In 1969, James Nathan Post was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone, flying a helicopter for the US Army. There he and fellow Army Warrant Officer Niko Panszczyk encountered the Cuna, the people of the San Blas Islands, and discovered their MOLAS -- beautiful stitched panels used by the women of the remote tribe as clothing. For both James and Niko, these astonishing art pieces have been a lifelong passion.

A LOVE AFFAIR WITH MOLAS

by James Nathan Post



In the shops, galleries, and museums of the Americas, the brightly-colored patterns and unique style of the Cuna Indian Mola are becoming a more and more familiar sight. The powerful design and workmanship of these hand-stitched reverse-appliqué panels have caught the attention of art-conscious travelers from all over the world. One such traveler visited the islands where Molas are created about twenty years ago, and has made a lifetime study of the Cuna and their art.

In 1969, young Nicholas Panszczyk was went to the Panama Canal Zone on his last assignment as a US Army officer. During his years of service he loved to immerse himself in the cultures he encountered and to collect their native art works. He added the Japanese, Greek, and Spanish languages to his family Polish and his native English. His cosmopolitan experience also taught him to recognize those qualities which distinguish truly unusual native art from that which is merely unfamiliar.

One morning he met a small, strange, gnarled man working in one of the army buildings. He soon found the man was named Daniel, and that he was an island chief of the Cuna Indians of the San Blas Archipelago. He spent some time each year working for the Americans to provide his family with things they needed on their primitive islands. One day Daniel invited Nicholas to come to his home for a visit. Delighted, he took the bushplane flight from the Canal Zone across the jungles of the Darien (the last place where there is still no road between Alaska and Chile) to El Porvenir, the largest island of the chain. There he was met by Daniel in his cayuco, a kind of sail-powered dugout canoe.

The cayuco might as well have been a time machine. Suddenly Nick -- or Niko, as his new friend called him -- found himself in a world not too far removed from the stone age, where house meant a thatched roof with grass-mat sides, and kitchen meant a fire in a rock-ringed hole in the floor. He was immediately impressed by the women. They were such open laughing, quick-witted people, and they wore some of the most spectacular garments he had ever seen. An experience in color, they were ablaze with all the natural shades of the tropics, the bright red of the Hibiscus flower, the yellow of trumpet-vine blossoms, the varied shades of blue of sea and sky, the green of hills and trees, the orange and brown of fruits, and the gold of the sun. The pictures were intricate, bold, filled with surreal imagery and crafted in color patterns which generated a sense of electric motion. In reply to his question about them, Daniel said, "That is a Mola," using the Cuna word for women's clothing.

"I want to know everything about them," Nicholas told Daniel enthusiastically, and during his many trips to the islands thereafter he worked to do just that. Molas are, quite simply, Cuna fashion. The women make them as a regular part of their clothing, the front and back panels of their blouses, which they wear with long wrap-around skirts. The designs originated, it is said, with their practice of body-painting in bright blue, red, and yellow as described by pirate-historian Lionel Wafer in 1699. When missionaries insisted on clothing, designs similar to the geometric patterns used in body-painting were stitched into layers of bright cloth, each layer cut into little "windows" to reveal the color beneath, a process called reverse-appliqué. Many cultures use appliqué techniques, but the Cuna are the people who brought reverse-appliqué to the attention of the art world.

As he began to appreciate the work of the specially skilled and most inspired Mola makers, he began to burn with a desire to preserve the finest Molas. He also began to notice that many of the newer Molas did not show the same skill. His research revealed that in the 1920's the Molas had attracted the attention of anthropologists, and museums began to acquire small collections. They were discovered in the 1950's by traders in native handicrafts, who encouraged the Cuna to make crude and cheap mola-style panels to sell in the souvenir shops. In the 1960's, well-wishing world social service organizations brought in sewing machines in an attempt to mechanize the production of such mola-style products as purses and pillows. By making such tourist pieces, the Cuna could buy modern clothing, electric generators, medicines and outboard motors. The move was well intentioned, and the new things much needed but he cost seemed high to Nicholas. The young women were not taking the time to develop the old skills, and they wouldn't put in the time necessary to create the more elaborate designs. They had begun to turn out rudimentary Molas to be traded for mirrors and trinkets.

Horrified that this spectacular art form might soon be lost to the manufacturers of cheap Mola curios, Nicholas resolved to collect the true old Molas. Investing his savings, he spent months traveling to the islands seeking out the finest pieces. Today many of the best Molas from his collection are in the homes and galleries of other private collectors, and an exhibit is on permanent display in the National Museum of Costa Rica.

