On the Trail of the Molas

The Museo de Oro, or the Gold Museum, consistently ranks as one of the top tourist activities in Bogotá. Now, more than ever, I recommend a visit, not just to see the comprehensive exhibits on the history and culture of gold in Colombia, but to catch a special exhibit on molas, woven fabric panels with intricate designs produced by women in indigenous Gunadule communities. Chances are you’ve already seen molas, perhaps on leather bags or wallets in souvenir shops throughout Colombia. But do you know where they were produced, who produced them, or what they signify?

Though molas are generally associated with Panama, the origins of the Gunadule are thought to be present-day Chocó and Antioquia. And the craft and tradition of molas was strong for many centuries before Panama separated from “Gran Colombia” in 1903. Present-day indigenous Gunadule communities that produce molas reside both in Panama (many in the Kuna Yula, or San Blas islands, autonomous territory of these peoples) and in regions of Colombia closest to Panama (the Pacific coast and the Darien region).

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My admiration of molas started several years ago. My first encounter with molas was in Mexico City, catching a glimpse of a geometric panel framed on the wall of the Harvard office in Mexico. When my parents visited me when I lived in Mexico, my mom was also enamored of the design. I asked the director of the office where she bought hers so I could get one for my mom, and she explained that she bought it in Panama and that it was produced by indigenous Panamanian women (since it was around the holidays and I wanted to give my mom something related to Mexico, I ended up buying her several peyote-inspired Huichol yarn paintings, another colorful indigenous art form I’ll have to save for another post).

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One of the Huichol yarn paintings I bought for my mom.

Living in Colombia a couple years later, I found myself considering the sailing trip from Cartagena to the San Blas islands, and molas resurfaced in my research. Then, in early 2016 I saw publicity for an upcoming exhibit at the Gold Museum on the artisanal weavings. Several months later, I rolled into the Gold Museum and spent several hours buzzing with excitement as I learned about the production, symbolism, and traditions behind molas. At ExpoArtesanias in December, I tracked down a mola station set up in collaboration with the Gold Museum exhibit, and I bought a few to fulfill my mom’s dream of having some mola designs to display in our house.

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One of the molas I bought at ExpoArtesanias in Bogotá last December.

Then, I had a chance to visit Panama and observed some women on various San Blas islands producing the molas (in a much more casual, less ceremonial way than I expected after the Gold Museum exhibit, I will say). I bought a few more in Panama directly from the producers of the molas.

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Molas on display at one of the San Blas islands.

 


Molas: Capas de Sabiduría / Layers of Wisdom

As one of the cultural institutions with the most international visibility due to its popularity with tourists, I am pleased that the Gold Museum hosted and organized the thorough show highlighting molas as cultural heritage of Colombians and Panamanians. After the show closes at the Gold Museum in mid-June, the exhibit will travel to other spaces sponsored by the Banco de la Republica. Molas are a tangible representations of the central position women occupy in Gunadule society, and they continue to play roles in political, economic, ritual, and artistic life of the Gunadule people.

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Ample space on the bottom levels of the museum was allocated for this exhibit, sufficient for several intriguing multimedia components, dioramas, large displays of molas, and many informative museum labels divided into thematic sections. There is even a trippy installation room with a reflective floor surface where there the projector plays a loop of mola designs enveloping the viewer, designed for younger audiences I presume. Perfect material for your Snapchat or Instagram story. But there was also a wealth of fascinating, informative content on molas.

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The title “Capas de Sabiduría/Layers of Wisdom” plays up the Gunadule conception of the universe as comprised of layers of gold and silver, and the first labels of the exhibit frame the show within the Gold Museum context by making this connection explicit. Other labels near the start of the exhibit clarify terminology; the people who produce these molas take issue with the names “Kuna,” “Cuna,” and “Tule” that they were given by scholars and the Panamanian government, and a quotation from a wise man from the community explains why they believe “Gunadule” is a better spelling of their name. Though it wasn’t used in the exhibit for this reason, the term “Kuna” continues to be a common way of referring to these mola-producing peoples.

Other displays introduce the religious culture of the Gunadule, and the roles of women as the producers of molas, thus, the guardians of tradition, the producers of progeny to preserve Gunadule culture, and the spiritual leaders of their societies. One label tells the story of creation of the first molas, facilitated by a female deity.

Another label describes how the tradition of producing molas can be viewed as a continuation of the pre-Columbian custom among Amerindian groups of women painting the bodies of everyone in the community for protection from “evil spirits, the sun’s rays and insect bites.” Recovered stamps used for body painting contain a wealth of designs, many of which also appear in molas. The mix of styles observed first in body painting stamps and later in molas is likely due to the strategic location of the Darien, a location that converted it into a center for commercial and thereby cultural exchange. The influences from many indigenous iconographies have been carried to the present through molas that preserve these ancient patterns. If you’re interested in the history of the Gunadule and their relationship to Panama (and how they gained autonomous control of the Kuna Yula or San Blas islands) there is a fantastic digital timeline display tracing this history.

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Another display of molas produced by local women on the San Blas islands.
The wide-ranging roles of molas dictate their designs and specific imagery. All molas are created to tell a story, but some molas are also conceived to have protective powers through designs intended to be dizzying and nauseating to deter enemy spirits that may threaten women or entire communities. Many of the molas designated as protective molas have parallel lines of bright and contrasting colors in close proximity to generate this dizzying sensation in the viewer. A wall-length display of protection molas presents four primary categories of protective mola designs: arrows facing inwards and outwards, connected spirals, diagonal curves, and independent modules.
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These protective molas and others can be placed into one of two general categories: those that are abstract with geometric designs and those that portray specific figures and activities in Gunadule culture. There are molas filled with representations of animals with various meanings to the Gunadule people, and there are molas picturing daily life, community and political meetings, rituals, and other festivities. Generally, the more colors and the brighter the colors in a mola, the more strength it is thought to contain.
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Molas also form a key component of female dress in Gunadule communities. Women wear molas sewn onto their blouses in typical ceremonial dress, both for protective effects of the designs and to showcase their handiwork. A video in the exhibit of a Gunadule woman demonstrating her mola-making technique explains that she will produce a new mola for every ceremony, and she will only wear the mola on her blouse for that particular event.
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Mola-making is also formative in the upbringings of girls in Gunadule communities. Girls are taught to sew from a very young age, expected by age 9 or 10 to have fine handiwork and sewing skills to produce simple mola designs. As the Gundaule woman in a video about mola production in the exhibit explains, while Western girls play with dolls, Gunadule girls start to draw designs to be used in molas and play with the molas weavings themselves. By around age 14, the girls are entrusted with sharp scissors and other pointed tools to produce sophisticated designs with multiple layers of cloth and various colors of thread. The ability to create impressive designs is deeply valued by the community, and a girl with talent for producing molas is highly respected.
Interestingly, molas both picture key rituals, like the female puberty ritual, and form a critical, material part of these rituals. During puberty, girls are considered to be particularly vulnerable. The specifics of these beliefs may sounds preposterous (a label with a quotation from a Gunadule wiseman reads, “spirits that hang around the territory are aroused by the smell of fresh pineapple that emanates from the pubescent girl.”), but whatever the threat, molas were considered to offer protection as girls are ushered into womanhood and are taught traditions of the Gunadule. Once puberty is complete, the girls are dressed in the full costume of women and presented to the community in a celebration.
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The final display illustrates how molas continue to be relevant since their essence is to tell stories, including those of the present. With this core idea of molas as a platform for stories in mind, contemporary molas featuring Spiderman, “Serrucho” from the popular song, and other trendy symbols are validated as artistic expression.
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