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Artful Layers: The Molas of the San Blas Islands

The Kuna (also spelled Cuna) Indians live on the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama much as they have for the past 500 years. They moved to the islands from mainland Panama in the mid 19th century in an effort to avoid forced assimilation by the Panamanian government.

Today the Kuna live on their beautiful tropical islands in clusters of thatched-roof bamboo huts. Because there is no firewood or fresh water on the islands, the men make frequent trips to the mainland where they also farm and tend fruit trees. When they are not farming, the men fish the Caribbean waters, which are rich in spiny lobster, red snapper, and swordfish. The women generally remain at home to do household chores and sewing. More often than not, what they are sewing are molas.

The term mola may be used in a variety of ways. It can mean “cloth,” “clothing,” or “blouse.” More recently, the term has come to refer to the stitched panel itself. Each panel consists of many layers of fabric of different colors that have been sewn together. Now internationally popular with collectors and artists, making molas is no longer a pastime for Kuna women, but an important source of income for the family. Women sew whenever and wherever possible. Girls begin to learn the process of making molas when they are four or five, and by the time they are seven or eight they have begun to help with the stitching or other simple details.

Before the boom in tourism to the area, most molas were made for personal use on blouses for a woman or her daughters. Despite the high quality of construction, mola blouses generally don’t last long because the fabric deteriorates in the hot and humid climate of the Kuna homeland. In the 1960s, tourism to the area increased rapidly, and the sale of molas to visitors became commonplace.

To make a mola, a Kuna woman first draws the design on a piece of paper. Panels of fabric (usually two or three) are cut or torn to the desired size and then layered. The design is then transferred to the top layer of fabric. Traditional molas are made of primary and other bright colors and from solid—rather than print—fabrics.

Using a technique known as reverse appliqué, slits are cut through—or shapes are cut out of—the top layers of the fabric to allow the remaining layers of cloth below to show through. Sometimes smaller pieces of fabric are sandwiched between the layers, a technique known as inlay appliqué. Traditional or overlay appliqué is also used to apply fabric cutouts on top of the background. Regardless of the appliqué technique, all of the layers are sewn with very precise stitches. The Kuna people often use a unique “waste no fabric” method in which shapes cut out of one mola panel are applied to a second panel. The results are two similar, but not identical, molas that are actually symmetrical, or mirror images of each other.

Next the borders of the fabric are stitched together. In the finest molas, the stitches are barely visible. Embroidery is sometimes added for decorative effect or to emphasize design details. A well-made mola may take up to a hundred hours to complete, usually spread over a period of four to six weeks.

Kuna women find inspiration for their molas from their daily lives, as well as the world around them. Designs from the natural world may include native animals and plants. Sometimes animals from other parts of the world whose pictures were found in books or other sources will appear. Scenes from daily life, and Kuna religion and legends are also popular themes. The forms of transportation used by the Kuna, as well as those they see the tourists utilizing—cruise ships, planes, etc.—are occasionally found in molas. Even popular sports like basketball capture the imaginations of the women.

Molas have become one of the most important products of the Kuna economy. And partly as a result, their makers—the Kuna women—enjoy a very high status in their society.

Source: Kaleidoscope of Cloth by Stevie Mack and Kathleen Williams (2002: CRIZMAC Art and Cultural Education Materials, Inc.)

Discussion Questions:
Adapted from questionArte posters by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC

What is the artwork and what is it about?
What materials and processes are used to make molas?
Do molas contain things that stand for something else (symbols)?
Do molas have a message? Convey an idea or theme?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.