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STUDENT CURATORS FOCUS ON PANAMA THE COLORFUL TEXTILES KNOWN AS MOLAS ARE FAMOUS FOR THE RICH STORIES THEY TELL ABOUT THE TRADITIONAL LIFE OF THE GUNA PEOPLE, NATIVE TO THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS. Made for over 100 years by Guna women, molas are hand-stitched cotton panels and blouses made of multi-colored and multilayered cotton cloth. The student curators in the annual museum studies class, ArtLab @ The Lowe, supervised by Dr. Traci Ardren, Associate Professor of Anthropology, chose to explore the connections within the Lowe’s collection of molas and pre-Columbian ceramic and stone objects from the Gran Coclé and Gran Chiriquí cultures in From Ancient Art to Modern Molas: Recurring Themes in Indigenous Panamá, on view May 3, 2013 through April 27, 2014 in the Richard and Shelley Bermont Focus Gallery at the Lowe Art Museum. The ArtLab class traveled to Panama during Spring Break for a firsthand look at Guna culture. After arriving in Panama City, the team flew on a small plane to the town of Corazón de Jesus. From there, the class traveled by boat to the island of Niadub, in the province of Guna Yala. Niadub is not a tourist island; everyone must get permission to visit the island from the local Congress, a group of male community leaders. Most students lived with host families and interviewed people on the island about their culture and discussed the artwork included in this exhibition. By immersing themselves in Guna culture, they were able to discuss molas from the Lowe’s collection with Guna artists and learn more about the meanings of the designs.

“The young curators heard firsthand from Guna leaders how central art is to their identity as indigenous people and how important it is to the preservation of their culture,” said Ardren. “The warm welcome the UM contingent received in this small community, based on our shared interest in art and Guna culture, showed the students how art brings people together and how their studies here in Miami can positively affect lives all around the world.” The students also held discussions with the Museum Committee, a group of men and women from Niadub who created a museum on the island to teach children about Guna culture. The Guna have a number of spiritual leaders called sahilas, and an interview was recorded with the First Sahila of Niadub, Gonzalo Gonzalez. The songs of the sahila contain lessons and stories that also are represented in the mola designs on display.

continue to wear the full traditional dress on a daily basis, whereas others choose to do so only for ceremonial purposes. Molas also have a significant economic impact on Guna society. In the 1960s, a coconut scarcity severely impacted the traditional Guna economy, causing increased reliance on mola sales for economic stability. The Guna continue to sell molas to tourists and merchants to supplement their income during times of hardship.

La Cooperativa Productores De Molas, also known as the Mola Co-op, is a main locus of solidarity for women artisans. It began in 1966 through the efforts of Peace Corps volunteers and functions today with nearly 1,200 members who collaborate through During the Guna resistance to Panamanian the entire process of mola production, from control from 1915-1925, Guna women were cutting and sewing to assembly into an array prohibited from wearing their traditional dress. of items for sale. Together, they make an This prohibition caused molas to become a effort to understand the aesthetic qualities symbol of resistance for the Guna and the consumers seek while striving not to sacrifice heart of the revolution. Today many women craftsmanship, as machine stitching remains unacceptable. Guna women have formed a significant economic institution through their Co-op efforts, stressing companionship and unity between members and an open forum for teaching and helping fellow artists. From these direct interactions with the artists and cultural leaders the ArtLab team was able to develop a better understanding of underlying themes and messages conveyed through molas.

From left: ArtLab Donor Stella Holmes, Leah Andritsch, Aimee Allen, Kathryn Metzker, Ava Wilson, Juan Pablo Sanchez Williams, Navina DeLight, Katherine Mato, Joseph Stevenson, Jessica Figueroa, Traci Ardren, and C.D. MacKenzie Levine.

4 FALL 2013

Unknown Artist, Guna (Guna Yala, Panamá), Mola, after 1950.

Guna women make molas as an expression of their identity and say they protect their traditional cultural stories and lessons by constantly revealing them through their art. Designs are derived from aspects of traditional life along the island chain; stingrays, crabs, and other marine life are popular imagery, as are the daily activities of the Guna. Throughout the exhibition, continuities and change can be seen; cultural values continue to be expressed even though the artistic materials or medium have changed.

A&S Magazine Fall 2013  
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