BEYOND CULTURE, AN ART FORM
The ‘Kuna’ or ‘Guna’ indigenous communities, located between Panama and Colombia, developed the ‘Kuna’ technique. More commonly referred to as ‘molas’, these fabrics are reverse appliqués of cut-out fabrics layered and hand-sewn into intricate designs. Normally worn by women for representation and protection, these designs manifest the guidance of the Guna Dule gods; it is a trace of their cultural heritage that can be seen, appreciated, and respected. The Kuna people count around 60,000 members across 49 communities in Panama and Colombia, all living in a matrilineal kinship.
Mola means ‘shirt’ or ‘clothing’. According to regional tradition, girls start confectioning molas once they reach puberty, some, even before. The complete traditional outfit consists of a dulemor, shirt with Kuna appliqués on the front and back; a saburet, patterned wrapped skirt; a musue, red and yellow headscarf; a wini, arm, and leg beads; an olasu, gold nose ring; and earrings. When Pasqual de Andagoya, Spanish conqueror and governor of San Juan, arrived in Darian, he wrote: “the women are very well dressed, in embroidered cotton mantles which extend down to cover their feet, but the arms and bosom are uncovered.” The concept of body coverage was brought by the missionaries that arrived in the area; with this cultural intersection, shirts were included in the traditional outfit. Molas represent tradition and culture for the Kuna community, women that do not wear them are uncommon. Especially after the 20th century, when the Panamanian government tried to “westernize” the community by forbidding their customs, language, and traditional outfit. Outraged, they started a revolution in 1925. After dense battles and a large wave of resistance, the government yielded. Kuna communities now govern their territories autonomously.
The creation of Molas originated in the tradition of Guna women. Before the arrival of Spanish missionaries in Panama and Colombia, the Guna women used to paint geometric designs over their skin. However, due to the fact that they had to cover their bodies, they translated the designs and wove them over the fabric using the reverse appliqué technique, where several different colored fabric layers, from two to seven, are stacked and sewn together. The design comes to life as the artisans cut through the fabrics. After completion, it is turned under and sewn, making the stitches almost invisible. Some molas have cutouts implemented to add an extra variation of color or to colorize a specific part of the pattern.
The number of layers and colors, type of stitchings, intricated zigzag borders, embroidery, design complexity, latticework implementation, and overall evenness, determine the quality of the mola. Due to their great amount of dedication and craftsmanship, they are sturdy and can be safely washed several times. This makes their creation flexible, being able to be made into pillowcases, garments, wall hangings, or carpets.
Among the Mola Textiles, there are two main designs: Naga and Goaniggadi.
"Myth says that the technique and original designs were hidden in the Galus, sacred places that exist in other layers of the universe. The Neles, their spiritual leaders, tried several times to bring back the knowledge and images of the technique through their dreams, but a beautiful woman, known as the goddess of the scissors, never allowed them to enter. It wasn’t until Nagegiryai, the first Nele woman, that the secrets were revealed to the community. Nagegiryai first experienced flashes of changing designs, then discovered paintings on trees and bodies of young women, and finally, on her last trip, she was taught the art of writing or creating mola textiles.”
EXPLORE ITEMS WITH KUNA TEXTILES
The Colombian Design Brand Mola Sasa works closely with the Guna Dule communities in an interdisciplanary design process making bags, pillows and other fashion accessories from the colorful textiles.