When handed a lemon, they made lemonade. The ever-industrious Guna (aka Kuna) people took the Covid-19 Pandemic and turned it into a new use for an old art form. They made their molas into masks. Their making of molas has been a source of income for the Guna for the last 60 years.
The Guna people are an indigenous tribe living in Panama and Colombia. They mostly live on about 44 of the more than 365 islands off Panama’s eastern coast, known today as the San Blas islands. These islands are called the Guna Yala by the Guna people and are closed to visitors. Their communities range in population from 30 to 2000 inhabitants. In 1925, the Guna gained semi-autonomy from the Panamanian government.
At home, the Guna women sew elaborate molas, an intricate form of textile art. The word mola originally referred to bird plumage but has become the word for clothing, specifically a blouse. These molas form the front and back panels of the blouse.
A mola consists of two to seven layers of cloth of various colors made as a reverse applique. The vibrant colors are sewn together and then cut away layer by layer until an artistic rendering emerges. The pattern may be symmetrical or asymmetrical. It may be abstract or figurative and may include animal or plant images. Molas are judged by the number of layers of cloth used and the intricateness of the stitching.
Molas are standard dress for the Guna women. None of this clothing can be sold; it is exclusive to these people. However, swatches can be purchased as hangings, pillow covers, hat bands, scarves, and other useful items. It wasn’t until the 1960s that these accessories were made available for purchase. This art form has become a substantial means of income for the Guna peoples and elevated the role of women in these communities. Many examples are collected and many hang in museums.
The sale of molas has been a blessing in disguise for the Guna people. It has brought a new exposure to this beautiful art form, introducing it to people everywhere. The mask helped make the mola more popular. What a benefit this turned out to be for these native people of Central and South America.
Fact: Panamá has more bird species than the US and Canada combined
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