Image: Enclosed Bird Mola Panel (detail), mid 1900s. Republic of Panamá, Gunayala Comarca, Guna people, Sugtupo community. Cotton: reverse appliqué. All images courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.
The mola is a key component of traditional dress among the indigenous Guna (formerly Kuna) women of Panamá. Guna women have been sewing mola blouses for over 100 years, yet it was only following the Guna Revolution (1925) that the mola transcended its role as a garment to serve as a visual embodiment of the strength and survival of Guna identity. A new exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá, explores the mola as both a cultural marker and the product of an innovative artistic tradition, demonstrating the powerful role women artists play in the construction of social identity.
Image: Basket Mola Panel (Garba Mor), c. 1950-70. Republic of Panamá, Gunayala Comarca, Guna people, Urgandi community. Cotton: reverse appliqué, appliqué, embroidery.
Around the turn of the 20th century, when Guna people were already well engaged in foreign trade networks that provided access to cloth, thread, and needles, Guna women used these imported goods to invent a new style of traditional dress that reimagined the geometric patterns once painted on the body. To produce these designs within fabric, they developed the use of reverse appliqué, a technique that involves layering fabrics of different colors, cutting slits in the upper layer or layers, and folding back the cut edges to expose the color beneath. Additional details are added with appliqué, in which pieces of fabric are sewn on top.
Image: Matilda Mola, after 1978. Republic of Panamá, Gunayala Comarca, Guna people. Cotton, synthetic fiber: reverse appliqué, appliqué, embroidery.
As well as being powerful symbols of Guna culture and identity, molas remain practical elements of daily life as clothing and personal expressions of individuality, and are thus subject to changing fashion trends from one generation to the next. The exhibition explores how molas have evolved over the past century, charting various stylistic and thematic trends as they fell in and out of fashion from one decade to the next, and demonstrates the way in which their design is a blend of tradition and innovation. Crucially, despite changing trends, artists assert that the image on a mola panel is less important than the mola itself as a carrier of cultural meaning.
Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá will run until September 2022. All of the objects in the exhibition, including a magazine article and the gallery guide, are available to view on the Cleveland Museum of Art website.
Read more about textile art of the Guna people in Selvedge Issue 71 Southern.