By Andrea Vazquez de Arthur
Published on the occasion of the exhibition Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá, November 22, 2020–October 3, 2021
On small, sandy islands surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, Guna women spend hours every day hand sewing intricate designs into fabric panels destined to form the front and back of a blouse (fig. 1). These blouses, called molas, are so visually striking and uniquely Guna that they have become the single most recognizable element of Guna cultural identity.1 Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá explores the mola as both a cultural marker and the product of an artistic tradition, demonstrating the powerful role women artists play in the construction of social identity.
In Dulegaya, the Guna language, “mola” applies to cloth as well as clothing and refers to both the individual panels and complete blouses.2 Although fabricated entirely from imported materials, the garments are indigenous in style and method of construction. The panels’ designs are made using the reverse appliqué technique: layers of different colored cotton fabric are basted (temporarily stitched) together; a design is cut into the top layer; and the edges of the cuts are carefully folded under and sewn down, revealing the color of the layer beneath. Additional details are added by appliqué, in which pieces of fabric are sewn on top; the entire design may be further embellished with touches of embroidery (fig. 2). The panels are made in pairs and attached to separate fabric pieces that form the blouse’s yoke (shoulder section) and sleeves. With her mola blouse tucked into a cotton wrap skirt, a Guna woman’s attire is completed by a red-and-yellow headscarf, strands of beads wrapped around her arms and legs, multistrand necklaces, and often a small gold nose ring (fig. 3).
Guna History and Culture
The Guna occupy a territory called the Gunayala Comarca (Gunaland Province). Located on the far northeastern coast of the Republic of Panamá, it consists of hundreds of tiny islands as well as the adjacent coastline (fig. 4).3 While the Guna use the mainland territory for agriculture, their villages are nearly all located on the islands, where they live in densely populated communities (fig. 5). Visual and performing arts in Guna society are strictly gendered.4 Men’s arts include basket weaving and public oratory, such as poems, stories, chants, and speeches. Molas are designed and fabricated almost exclusively by women, including men who identify as women.5 They learn their art during adolescence and continue to create molas throughout their lifetimes. Guna women began making molas around the turn of the twentieth century, when they were already well engaged in foreign trade networks that provided access to cloth, thread, needles, razor blades, and later, scissors.6 From these imported goods, they began inventing a new style of traditional dress that quickly became a symbol of their identity—and even their freedom.
The Republic of Panamá became an independent nation in 1903. In 1918, Panamanian president Belisario Porras began taking direct action to subjugate the Guna people, eradicate their culture, and assimilate them into the general population. Police were stationed in villages throughout Guna territory to forcibly suppress such cultural practices as traditional medicine, girls’ puberty ceremonies, community gatherings, and the relatively new style of women’s dress already viewed as an affront to Western customs.7 Guna people met this attack on their ethnicity with fierce resistance, and making and wearing molas became an act of political protest (fig. 6). In 1925, after enduring over six years of oppression, the Guna carried out a carefully organized revolution that forced the police to flee the region. With the support of the United States, the Guna made an agreement with the Panamanian republic that granted them freedom to maintain their ethnicity and govern their own affairs.8 Ultimately, the Guna gained complete autonomy over their territory.
In the years following the Guna Revolution, community leaders encouraged and enforced adherence to cultural traditions, including women’s traditional dress.9 According to mola scholar Diana Marks, “Kuna [sic] women, wearing their mola blouses, highlighted the distinctiveness of the Kuna people and strengthened the Kuna identity.”10 Women were urged to spend as much time as possible sewing molas and given opportunity to do so throughout the day. Over the last century, the mola has transcended its role as a garment to serve as a visual embodiment of the strength and survival of Guna identity and ethnicity.
Mola Design and Aesthetics
Gunayala villages are tightly packed with multigenerational households. Women spend much of their time sewing molas together in groups, lending a communal sense to the process (fig. 7).11 As they sew, they discuss the mola panels they and others are making, their commentary ranging from technical aspects to subject matter, color choice, style, and composition. This spirited practice of critique has resulted in a distinctively Guna system of aesthetic criteria for evaluating the beauty of a mola.12 Mari Lyn Salvador spent years studying artistic criticism from the perspective of Guna women and describes their aesthetic system as “based on the skillful manipulation of the technical process and the amount of work involved, together with the design considerations which include filled space, repetition with subtle variation, subtle asymmetry, visibility, complexity, and interesting subject matter.”13 In essence, a mola panel’s beauty is contingent upon both its visual appeal and its craftsmanship; in fact, many of the techniques are difficult and must be masterfully executed to achieve the desired effect (fig. 8).
In a well-designed mola panel, spaces surrounding the primary motifs are filled with embellishments, creating a dense thicket of color and line. These filler elements, whether subtractive or additive, are an important part of the composition, and each type has its own name. Among the more popular are parallel slits or das-das; lines with triangular sawtooth edges, known as ada-ada; and wawa-naled, tiny triangles (sometimes called nips) cut out of the fabric, with appliquéd pieces (pips) sewn on top (fig. 9a–c).14
An accomplished mola artist demonstrates her skill by including fillers that are especially challenging and laborious to execute. One of the most prestigious techniques is bisu-bisu, a geometric maze of evenly spaced lines that create winding paths across the surface and visually dissolve the divide between figure and background (fig. 10). Between the main motifs and the fillers, mola panels are complex, three-dimensional constructions created by cutting down through layers of fabric while also building up layers to add emphasis and pops of contrasting color (fig. 11).
