The Molas of Panama

Posted on August 20, 2013

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There she was, walking ahead of me.  The unmistakable mola design on her shirt sang out.  “Did you get that in Panama?” I asked.  “Yes!” she said, pleased and surprised.  But I had known.  It could not have come from anywhere else.

Panama holds a place in my heart.  I was there as a kid when my Dad was assigned there, and again on my own first Army assignment.  It’s a beautiful country rich in the traditions of native Indian tribes as well as Spanish explorers.  It would be impossible, and unjust, to try to cram all the fascinating aspects of Panama into one article, so today I will just tell you about one very cool art form:  the molas.

The Kuna Indians, also known as the San Blas Indians after the islands upon which most of them now live, are a native tribe which has lived for centuries along the northern coast of what is now Panama and Colombia.  They have maintained their own language, their own customs, and – to some extent – their own autonomy.  They are, statistically, the second-shortest people in the world (after the Pygmies), and have one of the world’s highest rates of albinism.

The word “mola” simply means “clothing” in their language, and refers to the bright, multi-colored panels which form the front and back of a Kuna woman’s traditional blouse.  The molas are said to have originated after the arrival of Spanish missionaries, who insisted that the Kuna should wear more than mere body paint!  Unwilling to give up the bright geometric designs, they began to create the designs in cloth rather than paint, and the mola was born.

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One of Lila’s molas, framed and hanging on a wall.

These molas are made of several contrasting layers of cloth cut and hand-stitched in appliqué and reverse-appliqué, depicting various patterns, animals, and scenes.  Some molas are made strictly with the intent of selling them to tourists, but I preferred to hunt for those with the telltale stitch marks around the edges, which show that they were once part of a woman’s blouse; these are generally made as matching pairs which complement each other.  If you are observant and lucky, you can get the matched pair, which lends itself nicely to matched framed artwork, or two sides of a cushion, or two matching cushions, say.  They can be added to quilts, shirts, tote bags – the possibilities are endless!   The women also stitch the mola designs onto plain cotton shirts, and I have a handful of these; as the shirts fade and wear out, you can bet that I will be salvaging these designs and adding them to a new plain shirt, perhaps, or maybe a jeans jacket.  There’s too much work in this art to just throw it away.

Still wearing it nearly 25 years later...

Still wearing it nearly 25 years later…

I fell in love with these molas the first time I laid eyes on them, hanging in rows on a clothesline along one of the roads outside of Panama City.  I used to regularly go to the docks in Colon where women had their wares laid out, and rarely came away without at least a couple of them.

Another from Lila's collection.  This one is one of a pair, formerly part of a blouse.

Another from Lila’s collection. This one is one of a pair, formerly part of a blouse.

They have been gifts to friends, they are on my walls, I even have one stitched onto a window shade.  They pack and store and ship easily; they don’t break.  I never get tired of them.  The colors, the designs, the whimsy are irresistible.  They add an exotic and high-impact accent piece just about anywhere (just don’t overdo it!).

If you ever get down to Panama, you will surely see these women displaying their handiwork around Panama City and environs.  But there is more to the Kuna than molas; you may find it worthwhile to hop a plane and spend a couple of relaxed days in San Blas, on the Caribbean side of the isthmus.

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