For the Guna women of Panamá, the mola, a hand-sewn cotton blouse and a key component of traditional dress, is a powerful symbol of culture and identity. A new exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, “Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá,” explores the mola as both a cultural marker and the product of an artistic tradition, demonstrating the important role women artists play in the construction of social identity. The exhibition is on view in the museum’s Arlene M. and Arthur S. Holden Textile Gallery now through October 3, 2021.
The Guna (formerly Kuna) are an indigenous people living on the Caribbean coast of Panamá. Guna women began creating molas by the early 20th century. When the Panamanian government sought to suppress their culture, the Guna rebelled in 1925, rallying around their right to make and wear molas as a statement of their independence. Molas are crafted from masterfully hand-sewn cotton panels that are made in pairs and sewn into blouses. The panels feature a wide array of vibrantly colored, often whimsical subjects, ranging from geometric abstraction to motifs based on the natural world, Guna life and mythology, and Western popular culture.
“A women’s art form, molas serve as visual embodiments of the strength and survival of Guna identity,” William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, said. “At the same time, they are practical elements of daily life as clothing and expressions of personal individuality and creativity subject to changing fashion trends from one generation to the next. ‘Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá’ examines the mola’s complex role in Guna society and demonstrates the way they blend tradition and constant innovation.”
“Strong expressions of duality, repetition, and equilibrium are evident in mola imagery, both in single panels and those comprising the front and back of a blouse. Driven by these and other aesthetic values along with a spirited practice of artistic critique, Guna women are passionate about making ever more innovative mola designs that continue to push the boundaries of their artistic tradition,” Andrea Vazquez de Arthur, who curated the exhibition while serving as the museum’s first Mary and Leigh Carter Director’s Research Fellow, said.
“Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá” presents both individual panels and complete blouses (both are known as molas) and celebrates several gifts that have entered the museum’s collection over the years. The exhibition also features generous loans from Denison University, which holds one of the most important Guna collections in the United States. The molas on display span distinct periods of Guna history, from the era of the 1925 revolution to the 1980s.
The exhibition is accompanied by bilingual (English/Spanish) gallery labels, as well as a bilingual booklet that is available in the gallery and on the CMA website.