On the San Blas Islands women create an indigenous fabric art called a Mola. These quilt like creations, originally used by the San Blas Kunas to adorn the front and the rear of their everyday blouses, have recently garnered worldwide recognition. Today there are thousands of collectors who frame these one of kind, yet affordable, examples of native art. Considerably more value is given to those pieces that have actually been worn so be sure to ask for any “second hand” offerings if you’re looking for more then souvenirs.
San Blas Molas are created using a technique similar to that of the 18th century silhouette/shadow portraits using cloth instead of paper. Creation uses a reverse appliqué method that requires the artist to make many intricate cuts on a “canvas” of stacked and sewn cloth. Each cut exposes another layer of color and pattern and the resultant edges are then seamed and stitched to those beneath them.
In yet another example of San Blas ingenuity the pieces of cut out fabric are used to create a shadow twin giving native dress a double sided impact front and back. Molas can be made in the most isolated of areas and in most San Blas families are the only source of hard currency. In some remote villages women work for weeks and then travel to markets as far away as Panama City to sell while others may distribute through a local wholesaler or coop.
Recently striking design changes have been showing up the San Blas Molas. Like the arresting images of bombers, missiles, tanks and troops in Afghan woven fabrics the San Blas Indians have adopted new motifs and images of the modern Western world. Fortunately instead of the shadows of war and carnage they portray McDonalds, cell phones and televisions; an event that should prompt a little cultural introspection for us all.
In San Blas the Kuna will graciously welcome you into their homes and villages and provide you with a little cultural discourse when visiting the local burial site. You may even meet a medicine man, who might give you an exam and perform a shamanistic procedure, if it’s necessary – what a memory! You can even let your children exercise their “but everyone’s got one” quest and get a tattoo at the Dolphin Lodge. But don’t fret this form of Panamanian body modification, using dye from the local jagua/genipa plant, fades away in a few days as your skin naturally exfoliates. For some true cultural emersion you might even think about indulging in an adult fantasy and offer your own arms, legs or forehead up as canvas.
Tours in San Blas are available to the communities of Achutupu, Mamitupu and Ailigandi. These walking tours exemplify the daily activities of the San Blas Kuna through hands-on participation and cultural interaction. Ailigandi is the site of the local Kuna congress hall, sometimes populated by several of the 49 fedora wearing congressional representatives or 250 community delegates. But be forewarned you’ll need permission to visit there, even when congress is not in session, otherwise you can expect a cold reception.