Formed by stacking layers of vividly hued cloth together and then snipping away a part of each layer to form a design, the textiles are traditionally made by Guna women from the San Blas Islands to form the front and back panels of their blouses.
But now you’ll find these sculptures in cloth hawked on street corners in tourist areas and sewn into everything from bedspreads and pillow cases to purses and yarmulkes. Miss Panama 2011 even wore a mola-inspired skirt when she competed in the Miss Universe pageant.
“This is a living art and a dying art at the same time,” said Lynne Saltzman de Berger, proprietor of Flory Saltzman Molas, a Panama City shop started by her mother Flory, 86. Tucked away in every corner and stacked to the ceiling are more than a million molas that the elder Saltzman began collecting and selling in the early 1960s.
The Guna refer to the San Blas archipelago as Guna Yala. Both the indigenous people and the place used to be known as Kuna, but the switch was made a few years ago at the insistence of the Guna people – they said the letter K did not exist in their language.
In the early days, the Guna women remained on the islands, just off the northeastern coast of Panama. The men did the selling, arriving at the shop between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., when Flory Saltzman did her buying.
The Guna are becoming more assimilated as they move to the mainland. Mola sellers are often women these days, Saltzman said.
About 15,000 Guna create molas, Saltzman said. “Everyone makes them. Not everyone is an artist.”
To make the huge quantity of molas the store has accumulated over the years more marketable, Saltzman has them fashioned into everything from beach bags to glasses holders and T-shirts.
Other than requesting some white-on-white molas to match the color scheme of her mother’s home, Saltzman and her mother have eschewed interfering with the traditional designs and colors of the Gunas’ confections. They don’t request designer color schemes or soothing floral designs that are more compatible with home decor.
Though plenty of tourist molas in au courant colors are sold all over Panama, most of the textiles in the Saltzman shop are in the traditional mola colors of black, burgundy, red, and orange.
Helene Breebaart, a Panama City fashion designer and artist, isn’t such a purist – but she keeps the mola tradition alive in her own way.
She uses traditional molas as her inspiration but creates the designs herself. “I like to maintain their traditions but I’m not going to steal their designs,” Breebaart said. “We are creative here.”
Breebaart, who is French, came to Panama to help launch the Christian Dior line in the Americas and wound up marrying her boss. The couple, who both had their pilot licenses, often took trips to the San Blas Islands on the weekends.
“One day I was looking at these beautiful girls with their molas and said, ‘I’m going to make my own mola designs,'” said Breebaart, who studied art in France and lived in a household where there was a full-time dressmaker on staff.
Her first design was a pineapple motif that that was appliqued on a simple shift. That was 1978. The pineapple became the logo for her business, and she hasn’t looked back since. Beauty queens, socialites and even Rosalynn Carter are clients.
She also fulfills one-of-a-kind design requests.
“A Greek ship builder commissioned a pillow for a wedding performed at Versailles and requested a design with the gardens of Versailles in mola form,” she said. “I use the fabric like painting.”
The second floor of her colonial-style home in the Obarrio section has been turned into a workshop, with women from the San Blas Islands as well as other provinces executing molas from Breebaart’s designs in a large room that she refers to as the Guna Yala. In other rooms, seamstresses fashion the molas into the bodices of high-fashion gowns or use the decorative panels in everything from sundresses to pant suits.
Her bestseller is a two-tone jacket made from denim or raw silk that is entirely covered with mola motifs. Making such a jacket, she said, takes six weeks. “Our production is very limited because everything is handmade,” Breebaart said.
As far as color schemes go, “black and white is the most popular now,” she said.
Despite the current pervasiveness of molas in Panama, making them is a relatively recent phenomenon. In his book, “Magnificent Molas: The Art of the Kuna Indians,” French ethnologist Michel Perrin said Scottish surgeon Lionel Wafer met the people of the San Blas Archipelago as early as 1681 and noted the women’s “passion for graphic arts.”
But their geometric designs of birds, beasts and other nature motifs were painted on their bodies, not cut from cloth.
The textile designs didn’t appear until the second half of the 19th century and were “an art of reaction, a hybrid art stemming from contact and conflict with whites,” Perrin writes. The designs moved to clothing because of the influence of Western clothing “they wanted to imitate or were obliged to wear.”
“I want people to treat molas as art, not as a handicraft,” Saltzman said as she plopped a pile of molas on the floor – the best vantage point for viewing the overall designs – and began pointing out what transforms a mola into art.
“Art you look at from a distance,” said Saltzman as she pointed out a particularly well-executed design of two turtles – one said, another happy – on an orange background. “You see this design comes alive.”
One of the older molas in Saltzman’s stock says simply “Revolucion 1925,” commemorating a Guna uprising against Panamanian authorities whom they accused of repressing their traditions and forcing them to adopt Hispanic culture. The Guna briefly seceded from Panama, and their homeland is now recognized as an autonomous territory.
And after the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, when tensions between Washington and its former ally, Panama’s de facto leader Gen. Manuel Noriega, reached a boiling point, motifs from Operation Justice Cause crept into the molas. Around the same time, molas also were being crafted that depicted the reporters who covered the invasion – and their computers.
In her store, Saltzman displays folkloric masks, tagua seed carvings, baskets, Embera bead work and wood sculptures made by other indigenous groups, but the molas are front and center.
They range from simple panels that sell for 50 cents to $3.50 that appeal to the back-packing crowd to museum-quality molas that sell for $100 or more. A king-size bedspread sells for $450 to $472.
“I call find beauty in everything – even the 50-cent ones,” Saltzman said. “My idea is to share them. Now the art of the mola is much more appreciated than it used to be.”