The concept of the double has deep significance in Guna cosmology and the expression of duality is one of the core principles of Guna art.15 According to the Guna worldview, the earthly realm and everything in it has a spiritual double that exists in parallel to the material world.16 The doubling of forms and motifs on mola panels evokes this worldview, as does the concern for balance and equilibrium in design composition (fig. 12). The same is true of men’s oratory: their speeches, chants, and poems employ parallelism, a literary device that creates rhythm through the repetition of words and phrases, much like the names for mola filler techniques mentioned above.17
Often the repeated phrases are not exactly the same but differ slightly to convey a sense of subtle asymmetry. Many mola panels likewise exhibit parallelism, whether in the repetition of forms within a single panel or of the designs of the panels on the blouse’s front and back. For instance, in one mola the figure of Santa Claus repeats twice on a panel that is itself duplicated, with the front and back panels forming a matching pair (fig. 13). Here, as in other molas with paired figures, the images are similar but not identical: although the two Santas look the same, they carry different toys in their sacks. Alternately, in some molas the panels are not visually similar but rather form a conceptual pair, such as a mola that depicts two related events from the biblical Garden of Eden (fig. 14a, b).
The range of subjects depicted on Guna mola panels is seemingly infinite, with some responding to contemporary culture while others reinterpret designs from the past. A select group of mola designs with individual names, collectively designated sergan (“ancestor” or “elder”), are particularly revered because they represent the longevity of the mola tradition (fig. 15).18 These older designs may appear to be purely geometric, but they are often abstracted images of the plants, animals, and objects that have served as source material since the invention of the mola.19 In a similar vein, artists continue to draw from their immediate environment, which now includes everything from product packaging and magazine advertisements to cartoon characters and film posters. One mola panel in the exhibition reinterprets the poster from the 1978 film Matilda  (fig. 16), while Bullwinkle J. Moose, the famous 1960s animation character, appears on another (fig. 17).
The Guna fought hard for their right to remain isolated, and access to the Gunayala Comarca is carefully controlled. Nevertheless, Guna people choose to interact regularly with the world beyond their borders. They operate their own tourist industry, allow cruise ships to dock in their ports, and, given their proximity to the Panamá Canal, Guna men have been working in the Canal Zone since the time of its construction. When Guna women appropriate elements of Western culture for their molas, they demonstrate a comprehensive worldview and a willingness to engage outside influence.20 Their molas are no less traditional when they feature foreign elements. Rather, mola artists transform these elements into something indigenous, assimilating them into their own cultural identity.21 When worn on the body as traditional dress, these transcultural molas communicate the Gunas’ tenacity about maintaining ethnic identity and traditional lifeways even as they participate in the global economy.
Mola artists assert that the image on a mola panel is less important than how that image is made manifest.22 In other words, less significance is attached to subject matter than to the mola itself as a carrier of cultural meaning (fig. 18). This is likely what invites such an eclectic array of imagery and why adhering to their aesthetic system is important for maintaining a sense of continuity through changing trends. Molas symbolize Guna identity not by what they picture, but through their very mode of visual expression.
Collecting and Preserving Molas
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the outsiders who collected molas during visits to Gunayala included Americans living in the Canal Zone and anthropologists conducting fieldwork.23 For the most part, these early collecting efforts involved molas that were worn and used, whether complete examples or panels cut from old blouses. Sales kept pace as tourism to Gunayala increased in the 1940s, and in the 1960s women began to make molas expressly for sale to outsiders.24 An observation perfectly appropriate to the Guna in this regard comes from artist Rose Simpson of Santa Clara Pueblo in the American Southwest: “The idea of being an artist as separate from life is a very Western concept. . . . But with Western ways of living, we’ve had to figure out how to market our aesthetic ways of being. . . . For me it’s been a really interesting thing to watch how a lot of indigenous people have navigated that sort of new way of finding a livelihood.”25 Through lucrative sales, women contribute substantially to household incomes, which has transformed their social position—they now play more active roles in community government.26
An additional benefit of selling molas to visitors is that many are eventually donated to museums, expanding their life cycles from garments to commodities to collectibles. The museum’s role as conservator of material culture is of increasing value to the Guna themselves since Gunayala’s high temperatures, humidity, and sunlight make preservation of cloth very difficult. Indeed, museums have begun to serve as archives that the Guna consult. For instance, in the 1990s, Guna representatives visited the Smithsonian collections in Washington, DC, and New York City to study and document molas collected in the early twentieth century.27 These visits allowed mola makers to directly experience molas made by earlier generations—many bearing sergan designs—and to bring back those designs to share with their communities for future generations to carry forward. The Smithsonian benefited in turn by gaining insight into the origins and interpretations of sergan designs, reinforcing the value of reciprocal relationships between museums and artists.
More than half of the molas at the Cleveland Museum of Art were donated in 1971 by Dr. Louis Hoover, an art professor at Illinois State University, and his wife, Lucille Hoover. Between 1966 and 1971 they made several trips to Gunayala, studying Guna culture and amassing an extensive collection of molas and artifacts. The couple was deeply concerned with preserving fine works of cloth and wood that would otherwise deteriorate in the tropical climate: “We sought to obtain as many of the older, traditional pieces as possible, and we generally had the full cooperation of the island tribal chiefs.”28 In 2010, the CMA received a smaller donation of molas from Dr. Jeanne Marie Stumpf, an anthropologist at Kent State University who briefly visited Gunayala in 1986. The Stumpf molas thus capture the work of a different generation than those collected by the Hoovers.
Denison University’s museum made generous loans to this exhibition from its Guna collection, one of the largest and most important in the United States. Denison’s mola holdings are noteworthy in part for the number of complete blouses represented as well as their documentation, gathered at the time of collection. The majority were donated in 1972 by Dr. Clyde Keeler, a geneticist who conducted scientific research in Gunayala and over the course of twenty-two research trips became familiar enough with the Guna to publish several books on their arts and religion (fig. 19).29 Keeler’s collecting activity, like that of the Hoovers, was rooted in his dedication to preserving Guna culture.