Today, the Cuna, travelers, and collectors alike have rejected the "tourist Mola", in favor of the cultural expression and artistic quality of the real thing. For the Cuna this is a re-affirmation of the Mola as their personal artistic expression, and as the art reflects their growing awareness of the rest of the world, their Molas are becoming more and more expressive and exciting. For the world of art and decoration, this was a recognition that Molas are not merely the "native handiwork" with which they were once associated, but are a much more highly developed form reflecting a rich and vibrant insight into life.

A Cuna workday starts at sunrise. Fires are lighted, sandy floors of huts and the lanes between are swept, personal ablutions are observed, and breakfast eaten -- perhaps a piece of yucca simmered in coconut milk. Then the men launch the dugout canoes toward a nearby islet crowded with coconut palms, or toward the mainland for a morning's field work. By mid-afternoon stands of banana, rice, yucca, corn, and other staple foods will have been tended, and the men head for home and a nap in the hammock, or a bit of basket weaving. Some go fishing in their cayucos under triangular white sails, while others may find a comfortable place for carving Uchu, a distinctive form of wooden figures which are used in their practices of ceremonial healing. When household chores are finished, the women gather in small groups to chat and to work on their latest Molas.

In Cuna culture a woman's social standing is displayed in her attire. It is by no means a mere matter of wealth. With the Mola she creates and wears, she displays not only her outward worth, but also the depth of her character. Her Molas are the traditional means by which she expresses her individuality within her society. An expert Mola maker may spend months making just one Mola. She is not permitted to abandon her responsibilities to work on her Mola, but must turn to it only after she has completed her other duties. An elaborate Mola is evidence she is a diligent worker. The task is monumental. Working with only a razor or a small pair of scissors and a needle and thread, she must create some of the most intricate stitchery found anywhere on earth. She is never permitted to waste scarce material on trial and error methods, so she must submit to a very high level of discipline in her work from the start. The qualities, displayed on her body for all to see, are concrete evidence of her ability.

However, willingness to work hard and attention to minute detail are not the only qualities that go into the making of a prize Mola or a prize wife. The Cuna value deeply the mind, the spirit, and the vision of their Mola makers, and these too must be revealed in the work. In the subject matter they choose, the Cuna girls reveal their interests, their understanding, and their awareness. As they become more skilled in the technique of their art, their expressions become more personal, and their incredible vision comes forth. Some are fascinated by the new world being brought on the bushplanes and pleasure boats. Some women show this in stylized representations of telephones, airplanes, and baseball gloves, copied from ads in mail-order catalogs. Some create pictures taken from the legends of their animistic spiritual beliefs, or from the stories of Christianity. Some depict the day to day chores of Cuna home life, or the birds, animals, and fish which inhabit the archipelago. Thus a masterpiece of Mola art may be a very complete picture of the personality of the woman who created it. Such are the Molas Nicholas Panszczyk has devoted so many years of his life to preserving.

The origin of the Cuna is obscure, lost in antiquity. There are today about 30,000 of them living on their chain of 365 islands lying a mile or so off the Atlantic coast of the Darien Jungle Gap, between Panama and Colombia. These islands vary in size from an acre or two to some large enough to accommodate a small village. El Porvenir, the largest, has a small airstrip and a tiny crude hotel. What records exist indicate that the Cuna fled to the mountains of the Darien region to escape the Conquistadors during the 1500's, then returned to their islands after the collapse of the Spanish empire. Today they are the last self-administered nation of Indians in the Western hemisphere. Technically a part of Panama, they neither pay taxes to nor suffer representation from the government of Panama. They are a closed society, so interbred that a large proportion are born albino. The Cuna women, the Mola makers, seldom if ever leave the islands, and it is still forbidden for anyone to spend the night on any of the islands without the knowledge and explicit permission of the responsible island chief.

Throughout the years Nicholas has maintained his contact with the Cuna and his friend Daniel. "My forty-year love affair with the Cuna and their Molas has been one of the high points in my life," says Nicholas. "I have owned the very finest Molas, and have placed many of them in other collections where they will be treasured as they deserve. The more I have come to know the Cuna, to appreciate their technique, and to discover the humor and wisdom in their impressions, the more I cherish and admire their Molas as the brilliant and joyful work of a group of spirited and aware artists."

Molas are a beautiful and important cultural expression, the unique visions of the only people in the world whose pictorial art is totally dominated by women. As a visual experience, the brilliant color combinations and bold imagery of the Mola are exhilarating. Through the efforts of collectors such as Niko Panszczyk, the artistic heritage of this small group of laughing island women -- the Mola makers of San Blas -- may be preserved for the appreciation and inspiration of all mankind for some time to come.


The Panszczyk Collection is one of the very finest collections of Molas made over the last 30 years, offering a range of Molas from "crafts grade" to the very best "museum grade". The interested collector is invited to inquire by email. Just click on the image below: