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MOLA: Kuna needle arts from the San Blas Islands, Panama at the Indianapolis Museum of Art
Mola (shirt panel), Kuna people, about 1950s, appliqued cotton, 16 x 19 3/8 in. The Paul and Irene Hollister Collection of Kuna molas. 2008.403

INDIANAPOLIS, IN.- The Kuna Indians, an indigenous people of Panama and Columbia, are renowned for their molas: bright, colorful, and meticulously appliquéd textiles that adorn the front and back of Kuna women’s blouses. In 2008, a collection of more than 350 molas was donated to the Indianapolis Museum of Art by Irene Hollister. Living in New Hampshire, Hollister had identified the IMA as the ideal home for the molas from the San Blas Islands of Panama that had been collected by her late husband, Paul Hollister—a writer, lecturer, painter, and photographer—during the 1960s and 1970s. Opened October 12, a selection of about 50 of the finest molas from the Museum’s collection, ranging in date from the early 1900s to the 1970s, are displayed in the IMA Alliance Gallery.

Molas are handmade using at least two layers of fabric in contrasting colors. Older and more complicated molas may be constructed with up to seven layers of fabric. The complex designs of these textiles reflect their origins in Kuna body painting practices. After the Spanish colonization and subsequent interactions with missionaries, the Kuna people began to adapt their traditional designs from body painting for use on fabrics for clothing.

Initially the Kuna women painted designs on fabric, but over time they adopted the complicated construction technique known as reverse appliqué. Layers of cloth are stacked and sewn together and designs are formed by cutting out parts of each layer. The largest pattern is cut from the top layer and progressively smaller patterns are excised from each succeeding layer; cutting multiple layers at once provides variance in color. Raw edges are then turned under and sewn down to finish the design. The finest molas are made with tiny needles that allow for the execution of extremely small and nearly invisible stitches.

The molas included in the exhibition reflect the broad range of motifs and designs that can appear on these remarkable textiles. Motifs may be geometric, depicting mazelike abstract patterns, or feature people, animals, and birds that represent traditional Kuna myths and legends. Depictions of Western graphics and commercial designs have also been popular in the last 50 years.

MOLA: Kuna Needle Arts from the San Blas Islands, Panama will be on view in the IMA Alliance Gallery through April 28, 2013.

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