Kuna Mola from the San Blas Islands, Panama

Item PM31   

This Item was Sold on 30 September 2014 for $14.30

Similar artifacts for sale are often found on the Panama Molas web page. 

Historical Pricing information for this item and similar artifacts can be found at: Historical Artifact Prices.

This is a vintage mola made in the 1960s or earlier . It was made out of two layers of cloth using an embroidery technique called reverse appliqué. Most of the cloth from these early molas came from the country of Colombia. This mola has a pre-Columbian matrix design with two rows of square waves filled with vertical hash marks. This mola is unusual in that the two primary layers are machine stitched, but the secondary colors are hand stitched (see bottom photo). I remember some of the wealthier Kuna Indians on the big islands having foot peddled treadle sewing machines. This mola was probably made by hand stitching the secondary layers and then machine stitching the two primary layers together. I personally collected this mola between 1955 and 1968, so I guarantee that it is not a modern reproduction. This mola would display well on a wall if mounted into a frame. This mola is in excellent condition.

Length = 38 cm (15 inches) ; Width = 28 cm (11 inches) ; Weight = 38 gm (1.3 ounces)

The mola is a rectangular piece of cloth that was made by Kuna [ Cuna ] Indians located in the San Blas Islands on the Atlantic coast of Panama between the Panama Canal and the country of Colombia. The Kuna are indigenous Carib Indians who were never subjugated by the Spanish. They have always been somewhat autonomous from the governments that have claimed the San Blas Islands as part of their territory. However, the Kuna have always tolerated the presence of other cultures, including the missionaries who had a significant impact on Kuna culture. Until the recent past [ 100+ years], the Kuna did not wear much clothing. They painted their naked bodies with abstract geometric designs and gods using dyes from native plants. The missionaries convinced them to wear clothing in the presence of Christians, so the Kuna learned how to make their own clothing from cloth that the missionaries provided. Because the clothing covered the abstract designs on their bodies, the Kuna learned the art of reverse appliqué, so that multiple layers of cloth were cut out and then sewn together to form beautiful abstract designs with the stitching on the inside.

Molas were usually made in matched pairs with one mola on the front of a mola blouse and the other on the rear of a mola blouse. Although molas were made in matched pairs, the two molas were usually made different and a skilled seamstress would incorporate a larger number of subtle differences. Over the past several decades, the production of molas has become a real industry in Panama with Cuna woman making large quantities of molas having contemporary Christian or commercial themes (Disney, comic book heroes, commercial products, etc.) and the art incorporates messages with perfect spelling and without anything related to the Kuna culture. Although contemporary molas sell at a premium on eBay or to tourists on cruise ships, they lack the spiritual meaning that the original molas had to the Kuna people.

Many of the simple molas with abstract geometric designs are among the most valuable. I certainly appreciate the older ones more because My childhood was spent on the Atlantic coast of Panama and I traveled many times to the San Blas Islands. I had many Kuna Indian friends who lived in Colon and worked in the restaurants or traded goods to the Hindu shops on Front Street in Colon. As a young adult, I worked on ships and one of my shipmates was a 75 year old Kuna medicine man whose name was John Bodder. He taught me a lot about how the Kuna used indigenous plants, their gods and customs. I am sorry that I did not write it all down to share with others.

The molas that I sell are from two sources: my family collection (purchased between 1953 and 1974) and from Dean Flora, a Baptist missionary who spent a lot of time in the San Blas Islands in the 1960s and early 1970s. Dean was a wonderful man who tried to introduce Christianity without destroying the Kuna culture. The Kuna Indians loved him and made him an honorary member of their tribe. This honor is rarely bestowed to outsiders. Therefore, all of the molas that I sell are at least 35 years old. but most are 40 to 60 years old and some are even older.

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