Huacas, Molas and the Native Art of Panama
I grew up in a household where the arts were held in high esteem. Even though we were not a middle class family, my mother’s love of dance, literature and music and my dad’s of the visual arts was evident throughout the house.
After I left home and went to my first duty station in Panama in 1979, I became interested in some of the local art. Since then, whenever I’ve traveled to another country or part of the U.S., I’ve made it a point to buy some art piece that reflects the native culture.
My first purchase in Panama was three huacas. Later, I picked up some molas sewn by the Kuna Indians.
The golden huaca
Very little is known of the ancient Indians of Panama; they left behind no splendid city or written history. What is known of them comes from the artifacts found in their burial sites. Their belief in an afterlife led to the burial of jewelry, weapons, tools and other possessions to help them transition to the other world.
A clue to their skill as artisans can be found in the extraordinary objects that also were buried, the “golden huaca.” The term huaca (“wa-ka”) comes from the early Spanish word “huacal” meaning an Indian mound. An artifact recovered from the burial ground is called a huaca.
Today, huacas are crafted using the lost wax process, the same method the pre-Columbian Indians used. This method allows anything that can be modeled in wax to be transmuted into metal.
The medicine man, the eagle and the music man
I first discovered huacas on a shopping trip to Panama City that I took with several other women from the barracks. We stopped in Reprosas, a jewelry store downtown. I was fascinated with these replicas of ancient artifacts and bought the Medicine Man. It’s actually a brooch but I had it framed in a shadow box. I returned to the store twice more, subsequently buying first the Eagle and then the Music Man.
I don’t remember what I paid for them – this was before gold shot up in price and I’m sure they aren’t worth a lot today. But I don’t buy art or handcrafted items for their monetary value. I buy them for their beauty and what they say to my soul.
Molas and the Kuna Indians of Panama
One weekend my husband and I took a puddle-jumper to the San Blas Islands, an archipelago made up of about 378 islands and cays. The inhabitants are the Kuna Indians, Panama’s indigenous people. Originally, they wore few clothes and decorated their bodies with colorful designs. When missionaries came along and the Kuna began to wear clothes, they followed their body painting designs in their clothing.
Part of the traditional dress of a Kuna woman is a mola panel blouse and it’s an important symbol of Kuna culture. The Kunas rebelled in 1925 when the Panama government tried to prevent Kuna women from wearing their traditional mola costume. The revolt led to the legal recognition of Kuna Yala as a semi-autonomous territory.
San Blas Islands, Panama
The craft and art of molas
Molas are made using a reverse appliqué technique and can take two weeks to six months, depending on the complexity of the design. Several layers of different colored cloth are sewn together. The mola’s design is created as parts of the layers are cut away. Typically, the largest pattern is cut from the top layer with subsequent layers revealing progressively smaller patterns. The edges of the layers are then turned under and sewn down.
Molas became an art form when Kuna women began to have access to store-bought yard goods. The designs of molas vary widely, picking up themes from modern life as well as Kuna legends and culture, but the most traditional themes are geometric designs.
The quality of a mola is determined by such factors as the:
- number of layers
- fineness of stitching
- evenness and width of cutouts
- addition of details such as zigzag borders, lattice-work or embroidery
- general artistic merit of the design and color combination
Mola panels can be used in many ways – framed as art or made into pillows and place mats. Several can be sewn together to make a wall hanging. I ended up buying the mola panel here that I had framed but we also bought nine more panels that we had made into a wall hanging. Unfortunately it was so large we never had the wall space to hang it and it has been stored in my cedar chest for years.
If you ever do any traveling, I encourage you to pick up something native from the area, something that speaks to you. It will not only be a reminder of your trip but also a thing of beauty you can pass along to others.
Read about some of the other art pieces I own in Collecting Art is a Labor of Love and Sand Paintings, Flint Knives and Native American Art.