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The mola: layers of color.

Off the Eastern coast of Panama at the most narrow point of the Mulatas Archipelago, are the San Bias Islands. Four tribes of Indians live on these islands. These tribes have retained much of their traditional ways from before the coming of the Spanish Conquistadors in the sixteenth century.

Most of the Indians on the San Blas islands are of the Cuna Tribe. The Cuna Indians wear nose rings, ear discs and long necklaces made of beads and coins. They traditionally painted their bodies in brightly colored designs. The Cuna were also known to paint dark lines on their noses to make them look longer.

The beautiful art of the mola is practiced by the Cuna Indian women. These women decorated their blouses, front and back, with colorful designs sewn onto cotton panels using applique techniques. A young Cuna girl is taught this art by her mother and her grandmothers. In their language, the work mola traditionally meant "cloth" but now refers to the blouse itself or the individual panels that make up the blouse. The mola is sewn from machine-made fabric obtained by the San Bias natives through trade. This art form, unique to the Cuna tribe, may have had its origin in their pre-hispanic practice of body painting and was said to have first appeared during the early period of Spanish colonization.

The main subject of early mola design is nature. Early designs are abstract, often based on the patterns of brain coral. Some designs are about religion, myth or dreams. The simple designs of the mola have become, over time, increasingly more complex. In recent times, stylized figurative images of birds, fish and various animals and plant life have become more common motifs. Stylization is the representation of natural objects according to the conventions of a particular style. The subject matter is still often based on nature, but the designs have become more complex and sophisticated. While some early mola designs feature nonobjective patterns, the tourist market and technology have influenced mola design. Molas bearing images front breakfast food cartons and space exploration have emerged in the marketplace. One can often find molas representing commercial products as well as political candidates.

Looking Carefully

Not only have the design patterns and subject matter of the mola grown more complex with time, the colors of mola designs have also become more sophisticated. Early molas were made up of two colors. This grew into the three-color mola, and eventually into four and six-color molas. The bright, contrasting colors of the more complex designs seem to vibrate against one another. This effect is achieved by surrounding one color with its complement. Color is an integral part of the mola design. The Cuna never duplicate a motif exactly. Even if a pattern is symmetrical, elements show differences in color and form. The mola on this page is a good example of how similar motifs vary. This is a bi-symmetrical design. The two top owls are very similar to each other as are the two bottom owls. You will notice subtle differences, however. The eyes of one of the bottom owls are bigger than the eyes of the other, resulting in very different expressions. Look at the mola on the next page. This design has two very similar sides. You will notice, however, the striking color differences making up the bodies of the birds.

Although it is believed that the Cuna women use the methold of reverse applique to create molas, the process is actually a complex, refined version of this technique. The Indian women stack layers of cloth on top of one another and cut them into designs which expose a variety of colors around the edges. The edges are basted together on all four sides. Shapes are removed from the top layer and their edges secured with a row of stitches. Smaller replicas of the first shapes are cut in the newly exposed second layer. Cut edges of the second layer are also secured with a row of stitches. Note also the use of stitchery to complement the applique patterns. With their many layers these colorful molas are often so thick that they resemble sculptural designs in low relief.

Key Concepts

* A craft takes many years of practice and tradition to develop into an art.

* Some folk art involves beautiful and interesting techniques which become the basis of beautiful art.

* Contrast is a basic principle of design.

* A variety of colors can be unified and made to look pleasing by using a common color and uniform pattern in the back ground.


The Cuna Indians of the San Bias Islands are one of the few tribes to successfully resist the invasion of the Spanish Conquistadors. In 1502, Christopher Columbus explored the San Blas Islands. By 1510, the Spanish had settled on the islands to mine the many gold deposits found there. The presence of the Spanish settlers had the effect of radically depleting the native population. This was due, in part, to exposure to European diseases. The remaining natives moved from the Panamanian mainland to the islands near the middle of the nineteenth century. They made this move to more effectively carry on the trade of coconuts and later, tortoise shells, with foreign ships. The San Blas Indians, despite Spanish invasion, have been able to retain a strong central government and ancestral religion.

The Cuna developed a more complex style of dress after their move from the mainland to the islands. Before this move, women primarily wore wraparound skirts. The length of these skirts depended on the women's status in society. Under their skirts, the Cuna women wore a kind of slip called a picha makkalet. These were initially hand-painted and later decorated with imported indigo. By the nineteeth century, these underskirts were shortened to blouse length. This was the beginning of the mola as it is known today.

Suggested Activities

The following activities can be adapted for both elementary and secondary students.

* Make a mola out of paper. Begin with the pieces which are to be on top of the design and draw an image of a bird, animal, fish or plant form on a piece of colored construction paper and cut it out. Lay this first image onto another piece of construction paper of another color. Draw around the first image 1/4" out from the edges. Cut out the second piece. Glue the first piece down on top of the second piece. Leave the 1/4" border showing equally all the way around. (You may wish to glue the first piece down to the larger paper before drawing and cutting around it.) Repeat this process as many times as you wish. This will make several borders (narrow and even) of color around the first image. Glue the multi-colored image down to a larger piece of construction paper. Cut out several narrow cigar-shaped pieces of construction paper and glue them in rows onto the background of the large piece of construction paper keeping the pieces close together. Appliques of other paper shapes may be glued on top of the first piece of paper to embellish the image.

* A mola-like design may be created using the crayon sgraffito process. Prepare a sheet of paper or tag- board by coloring areas in a random or pre-planned design with bright colors of wax crayons. Cover with black crayon, ink or tempera paint. Use a pointed tool such as a scissor point or paper clip to incise a design and reveal the bright colors. Like the style created by the Cuna Indians, stylized birds or animals, or geometric designs may be used.

* Create a stylized drawing or painting of a natural forth. Begin by drawing a realistic image of a bird, fish, animal or flower. Since stylizing subordinates realism to an emphasis on design or the convention of a particular artistic style, redraw the subject with an emphasis on some form of abstraction. You may begin with simplifying the form, strengthening lines, introduucing patterns, adding arbitrary colors, incorporating a style of art such as Cubism or any other imagew variation that seems to emphasize design while retaining some evidence of the original subject. The realistic and stylistic images could be exhibited side by side.

* T shirts are today's most popular wearable art. Use textile dyes, textile inks, fabric-decorating crayons, markers or paints to produce a mola-related design on a T-shirt. An abstract design or stylized nature forms in a rectangular format, with bright colors, will suggest the art of the mola.


Schuman, Jo Miles. Art from Many Hands. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, Inc., 1981.

Shears, Evangeline and Diantha Fielding. Applique. New York, NY: Watson Guptill, 1972.

Sommer, Elyse and Mike. Wearable Crafts. New York, NY: Crown, 1976.

Auld, Rhoda Molas: What They Are, How to Make Them, Ideas They Sugges for Creative Applique. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.

H. T. Nicely, is a professor at Carson Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Panamanian native art
Author:Niceley, H.T.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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