Molas are Panama's most famous native handicraft. Mola Art began when Kuna women gained access to modern, store-bought fabrics. The first designs represented their culture, mythology, native animals and plants. Today's molas are still made in the traditional, geometric designs, but might also be inspired by comic book characters, advertising and political posters.
The mola is the signature craft of the Kuna Indian women of Panama. The Kuna Indians live in Kuna Yala, known commonly in the dominant culture as the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of more than 300 islands on Panama’s north coast. Although mola is the Kuna word for blouse, the word most often refers to the front and back panels of the traditional blouses worn by Kuna women. The front and back panels are always very similar but never identical, representing simultaneous continuity and change. Utilizing a technique called reverse appliqué, the women layer fabric and cut intricate patterns, exposing colors in the underlying pieces of fabric. Typical motifs are geometric, mythological/biblical, animals or marine life.
Molas are a relatively recent craft, and are thought to have derived from a tradition of elaborate body painting. Kuna families live in matrilineal groups. Each family lives in a compound comprised of a thatched sleeping hut, a thatched cooking hut and a courtyard. Mola making is one of the most important activities among the Kuna. Typically, older women in the family group tend to household tasks such as cooking so that younger women may concentrate on mola making.
What makes a good mola?
Kuna women use several criteria to evaluate a mola’s quality: