In the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, far from the skyscrapers and traffic of Panama City, is a small archipelago of 365 islands known as Guna Yala, or the San Blas Islands. Today, around 50,000 Guna are scattered across 49 island communities. Indigenous people of what is now Panama and Colombia, the Guna live today as they have for generations. Life is mostly spent outdoors, with only hammocks for sleeping next to the wooden houses covered with palm fronds. In Guna Yala, a politically independent territory, the whole community weighs in on legal and political decisions. And it’s the women who run the show. They inherit land and property. The bride and groom move into the bride’s house and take their names. And it is the women who create, wear and sell elaborate and colorful products. molas, a lasting symbol of Guna’s independence.
Molas are hand-sewn cotton textiles traditionally fashioned into blouses and worn by Guna women. They often sport vibrant geometric designs that range from abstract designs to intricate renditions of legends. Today, textiles can be made into pillows, wall hangings, bedspreads and even headbands.
Molas are made using “reverse appliqués on several layers of cotton fabric,” says Rita Smith, owner of Rita Smith Molas Gallery. “It’s almost like making a sandwich,” she says. “Some require two coats, but others require more than two.” After the fabrics are layered, the artist cuts the top layer in a specific pattern to reveal the color underneath, then sews along the edge of the cutout to secure the pattern. The artist repeats this over and over to form the design, a process that can take months. The technique has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations.
Mola’s designs vary widely. “Some [molas] are mythologies, some can be herbal remedies, some can have stories, ”says Smith. Giovanna Puerta, another mola seller based in Panama, saw examples with drawings based on artists’ dreams, plants, animals or religious subjects, including a mola depicting an intricate illustration from the biblical story of Solomon proposing to cut a baby into two: “How awesome!” More recently, Guna women have started creating designs based on pop culture to cater to tourists. Think of a Spider-Man mola or a Minnie Mouse mask.
Molas have not always been a part of Guna culture, says Andrea Vázquez de Arthur, curator of the current Cleveland Museum of Art exhibition, Fashion Identity: Mola Textiles from Panama. “[The Guna] were originally from the interior tropical forests of Colombia and were relocated to their present coastal territory during the colonial period, ”between the 16th and 19th centuries, explains Vázquez de Arthur. While they lived in the rainforest, “they didn’t really wear a lot of clothes because it’s just not an environment where clothes are your friends,” she adds. “What you want is bug spray to make them paint their bodies” with ink, possibly derived from tree sap, which acted as a natural deterrent.
When the Guna migrated to the coast, where there is wind and sun, “Suddenly it’s a different story and clothes become more important,” says Vázquez de Arthur. Influenced by immigrants and European traders, Guna men began to make their own Western-style clothing. The Guna women, however, took inspiration from Guna body painting designs and “invented their own style of dress.”
In the late 1800s, Guna women proudly wore handmade mola panel blouses and geometric wrap skirts, at least until 1918 when the Panamanian government banned the wearing of molas, as well as the Guna language. and various other spiritual and cultural guna practices. The President of Panama at the time, Belisario Porras, wanted “to specifically eradicate the Guna culture and assimilate it into the Panamanian population in general,” explains Vázquez de Arthur. The Guna villages have become police states. “The simple act of making and wearing molas has become an act of political protest,” she adds, and they “have become a very visible symbol of their desire to have their own rights.”
After years of quiet resistance, the Guna finally revolted during carnival on February 23, 1925. They expelled the police from their communities and declared independence. American ethnologist Richard Oglesby Marsh wrote the Guna’s 25-page Declaration of Independence, after befriending them while studying their higher than average albino population. (He even brought three albino Guna children and five adults during a high-profile trip to the United States.) Over the next few days, 30 police officers and several Guna, including children, died in the crossfire of the conflict. It was then that US diplomat John Glover South stepped in and helped negotiate a peace deal.
Today, Guna Yala continues to operate as an independent territory or co-brand. They have representatives in the Panamanian government, but their own laws. Panamanians must present a passport to travel to the islands.
The molas persist as an enduring symbol of Guna independence. Their importance “draws attention to the impact that women have on [Guna] society, ”says Vázquez de Arthur. But Smith and Puerta fear that the molas will disappear if the artisans are not sufficiently supported. “The mola doesn’t get the respect it should, because each mola takes around 30 hours,” Puerta explains, and sometimes artists can earn as little as $ 5 for their efforts.
Since the 1980s, commercial mola imitations have threatened the Guna’s own mola economy. Several laws have been passed in Panama prohibiting counterfeiting, but mola artists still face an uncertain future. “The younger generation may one day just not be interested in making molas,” says Smith. It is no longer rare to see cell phones or Guna women in Western attire on the islands. But for now, artists continue to turn Guna’s legends and dreams into beautiful molas and, as an ethical dealer, Puerta says, “This is what I can help: help the artisans.