MOLAS -- paintings in cloth, executed with fantastic imagination, great technical skill and large senses of humor--are the unique art form of the Kuna Indian women.
The story of the mola-makers is told by 32 molas, a number of photographs, a taped lecture and a splendid catalogue, assembled by Mari Lyn Salvador, in an exhibit at the Fondo del Sol, a Latin American nonprofit arts center at 2112 R St. NW, through March 12. The exhibit is one of nine paid for by a recent $9,000 grant by the D.C. Arts Commission and matched by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The molas can be abstract and complicated op art, patterns that set up mazes for the eyes, or hilarious folk art designs, instantly understandable as visual jokes.
One abstraction is a sophisticated black-and-white geometric design of squares, oblongs and rectangles curving into themselves, interrupted by strange crosses. Another uses rounded rectangles filled in with straight lines. Some of the most fascinating ensnare the eye in an endless puzzle.
One high piece of folk art shows Jacqueline Onassis, surrounded by flags, boats, a heraldic device and a mysterious figure superimposed on a letter M. On the second section, John Kennedy is immortalized with a Pt boat, an eagle, a rocking chair and the same strange man with a tie on the M.
The Kunas are able to abstract stylized designs from leafs, from gourds, the sun, the moon, and from some ancient hieroglyphic forms whose orgins are lost in the antiquity of the tribes.
In the San Blas islands, off Panama, women of child-bearing age spend most of their time inside their cane-walled, thatch-roof huts, cutting and sewing molas. They do carry water, which has to be brought in from the mainland, and imported goods, usually smuggled in from Columbia. But the young children take care of the younger children. The older women cook the food and clean the huts. So the 20- to 40-year-old women can concentrate on making molas.
The intricate cloth reverse applique' hand-stitched mola panels are an all consuming passion of the Kuna Indian women. They are also clothing, a cottage industry and entertainment. But perhaps most importantly, they are the way the women of the islands rank their importance, the way they define each other and themselves. The best mola-makers are the chefs of the islands, the stars, invited everywhere, highly emulated, famous in their place and time.
Most often, the rectangular panels are used as the front and backs of women's blouses, with small puffed sleeves and yokes of printed material added. In recent years, smaller pieces have been made for pockets and edges for men's clothing. The Kunas wear the molas interchangeably with conventional commercial clothes. The idea evolved from the body painting that once was common among the tribe. Eventually cloth was painted and this evolved into the making of molas.
Among the funnier ones are a series of striped panels that turn into a chicken sweeping, and on the matching panel, a chicken killing a fish. Several winged figures suggest the vampire bats of the mainland, one of the reasons the San Blas people prefer to live on the islands. One shows a crucifixion, with attendant saints. Often they carry political messages--"vote for the Republicanos," for instance. Sometimes they are copied from commercial package wrappings: "Coca Cola" is a favorite device. One was commissioned by a mainland Dairy Queen. Entertainments are popular motifs--an especially nice mola shows two men blowing horns. Eagles, lions, small birds, angels, dancing figures, even a man holding a mermaid, come out of the fertile imagination of the Kuna women.
Molas have become highly sought after by collectors in the United States in the last 20 years or so. But though many are "turista"--made for the tourists--the best are still made by and for the Kuna women themselves.
The Fondo del Sol exhibition, based on research by Salvador 20 years ago, is in no way to be compared with the magnificent and large exhibition expensively mounted by the Pan American Union art gallery about 12 years ago, nor the excellent and scholarly show a decade ago at the Textile Museum. But it is a valuable reminder of the amazing and sophisticated art that has spontaneously appeared among a talented group of people, who don't need any outside teaching to be artists.