The Mola is thought to have been in existence for little more than 165 years. The development of the Mola originates from early body painting which was first transferred to cloth painting and then to sewing decorative belts on to sack-like dresses. The Kuna women of 1681 are described as using body paint much like the neighboring Choco Indians use today.
Wafer (1699) wrote, "...the women are the painters, and take great delight in it. The colors they like and use most are red, yellow and blue, very bright and lovely. They temper them with some kind of oil, and keep them in calabashes for use, and ordinarily lay them on the surface of the skin with pencils of Wood, gnawed at the end to the softness of a brush; they make figures of birds, beasts, men, trees or the like up and down in every part of the body, more especially the faces; but the figures are not extraordinary like what they represent and are of Differing Dimensions as their Fancies lead them."
Cloth painting probably appeared in the mid-18th century (Kapp 1972) and may have been introduced by the French Huguenots who settled among the San Blas people from 1700 until they were expelled or murdered in 1757. The Mola blouse, as we know it today, evolved from the Victorian period. It is believed to have originated from a loose dress with a brightly colored and decorated band sewn to the lower hem.
Making a "Mola" blouse requires two panels--one for the front and one for the back of the blouse. Consequently, each Mola will have a similar panel (almost identical) to complete the garment. The artist creates the two panels using the same theme for both sides; but, because each panel is created individually, each panel will be unique. It is a fortunate collector who finds both panels of a Mola for his/her collection.
Mola beauty and its appreciation are basically in the eye of the beholder. There are several factors which serve as guide lines in evaluating the artistic quality of a Mola. The overall impression is of utmost importance; however, the main points in judging a Mola are essentially design, balance, color and craftsmanship (Kapp 1972).
Balance in design is important and should please the eye. Complete symmetry, even in geometrics, is of little importance when considering the character of primitive art does not include the use of precise measurements. Proportion and balance, both in detail and en masse, must have free range--but not to the extent to cause irritation to the observer. The over use of background "fill-ins" such as oval slots, small triangles and circles is also a misjudgment which can detract from the general quality. In addition, the careless proportions of margins can annoy the viewer; just as a picture framed off-center is often a source of subconscious aggravation (Kapp 1972).
The overall pattern and combination of colors in the Mola should be balanced. The harmonious blending of color shades to emphasize the design should be complimentary to the Mola context. Patterns should not be too busy or too empty. Every inch of space in the design of a quality Mola will be used in some creative manner. The use of "Rick-rack" and other ready-made tapes can compromise the craftsmanship; however, these ready-made products can be and are commonly used to adorn the finished Mola when incorporating the panel into the whole blouse. The use of embroidery stitches as a filler of "blank space" is becoming more common. Molas, just as paintings, should be viewed from an appropriate distance. Three to eight feet is the correct distance for best viewing a Mola.
Traditionally, the fabric choice for Mola-making is a light weight cotton or poplin. Heavier cloth such as corduroy, velvet or terry cloth, is too bulky for the fine needlework in this multi-layered fabric craft. Two to seven layers of cloth can be used in a Mola. The use of three or more layers in a piece is judged as an above average Mola. Uniformity of the cut-out areas, sewn with thread not too heavy or coarse and exactly matching the fabric, is found in a quality Mola. Small, evenly spaced stitches pulled tightly through the fabric, are used leaving the observer unaware of the needlework. The needlework should be examined on both front and back of the Mola. The quality of the stitching will be evident on both sides of the panel. The curves and corners of the cut-out areas should be sewn smoothly, showing no frayed edges or lumps from unclipped hems. The cut-out areas should be consistent in size measuring 1/16 to 3/32 inch in width in above average work. Cut-outs measuring 1/8 inch or wider are considered crude or average work. The cigar-shaped slots used as fillers in areas of empty space are usually 1/8 to 3/32 inch. Cigar-shapes measuring 1/4 inch or wider are considered poorer quality work.
Solid colors, usually reds, blacks and oranges, are selected as anchor (background or foreground) colors in molas with virtually every other color imaginable being used for accent colors. The artist's color choices contribute to the uniqueness of the Mola. The choice and delicate use of color to increase and broaden the depth of field can stimulate interest in ordinary designs. The skillful selection of color outlines often creates a three-dimensional projection. Some molas are so handsomely colored they create hypnotic, psychedelic impressions in kaleidoscope fashion (Kapp 1972).
