A funny thought struck me the other day as I watched a young girl walking down Central Avenue in San Jose; she was wearing a light top and shorts and her shoulders, mid-back and ankles were covered in tattoos giving the appearance of gaily coloured sleeves and socks. My thought was: how interesting that the women of the Kuna tribe ceased to cover their upper bodies with their typical semi-permanent tattoos and instead are now wearing blouses with intricate front and back panels which replace their tattoo art for an extraordinary fabric art known as molas. Hand stitched rectangular panels are worn in front and on the back of their blouses. As tattoos are being sported more than ever in our culture I find myself wondering what art form will our contemporary body-painting evolve into!
The history of the development of the mola is complex and we will go into more detail at a later date. For now here’s a brief overview: Since the late nineteenth century, girls and women of the Kuna tribe in Panamá have experimented with ways to transfer their customary body painting designs into hand-woven panels for blouses. Conjecture would suggest that a sense of modesty which accompanied the arrival of non-indigenous people and their Christian religion, together with the availability of imported fabrics (trade cloths) caused a new process of dress to evolve in which traditional Kuna art forms are not lost but translated from body art into fabric art.
Slowly this innovation intensified into increasingly more complex and refined designs that we know today as the unique Kuna mola, an art form with a vast vocabulary of cultural expression.
Traditional molas are assembled using the technique of reverse appliqué. This method requires the use of several layers of fabric with a particular theme and the cut out designs of the top layers reveal the more colourful two, three or four layers beneath. The cut edges, or channels, are then finely hemmed. The color of each lower layer creates the outline of the image. Only the bottom layer is not cut; it becomes the background color and supports the stitching of the other layers. On some molas there are long elements of small triangles, known as dientes, small teeth like edges, these are considered a difficult and superior technique as it is very complicated and time consuming.
The traditional mola measures 16″ x 13″ and when it is finished will be incorporated into the middle portion of a blouse, one serving as a front panel and the other as the back panel. When presented together as a pair on a blouse, the two molas portray the same subject; they look very much alike and being hand-stitched will differ only in small details of the designs.
Mola art is now an integral part of Kuna culture and their ethnic identity and is tangible proof of the strongly defined Kuna concept of beauty; it is clear that they value learning, and a competence which celebrates both continuity and change. While the earliest molas had abstract, geometric and esoteric designs, by the 1920’s designs based on household, objects, and later, even the incorporation of labels, trademarks, superheroes, and other pop icons appeared.
Indisputably the beauty of the mola is not only what you see from the front, but also in the dizzying stitch work seen from the back side. At Namu we have individual molas available and love to show off the tiny handiwork. But we also must remind you that molas can be enjoyed in many different ways. You can frame your mola or make a pillow or a delightful wall hanging, place mats, etc. Visit our indigenous arts collection of authentic Kuna molas here. Start a collection or consider giving a mola as a creative and unusual gift.
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