Mola Art: an introduction

What is a mola?
Kuna is an indigenous tribe of Panama, and in their language mola means blouse. However, apart from blouse, the word "mola" is used to denote these colorful textile panels stitched by the women of the tribe. 


Mola art is a functional art and although it was recently developed, it is fully integrated into the Kuna culture. The technique is still practiced by Kuna women and the knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation, starting when girls are very young. 

A mola blouse 
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Mola (blouse); made of cotton; yoke made of red cotton, yellow cotton sewn around neck; mola body backing of white cotton printed with blue hexagons, design appliqued in red and blue showing four animals in circles. 
Image source: © The Trustees of the British Museum.
A mola panel
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Mola panel featuring 'Sapi Wala' or 'Palu Wala' (coconut tree or tree of life).
Image source: © The Trustees of the British Museum.
(The word mola is used to describe both the complete blouse and the fabric panel)

Two mola panels are needed to make a complete mola blouse: The first panel forms the front side of the blouse and the other the back. Besides, the basic reason that Kuna women traditionally make molas is to make their decorative and colorful blouses. Nowadays, the basic reason for making molas is to sell them to the tourists, although Kuna women still wear and make blouses using mola panels. Molas are either stitched exclusively for tourists or when a Kuna doesn't want to wear a blouse anymore she removes the panels and sell them to the tourists or to the collectors.
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Two mola panels are sewn together to make a mola blouse. 

About the Mola blouse
The mola blouse, is made up of two rectangular stitched panels. One panel, is placed on the front side of the blouse and the other on the back side. The panels are joined by a seam on each side. The size of the panels fits the size of the woman or girl. 

Usually, the cut-out shapes of the first panel are used on the second panel, thus effecting economy in the use of fabric. So, in many cases, the front and the back panel, results similar but not identical. Fabrics were expensive and the kuna women invented several techniques to use even the smallest pieces of fabric. While making molas, women use to save and store the scraps in baskets to use them as patches in other molas.


The neck opening of the blouse, can be adjusted by a drawstring to fit the wearer, while some trim is added to the neckline. Usually, on the top of the shoulders is added an appliqued piece of fabric (like an epaulette). The sleeves are usually puffy.

On the top edge of the mola panel there is a decorative border sometimes hand appliqued. Often the same pattern is used to edge the sleeve bands. On the lower edge of the blouse, there is attached a narrow frill. This ruffle of band helps to keep inside the blouse to the skirt. 


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The origins of the designs and technique: 
It is not known for certain when fabric molas started to made by Kuna people. The explanations are many and vary from one source to another. Some sources refer, that the designs and symbols of molas have their origin in body painting. After the Spanish colonization and the contact with missionaries the Kuna started to transfer their traditional geometric designs on fabric, influenced by the western clothing. Maybe, the Kuna people wanted to imitate the western style of dressing or they were forced by the European invaders to wear cloth. According to an educational text by the hood museum, mola blouses, as we know them today, emerged around the late 1800s when missionaries insisted that indigenous people wear western clothing. So, the designs began as paintings directly on the body, then these designs were woven using cotton, and finally sewn using cloth brought by the invaders. 

According to the book ethnic and tourist arts (page 171) the origin of the art is uncertain. It is presumed that this decorated panel came into its present form after the introduction of manufactured cloth, metal sewing needles and scissors. 
According to another source the making of molas dates back to the mid-19th century, but because of the fragility of the textiles and constant use, no pieces from the 19th century are known to have survived and the earliest molas come from the 1920.

Traditionally, the decoration consisted of the painting of geometric patterns, stylized animal, human and plant forms. The latest form of mola designing is story telling. 

Aesthetics and types of molas. 

The mola panel is totally filled with the design and no large areas are left unfilled. In relation to colors the Kuna like intense colors that make strong contrast. So shades of the same color are not used on top of one another. Red is the predominant color and is usually the top layer. Black, mainly used as the base that outlines the design.  According to the book ethnic and tourist arts (page 173) there are the following types of molas:
  • Two-color molas (called mugan or old fashioned molas). This was the first type of mola made. 
  • Molas with three colors but only with two layers (they are called obo galet). This is a prestigious type of mola that is quite difficult to design. 
  • Three-color geometric molas with three layers of fabric. This is the type seen most often in photographs from 1930s and 1940s. 
  • Multi colored. It is the most popular type of molas nowadays with at least three full layers of cloth plus several other colors on the filler areas. 


References

1. 'Molas', from Oswaldo DeLeon Kantule, Retrieved October 25 2013.
2. "The art of the mola comes from Panama's Guna women". Retrieved October 25 2013
3. "The art of being Kuna", Retrieved October 25 2013

    

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