The brilliant hues of a newly-made Mola are a sharp contrast to the now scarce MUKAN (grandmother) molas which date back to the 1920's and the SERKAN molas dating back to the 1930's. These older, ethnographic gems are often faded to pastel shades that exhibit a soft appearance pleasing to the eye. Examine the Mola for evidence of wear. This is done by looking at the darker bottom layer(s). Do not discount the quality of the Mola because it appears faded. The fact it may have had too much exposure to the sun or may have been worn and washed repeatedly often indicates the Mola was of fine quality and prized by the artist, who wore her masterpiece often and proudly.
Captain Kapp (1972) suggests, it is erroneous to limit the Mola art field to traditional or nature inspired works. Classic ethnographic specimens are one extreme and bizarre copy of acculturated subjects, such as magazine advertisements, or psychedelic abstracts which seem to run off the edge of the fabric into oblivion, are the other extreme of Mola fabrications. In between is a vast horizon of subject matter for Kuna primitive expression. The obvious criterion in judging the artistic merit of a Mola is by the degree of personal sensitivity and imaginative appeal. Generally speaking, one can ask "Does the Mola come to life?" For instance, do the birds fly, the eyes twinkle, the leaves rustle, the water splash, the colors glow--or, simply, does it charm you, the observer?
Unfortunately, for the purest, the Mola is being exploited commercially and a flood of items with Mola designs have been placed on the market. Sewing machines have been introduced to speed-up the Mola-making process; small Mola-styled inserts are being mass-produced for use as pockets on skirts and for yokes on shirts and blouses; there are pot holders and place mats with the Mola-motif being offered for sale by numerous vendors throughout the world. While all items appliquéd in Mola fashion are fun, the traditional panel handmade specifically for a Kuna Indian's blouse by a Kuna Indian is the panel the serious Mola collector is searching for. This unique "traditional" art form is what I refer to when discussing tips for the serious collector.
The tourist-type Mola panels are, in reality, ethnographic imitations--and a discredit to this splendid art form (Kapp 1972). Tourist molas have simple motifs, which require a minimum of workmanship, combined with gaudy colors. They are produced by indigenous craftsmen en masse specifically for sale to the souvenir seeking tourist and wearing apparel trade. The demand for these "souvenir" Molas is great and certainly contributes to the artist's revenue.
Mola making is indeed a craft, but on the strength of this point alone it cannot be labeled as art. There must be a trace of uniqueness in design, color or fabrication technique, or a mixture thereof, that permits a qualified observer to detect some originality. Nevertheless, when a Kuna woman makes a Mola she intends to wear, she puts into her work some definite form of individual expression. Her tribal belief is that all objects and living forms in this world possess a spirit and in this respect her Mola must also contain this vital entity (Kapp 1972).
The Mola maker has a compelling desire to incorporate into each one of her creations a tutelary spirit that will bring to her good fortune, admiration, and in some cases, protection. With this motivation, it is clear to see the intent to create personal and unique molas for oneself. This is the essence of art which elevates the ethnographic Mola above the tourist trade product.
In an attempt to increase sales of the Kuna products, the Peace Corp was badly misled into encouraging Indian women to make greater use of the sewing machine and rapid sewing techniques. This government program fostered sewing schools in the San Blas where favorite tourist designs were standardized with the result that a highly imaginative handcraft, tempered with human feeling and inspiration, has been distorted for a small commercial advantage (Kapp 1972).
Those Kuna women and their daughters who have been commercially trained in the field of Mola mass production will, unfortunately, never again be capable of producing aesthetic, primitive art. It is regrettable to realize that the colorful tradition of the making and wearing of molas has long shown signs of disappearing in the progressive Kuna villages. Many young people are benefiting from government school education, but it is evident that the imaginative and delightfully primitive aspect of Mola designs could be harmed by the influence of alien art and craft education (Kapp 1972).
In summary, look at the Mola panel. Is the overall look balanced in
color and design? Has the space been used completely, uniformly and
creatively? Are the cut-outs stitched neatly with small, uniform, tightly
executed stitches using thread exactly matching the fabric being sewn?
Is the back of the Mola as neatly sewn as the front? Are raw, cut edges
neatly turned under and hems properly clipped avoiding lumpy seams?
Are there several (two or more) complete layers of cloth? Has the artist
avoided using commercially purchased Rick-rack and braid to embellish
the panel? Was the panel sewn by hand--not machine? Do you like what
you see? If so, you have found a work of art.
Chaves, E. & Angermuller, L. (1969). About Molas. Florida: Panama Canal Press.
Kapp, K. S. (1972). Mola Art from the San Blas Islands. Ohio: K. S. Kapp Publications.
Parker, A & Neal, A. (1977). Molas Folk Art of The Cuna Indians. Massachusetts: Barre Publishing.
Wafer, L. (1699). "A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America," London. Edited by George Parker Winship (1903) Cleveland.
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