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Molas: Textile Art of Panama

Molas are the colorful, multi-layered appliqué panels of blouses worn by Kuna women of Panama. The Kuna live in a region called Kuna Yala, which means “Kuna Land.” This area, more formally known as the San Blas Archipelago, lies off the eastern coast of Panama. Molas developed after Spanish colonization, in particular within the past 100 years when cotton yard cloth became commonly available to the Kuna. The intricately designed and sewn molas are attached to the front and/or back of women’s blouses and are considered a major form of artistic expression and ethnic identity.

Molas are usually done in reverse appliqué technique, using two or more layers of cloth and cutting through to reveal the color underneath. The designs and patterns used are particular to the maker and incorporate both traditional and modern elements. Early mola designs were related to pre-Hispanic body painting; today, mola designs may include abstract geometric designs, motifs from the natural world, or themes related to politics, popular culture, or Kuna legends.

This online exhibit presents the Museum’s small collection of molas that date from the early to late 20th century. Many of these items were on display in the Museum’s exhibit hall during summer 2004.

References and Related Links

The Art of Being Kuna at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Salvador, Mari Lyn. Yer Dailege! Kuna Women’s Art. (Albuquerque: The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, The University of New Mexico, 1978.)

Salvador, Mari Lyn. The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning among the Kuna of Panama. (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1997).

Text prepared by Molly McMullen, spring 2004

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