Mola

mola

mola

The mola [moh-luh] forms part of the traditional woman’s attire for the Kuna (an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia), two mola panels being incorporated as front and back panels in a blouse. The full costume traditionally includes a patterned wrapped skirt (saburet), a red and yellow headscarf (musue), arm and leg beads (wini), a gold nose ring (olasu), and earrings in addition to the mola blouse (dulemor).

In Dulegaya, the Kuna’s native language, ‘mola’ means ‘shirt’ or ‘clothing.’ The mola originated with the tradition of Kuna women painting their bodies with geometrical designs, using available natural colors; in later years these same designs were woven in cotton, and later still, sewn using cloth bought from the European settlers of Panamá.

Molas have their origin in body painting. Only after colonization by the Spanish and contact with missionaries did the Kuna start to transfer their traditional geometric designs on fabric, first by painting directly on the fabric and later by using the technique of reverse application. In the past 50 years, they also started to depict realistic and abstract designs of flowers, sea animals and birds. Depending on the tradition of each island, Kuna women begin with the crafting of molas either after they reach puberty, some even at a much younger age. Women who prefer to dress in western style are in the minority as well as in the communities in Panama City.

Molas have such an importance for the Kuna and their traditional identity that they can be made responsible for the independent status of the Comarca San Blas (an indigenous province in northeast Panama). After the attempt of the Panamanian government to ‘westernize’ the Kuna in the beginning of the 20th century by forbidding their customs, their language and their traditional dress, a huge wave of resistance arose. This resistance movement culminated in the Kuna revolution of 1925 where, after heavy battles, the Panamanian government had to make the concession of giving the Guna people the right to govern their own territory autonomously.

Molas are handmade using a reverse appliqué technique. Several layers (usually two to seven) of different-colored cloth (usually cotton) are sewn together; the design is then formed by cutting away parts of each layer. The edges of the layers are then turned under and sewn down. Often, the stitches are nearly invisible. This is achieved by using a thread the same color as the layer being sewn, sewing blind stitches, and sewing tiny stitches. The finest molas have extremely fine stitching, made using tiny needles.

The largest pattern is typically cut from the top layer, and progressively smaller patterns from each subsequent layer, thus revealing the colors beneath in successive layers. This basic scheme can be varied by cutting through multiple layers at once, hence varying the sequence of colors; some molas also incorporate patches of contrasting colors, included in the design at certain points to introduce additional variations.

Molas vary greatly in quality, and the pricing to buyers varies accordingly. A greater number of layers is generally a sign of higher quality; two-layer molas are common, but examples with four or more layers will demand a better price. The quality of stitching is also a factor, with the stitching on the best molas being close to invisible. Although some molas rely on embroidery to some degree to enhance the design, those which are made using only the pure reverse-appliqué technique (or nearly so) are considered better.

The artistry of a mola reflects a synthesis of traditional Kuna culture with the influences of the modern world. Mola art developed when Kuna women had access to store bought yard goods. Mola designs are often inspired by modern graphics such as political posters, labels, pictures from books and TV cartoons, as well as traditional themes from Kuna legends and culture. When Kuna women tire of a particular blouse, they disassemble it and sell the molas to collectors. Molas are often sold in pairs, the pair consisting of the back and front panels of a blouse. The two molas are usually two variations on a theme. Matched molas complement each other and should be displayed or used together for the greatest impact.

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