into existence to replace the designs Kuna women used to paint on their own bodies. When Spanish missionaries came to the islands of today’s Panama some 150 years ago and introduced an European type of clothing, those designs were transferred to the shirts Kuna started wearing. Here are some examples of molas with abstract geometric, flower and animal and mythological patterns.

Rita Willaert

Photo: Rita Willaert

Javier Volcán

Photo: Javier Volcán

Rita Willaert

Photo: Rita Willaert

Molas are available at local markets in Panama, especially on the San Blas Island. They are the most important source of income for Kunas, as they are produced to meet tourists’ demand as much as for personal use. Of course, just as has happened with other traditional crafts, there are a few traders who buy molas at very low prices locally and then import them in wealthy countries, especially the US, for a huge profit.

There is a debate if this practice is ethical. On one hand, this is a way for molas to reach a larger market and wider appreciation and interest in the culture that produces them. On the other hand, though, even if Kuna craftswomen were paid the same prevailing local price for their molas, the result is that middlemen get the lion’s share of the final cost.

Molas are similar to American quilts because they are:

  • made by women, who present through them their worldview and values artistically;
  • function as practical personal everyday objects, yet with infinite decorative possibilities;
  • a traditional art, acquired within the community from other women;
  • can range from simple to very elaborate;
  • a mixture of colors and patterns;
  • the technique used is applique, reverse applique and embroidery;
  • a craft that bridges the community with the outside world, as they are popular as souvenirs for tourists.

However, the most important difference between quilts and molas is that they are produced by a matrilineal society, in which men play a secondary role as hunter-gatherers, while women are the main vigilant guardians of their cultural integrity and sovereignty. In this way, molas turn out to be one of the principal visual expressions of the community beliefs, produced specifically by those who control community power.

At the same time, this very tool for asserting cultural independence, molas, is also the main connection between Kuna and the outside world. The mola production and commerce is in its turn the main reason Kuna have stayed a rather closed culture, not dependent on jobs created through economic development coming from the outside. Molas are the reason and the means, as well as the emblem, for Kuna identity.

Klara Kim

Photo: Klara Kim

But the mola story has one more twist. Consider, for example, this mola, reproducing an image of something too well known from contemporary mass culture, the Pokémon. Molas with images of Disney and other characters from the international entertainment industry also exist. How do we reconcile these examples of external visual influence with the fierce cultural independence of Kuna? Should we be scandalized?

Personally, I believe that these motif borrowings are just one of the many cultural mixes we already know. Molas themselves are a product of such a mixture: the indigenous designs with colonial clothing requirements. For me, incorporating this extraneous image into the traditional Kuna culture is only a sign of the vitality of an art that develops, changes and includes new phenomena observed around it.

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11 responses to “Molas from San Blas Island – a traditional feminine art with a global reach

  1. I published some more bridges (the 4-th bridges pages) and an article with the main works of Frank Lloyd Wright, if you want to see. Cheers. Dan.

  2. Marco Island was originally home to the Calusa Indian tribe. Ross Woman

  3. I added a new category, “arh. projects-animation”, in which I made the link to another blog; there are six posts bringing out three country houses; it’s a simulated shooting. The resolution, of course, is not that of the original DVD such as I present to my customers.
    The size of the folder coerced me to divide it in six parts.
    You can see them all scrolling in that blog.
    The links are:
    http://dannmihalache.blogspot.com/2009/02/house-projects-animation-1.html
    http://dannmihalache.blogspot.com/2009/02/house-projects-animation-2.html
    http://dannmihalache.blogspot.com/2009/02/house-projects-animation-3.html
    http://dannmihalache.blogspot.com/2009/02/house-projects-animation-4.html
    http://dannmihalache.blogspot.com/2009/02/house-projects-animation-5.html
    http://dannmihalache.blogspot.com/2009/02/house-projects-animation-6.html,
    or access the first from my site and scroll.
    Regards, Dan.

  4. Pingback: Fort Worth on the Web for Wednesday | Fort Worth Renaissance

  5. The question of whether we should be scandalized by the incorporation of mass-culture icons into traditional Kuna artwork is, I think, a question that risks imposing northern aesthetics on an indigenous, southern people. My wife and I have a number of molas depicting a variety of interesting topics – such American military aircraft, Panamanian political election issues, Kuna versions of abstract art, and representations of animals not indigenous to Panama – all in the old style, common before molas became an export commodity and cash crop (which has led to a ‘mass production’ process that emphasizes applique much more than the traditional, and slower, reverse-applique construction). In turn, my wife, who grew up in Panama, has borrowed from the Kuna style to produce her own art (http://www.willowdraws.com), in the conviction that for the Kuna this kind of exchange is not destructive of their autonomy or integrity- because the Kuna themselves do not think it is so.

    While the Kuna are fiercely independent, as you indicate, they have not been isolationists – at least, not in the classic sense. It has been a centuries-long practice for the Kuna to send their men out into the world – as sailors, merchants, farm hands. Kuna men even travel overseas to get advanced degrees, then return home to use their knowledge of the outside world and its many ways to advance the Kuna’s own interests.

    The Kuna put the lie to any suggestion that indigenous peoples must live in some kind of a cultural vacuum, and cannot cull what they wish from the surrounding hetrogenous culture and still remain an indigenous people. They confound our western, northern ideological constructs of how indigenous people ‘ought to’ act.

    In fact, the Kuna have led the movement of indigenous peoples to protect themselves from encroachment, using international law to secure their lands as an internationally recognized World Heritage Site in a bid to prevent the Panamanian government’s desire to appropriate portions of the Kuna’s mainland territory for development. Kuna lawyers have consulted with other indigenous peoples around the world on this issue.

    On the other hand, the Kuna made a decision in the 19th century to avoid intermingling their blood with non-Kuna people – and killed all their mixed-race children.

    The Kuna are a complex, living people with a very strong democratic tradition, who make their decisions independently of what categories the world’s literati class wish them to occupy. I have a profound respect for their genuine integrity as a self-defining people who chart their own course through the modern world.

  6. Thank you for your comment and information, Terry. I was impressed how your wife balanced her artistic interchange with Kunas in such a respectful way. I think they are unique in the way they have negotiated their identity but avoiding isolation. Even education elsewhere, while generally considered a positive personal step, can contribute to cultural assimilation, but somehow not in the case of Kunas. Fantastic example!

    Thank you again…

  7. Congratulations with your nice and pedagogic work!
    Rita Willaert

  8. I found Terry’s remarks above extremely thought-provoking. I discovered a vintage mola in a shop in the south of England a few days ago. [See http://94stranger.wordpress.com/2009/07/09/art-objects-71-vintage-san-blas-mola/
    Although having been interested in ethnic textiles for a decade or so, this was the first time I had come across molas. I am struck by the extraordinary range of mola art, which despite this range is instantly recognisable – it suggests that the Kuna have a very strong sense of identity.
    The issue of the retention of local cultural identity in a globalised world is one which, in one way or another I suppose faces all of us. Perhaps the Kuna, who have been dealing with this issue head on for centuries, have something to teach all of us.

  9. hello as are all for now my answer is that in Panama molas that I sell are made by indigenous women of Panama with the gloves are cool bags, cases, lenses etc if you need only contact or send me message I send them my information thanks some photos hope you like thanks.

  10. Amazing art works really charms me.

  11. Pingback: Panama - Wichub Wala - San Blas - Home Decor

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