Molas have become very popular for western art collectors and museums in the past few decades and are often taught in art classrooms. How can these be approached from a critical multicultural perspective?
In the west, when we refer to molas, we are talking about intricately patterned “reverse appliqué” textiles produced by the Kuna women of Central America and worn as blouses, though to the Kuna, mola simply means any piece of cloth.
Who & Where?
The Kuna people live in the San Blas (or Mulatas) Islands off the Atlantic coast of Panama. They call themselves the Tule and speak tulekaya. The population of the many islands totals approx. 35,000. 6,000 or so Kuna living in mainland Panama City. The islands of the archipeligo is now an autonomous “reservation.”
Techniques – Motifs – Cultural Contexts
Molas often use animal imagery (from land and sea)
- The “reverse appliqué” technique involves several (2-5) layers of fabric, including one base layer and several others cut away to varying degrees. Other small pieces of fabric are added under incisions to add color. Pieces of fabric are also added on top, plus ricrac & embroidery. Raw edges are folded under and tightly sewn in the same color thread.
- The Kuna worldview is one of layers as well–the world is said to be made of 8 different spiritual layers/stories.
- Doubles of designs that closely resemble each other are displayed on the front and back of blouses.
- The Kuna also believe that each living thing has a double, an invisible essence or soul (purba)
There are MANY variations & intricacies to molas… some molas are more patterned; others are more representational. Sergan (or ancestral) molas are generally less representational. Molas are often reinterpreted/copied but also invented.
The Kuna society is matrilineal. Girls are revered at birth, and girls are taught from a very young age how to create molas. Women wear the molas they make themselves and create them for everyday life and for ceremonial purposes.
All Kuna women make them–the fact that they all learn this art form is a testament to the idea that art CAN be taught!
Homosexual men also make molas in Kuna society, but they do not traditionally wear them.
Interestingly…men typically interpret what the designs of molas symbolize. Often women, the makers, deny that symbolic meaning exists.
The fabric used for molas comes from a range of sources of primarily manufactured textiles: English cotton & synthetic/plant fibers from Japan, Colombia, China, etc. The Kuna have a long history of trade/contact with the outside world.
“All objects, tools, and daily activities whether traditional or modern, may inspire the design of a mola” (Parker, 1977)
Contemporary molas include images from pop culture, politics, visual culture (books, cartoons, advertisements).
“Made to order” molas from westerners raise questions about authenticity.
Food for Thought…
Lesson Plan Ideas
- Cut paper or cloth using reverse appliqué technique BUT make molas depicting items from their everyday life…often times, molas art projects are restricted to pattern, flowers, plants, and animals. Show examples of contemporary molas!
Resources (books from Flaxman)
Perrin, Michel (Deke Dusinberre, trans.) Magnificent molas : the art of the Kuna Indians. Paris : Flammarion : Arthaud, c1999.
Parker, Ann & Neal Avon. Molas : folk art of the Cuna Indians. Barre Pub. ; New York : 1977.