All across Panama, the spiritual and aesthetic contributions of the Kuna people loom large. Their craft is exhibited in airports, gift shops, restaurants, hotel lobbies and rooms, asserting recognition of their treasured place in both the political and cultural expression of what it means to be Panamanian. The reverse-appliqué mola is one aspect of Kuna culture that has earned not just a Panamanian following, but also a global one.
Floating in the Caribbean Sea between Panama and Colombia, far removed from the hub of Panamanian politics and control, the 400-island San Blas Archipelago is the Kuna Indians’ home. Their history includes a rebellion against the central government in 1925, motivated by a desire to preserve their language, cultural identity, and way of life. The San Blas Islands, now part of the Comarca de Kuna Yala, became their last stand – a remote haven in which to foster economic, political and cultural autonomy. Their struggle came to fruition with a constitutional amendment in 1945 granting them a substantial degree of independence.
After traveling less than forty minutes by plane from the mainland of Panama to Achutupu, one of the 46 inhabited islands in the archipelago, I arrived on a narrow strip of land, where a thatched shed was the only building in sight. On one horizon I could see the coconut and palm tree-laden shores of mainland Panama, and on the other, small, sandy Caribbean hummocks. The beauty did not stop with the landscape, however.
As if they heard my footsteps meandering along the dirt roads of this small island village, the women appeared in substantial numbers to show their beautiful molas -- in the hope of getting a sale, or at the very least, a dollar for every picture I took. Kuna women are dressed in striking traditional attire with nose rings, beaded arms and legs (called winni), and beautiful and colorful mola blouses, the very symbols of Kuna culture.
Mola is an art form like no other. Saturated with bright colors, images of fish, birds, turtles, and crabs, are the signature motifs of contemporary molas. Serkan geometric designs, derived from a tradition of mola making much older than festive birds and fishes, are the most valuable. Serkan molas are often made in pairs to adorn the front and back of a blouse. Often washed, faded, but remarkably intact mola panels are occasionally removed from blouses and sold to individuals who recognize their value.
Kuna families live in thatched houses, in close proximity to their extended families. It is common to meet four generations of the same family. Kuna men and women are not generally educated beyond the sixth grade, and they marry and begin their families by age 15. The island of Achutupu has approximately 1500 inhabitants from 15 families. Coconut sales to Columbia, lobster fishing, and tourism provide the economic foundation of the islands. Mola production and sales are also an essential activity.
Our guide, Plimo, gave us a glimpse into the Kuna way of life by welcoming us into his home. As my husband and I entered the humble compound, his wife Keila was shy but welcoming, which made it easy for us to approach and begin interacting with her. She only speaks the Kuna dialect, Dulegaya, but experience with tourists had shown her that my interest was not in the molas alone, but also in observing the Kuna way of life.
The layout of their compound revealed something about traditional ways. Two side-by-side thatched huts housed Plimo and Kiela, and Kiela’s mother. We learned that Kuna families are matrilineal and it is customary for the groom to live in his in-laws’ house and work for his father-in-law. Plimo was unusual in that he was educated and was independently employed.
After the welcome, Kiela went inside to cover her breasts and to gather up the molas she had designed and sewn for sale. I could see the excitement in her eyes as she anticipated our interest. After all, selling the molas was a reward for hard work. Through Plimo, who speaks English, she told me about the construction of the molas and the motifs she included as part of the design. Not wanting to be outdone, her mother disappeared into her hut and came back with serkan molas with traditional geometric motifs -- different from the ones her daughter produced. The intricate designs, the panoply of colors, and the refined quality of the finished product were simply amazing.
The life of the household hummed on as we learned, and purchased: their young daughter chased the domesticated parrots in the yard and the iguana munched its way to maturity, destined to become a delicious family meal.
A great mola distinguishes itself by the number of layers and the quality of its stitching: the greater the number of layers, the higher the price. A good one will typically have two layers, and great ones four or more. The stitching on a fine mola will be invisible, no matter how many layers. Those that rely purely on reverse-appliqué are considered of much better quality.
Before the production of fabric molas, which in Kuna language means shirt or clothing, Kuna women painted their bodies with intricate geometric designs. These designs codified their view of the world, the environment, daily life, and elements of the spirit world. Molas adapt these designs onto fabric and are seen as a uniquely transformative, uniquely Kuna representation of life itself. These designs were eventually woven in cotton, and later sewn using cloth bought from European settlers of Panama. The oldest known molas are 150 to 170 years old. Fifty years ago, the mola began its evolution from abstract geometry and into depictions of flowers, sea animals, birds and plants. Representational motifs rendered in bright colors have become as popular as the more traditional geometric designs.
The colorful realism of the contemporary designs had an immediate affect on me. Their cheerful insistence on bringing me face to face with the beauty of nature – as seen through the eyes of people who live much closer to it than me, a New Yorker, was delightful. What I brought home with me will always take me back to the San Blas archipelago.