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Dressing Up Culture: Molas from Kuna Yala

Hood Quarterly, summer 2008
Barbara Thompson, Curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American Collections

Ever since the beginning of the twentieth century, the art of mola (blouse) making in Kuna Yala, a narrow strip of land and islands that runs along the Caribbean coast of Panama, has become an important source of income for Kuna women. The colorful and playful molas that Kuna women make and wear are collected worldwide because of their visually enticing patterns, achieved through reverse appliqué stitchery, appliqué, and embroidery. Executed on layered panels of fabric, mola patterns yield an astounding array of traditional and contemporary themes via abstract as well as geometric and representational designs. As the exhibition Dressing Up Culture: Molas from Kuna Yala demonstrates, mola patterns are widely diverse, ranging from appropriations of pre-Hispanic symbolism to figurative motifs derived from the natural world, Kuna legends and daily life, political posters and events, commercial labels and advertisements, books and magazines, mass media and popular culture, cartoons, and of course, the human imagination.

The Hood Museum of Art’s holding of almost sixty Kuna molas was assembled primarily by two Dartmouth collectors. Russell A. Mittermeier, Class of 1971, purchased about twenty molas for the Dartmouth College Museum while he was in Panama in 1970, conducting research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center Baloa. Alice Cox collected almost thirty molas while traveling to Panama to visit her daughter Barbara Vallarino (Mrs. Joaquin J. Vallarino Jr., Dartmouth Class of 1943W), who gave the collection to the Dartmouth College Museum in 1977. The wide diversity of the molas in the Hood’s collection reveals not only the imaginative breadth of this textile art but also the cultural resistance and strength of survival that characterizes Kuna culture. Molas have helped the Kuna peoples, particularly Kuna women, preserve their cultural and ethnic identity in the face of homogenizing Western forces. The development and designs of molas are deeply entrenched in Kuna culture, which is framed by a powerful traditional community life and profound forces of change. Under the guidance of leaders and elders, the Kuna have borrowed specific elements from outside cultures and transformed foreign knowledge and skills into their own longstanding traditions, thereby creating something uniquely “Kuna.” This keen ability to negotiate native cultural traditions within changing environmental, political, and economic circumstances is visually played out in the striking molas that Kuna women make and wear.

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