Textile Art of The Cuna Indians

THE queen of mola marketing is undoubtably Flory Saltzman.

This diminutive, brash Jewish grandmother has probably the biggest collection of new and used molas for sale in Panama. And if you don't know a mola from a Manet, be warned: Everyone who crosses the threshold of her shop outside the Panama Hotel takes "the test."

Flory grabs your elbow, tosses two molas on the linoleum floor, and demands, "Which are you going to choose?"

You hesitantly point to the design on the left. "Ha! Wrong!" she says delightedly for probably the 10,000th time.

"Ladies underwear. See? There are six pairs," says Flory, using a walking stick to tap the garments hidden in the design. "You want ladies underwear on your wall? Of course you don't. You should have chosen this turtle. That you can put on your wall and be happy," she states firmly.

Flory recalls a stubborn European tourist who declined her lesson. "He did not want to listen. He wanted to be ignorant. I'm telling him: 'I pay the rent, I do the talking.

Between educating customers in her own sledge-hammer style, Flory bargains with a non-stop stream of Cuna Indians who arrive to sell the unique carvings in cloth. She buys low and sells high. But the fact that she buys almost everything means the Cunas know they can rely on her when they need funds.

Molas are created by Panama's indigenous Cunas, who number some 40,000. Most live on the San Blas archipelago running along the Caribbean side of Panama. The term "mola" refers to the multilayered, hand-stiched panel (about 13 by 16 inches) of cotton cloth worn by Cuna women on the front and back of their blouses. It's believed the mola evolved from a Cuna tradition of body painting, which became cloth painting, and then sewing of decorative belts.

Today's mola style came into being about 125 to 150 years ago, according to Captain Kit S. Kapp, who studied the Cuna culture for more than a decade and wrote the book "Mola Art from the San Blas Islands."

Each mola panel is comprised of two to seven layers of different colored cloth. Made almost exclusively by Cuna women, the average contains three or four layers basted together. Designs are usually sketched out first with pencil and then snipped out layer by layer, exposing the different colors. The rough edges of the cloth are turned under and hemmed to the next layer of cloth, concealing the stitches. Additional detailed decorative stitching, such as animal claws or cat's whiskers, is more common today

than a few decades ago.

The motifs are primarily zoological or related to Cuna religious beliefs. Molas showing everything from water demons, medicine men, celestial objects, crabs, ducks, and butterflies were recently displayed by Cunas hawking their work at Stevens Circle, a market area near the Panama Canal Zone.

But molas also reflect what's happening in Panama. Some of them depict aircraft, trademarks (such as the RCA Victor dog), and astrological signs. Political views and historical events can also be traced through molas. At Flory's shop one can find molas dedicated to the invasion by the United States: "Operacion Causa Justa - 20 Dec. 1989."

Flory Saltzman deplores what she calls "tourist molas," which are bold, bright-colored, geometric designs that look like "comic books." Until educated, "that's the kind of molas people think they want. And the Cunas will make what sells," she says.

Attempts have been made to increase mola production with sewing machines and therefore provide a better income for the Cunas. Flory's approach is to take "good" molas and make them more marketable by repackaging.

For example, she will stitch together a dozen mola panels of similar style to create a wall hanging or a quilt. The feisty marketeer hopes that by continuing to educate mola buyers, she can slow the adulteration of a "dying art."

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