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.
After Panama became an independent nation in 1903, a law was passed that said the “wild indigenous tribes,” notably the Kuna, had to be “compelled to lead civilized lives.” Women’s blouses called mola, with their geometric and pictorial patterns that articulated the Kuna understanding of the world, were banned. At this point the Kuna had had enough of colonial interference, and the result was their 1925 Revolution. Following a period of negotiation, the Kuna established the right to practice their traditions as well as gaining virtual autonomy over their own territory in the San Blas Islands, now called Kuna Yala.