I was wondering where my next adventure would take me when I came across the excellent book The Mola: Traditional Kuna Textile Art by Edith Crouch (Shiffer Publishing, 2011). Captivated by these colorful textiles, I started planning my next trip.
Hand-appliquéd molas form the bottom part of the blouse of the Kuna (or Guna) women. The blouses are complemented by a headscarf, golden jewelry, a wrapped, patterned skirt featuring palm trees, birds or pineapples. The women, who formerly painted their legs, now wear a type of bottomless “sock” made from tiny beads. I have rarely I admired a people’s sense of fashion more than that of the Kuna women.
In early March, my husband and I flew to Panama City. From there we took off to Playon Chico (“Big Little Beach”), one of the 364 islands in the comarca Kuna Yala, a semi-autonomous, indigenous territory located off the Caribbean coast of Panama, formerly known as San Blas. We wanted to visit some of the women who have been making molas for the better part of their lives.
After an adventurous flight in a tiny propeller plane, we landed at the minuscule one-strip airport of Playon Chico. It was good to see from the air the wide swaths of virgin rain forest, yet at the airport things looked very different. A plane had crashed only two weeks before our arrival, adding to the mounds of garbage surrounding the airport and beach.
Our guide took us to the Yandup Lodge, a scattering of charming seaside cabins on another tiny island, a ten-minute boat-ride from Playon Chico. Yandup Island was pristine, and it was easy to forget the garbage dump surrounding Playon Chico.
One afternoon we went into town, where our Kuna guide introduced us to some of the mola artists. (The artists, I read, are comprised of cisgender women, but also count some transgender women, omekit, who enjoy great freedom and acceptance among the Kuna).
Playon Chico counts roughly 3,000 inhabitants who live in “pole”-style thatch huts with leaf-covered roofs and simple outhouses at the end of small docks. Fresh laundry was fluttering in the wind. This afternoon, a big boat had docked in front of the “town square,” which we were told “sometimes has internet.” The boat’s Colombian traders were in the process of picking up coconuts for the coconut oil production in their native country, whose border lies 80 miles southeast. Despite its small size, Playon Chico has a comparatively wide main street where women display their art and children play and roughhouse amidst raucous laughter, followed by a slew of dogs and cats. Sadly, many of the women’s molas were bleached out by the sun, and business seemed limited to two artisans whose molas were in spotless condition.
Molas are often judged by whether they are the more modern, conventional appliqué or the traditional, more time-consuming reverse appliqué, in which fabrics are first sewn together in layers, then cut away from the top in patterns revealing the fabric underneath.
At first sight the difference is hardly noticeable and to me the judgment seems misplaced. Yes, reverse-applique is more labor-intensive, but who judges art by the time it takes to make? Besides, at $25 a mola, who could blame them for taking the faster route? After all, cost of living in Panama is almost as high as in the U.S. What counts is the concept, the composition and the sensitivity of the design.
Taught by tourists who have read that reverse appliqué is more valuable, regardless of concept and design, the Kuna women in Playon Chico were quick to point out the multiple layers that went into their molas.
The molas’ subjects are varied and range from flora and fauna commonly found on the islands—think crabs, starfish, exotic flowers and birds—to abstract geometric patterns, Kuna mythology and, occasionally, a grinning Jesus on the cross. (Naturally, I bought one of the latter.) One mola I saw featured pipes and, at first, I thought that this motif was geared at pipe-smoking tourists, until I saw that Kuna women commonly smoke pipes. Edith Crouch’s book also features molas tackling more “modern” imagery, such as helicopters and planes. Looking at the molas one can’t help but wonder whether Keith Haring’s work was inspired by the art of the Kuna women.
The sale of molas to tourists constitutes an important income source for women, who, Steven G. Snow writes, now often out-earn their husbands, who fish for lobster and sell coconuts to Colombians. This, some argue, has exacerbated the divisions among men and women. Snow laments that Kuna women have adapted to the tourism market, abandoning traditional motifs and selling instead “Hard Rock Café: San Blas” molas. This made me wonder why we want to limit indigenous people to their traditional motifs while we, tourists, are free to explore and follow our inspiration and business instincts. I didn’t find the often-lamented loss of artistic traditions a problem; as far as I could see, high-quality, artistically relevant molas were going strong, regardless of the subject matter.