PANAMA CITY, Panama — From the traditional blouses worn by Guna Indian women to evening gowns, wall hangings and even oven mitts, mola designs are everywhere in Panama.
Formed by stacking layers of vividly hued cloth together and then snipping away a part of each layer to form a design, the textiles are traditionally made by Guna women from the San Blas Islands to form the front and back panels of their blouses.
But now you’ll find these sculptures in cloth hawked on street corners in tourist areas and sewn into everything from bedspreads and pillow cases to purses and yarmulkes. Miss Panama 2011 even wore a mola-inspired skirt when she competed in the Miss Universe pageant.
“This is a living art and a dying art at the same time,” said Lynne Saltzman de Berger, proprietor of Flory Saltzman Molas, a Panama City shop started by her mother Flory, 86. Tucked away in every corner and stacked to the ceiling are more than a million molas that the elder Saltzman began collecting and selling in the early 1960s.
The Guna refer to the San Blas archipelago as Guna Yala. Both the indigenous people and the place used to be known as Kuna, but the switch was made a few years ago at the insistence of the Guna people — they said the letter K did not exist in their language.
In the early days, the Guna women remained on the islands, just off the northeastern coast of Panama. The men did the selling, arriving at the shop between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., when Flory Saltzman did her buying.
The Guna are becoming more assimilated as they move to the mainland. Mola sellers are often women these days, Saltzman said.
About 15,000 Guna create molas, Saltzman said. “Everyone makes them. Not everyone is an artist.”
To make the huge quantity of molas the store has accumulated over the years more marketable, Saltzman has them fashioned into everything from beach bags to glasses holders and T-shirts.
Other than requesting some white-on-white molas to match the color scheme of her mother’s home, Saltzman and her mother have eschewed interfering with the traditional designs and colors of the Gunas’ confections. They don’t request designer color schemes or soothing floral designs that are more compatible with home decor.
Though plenty of tourist molas in au courant colors are sold all over Panama, most of the textiles in the Saltzman shop are in the traditional mola colors of black, burgundy, red, and orange.
Helene Breebaart, a Panama City fashion designer and artist, isn’t such a purist — but she keeps the mola tradition alive in her own way.
She uses traditional molas as her inspiration but creates the designs herself. “I like to maintain their traditions but I’m not going to steal their designs,” Breebaart said. “We are creative here.”
Breebaart, who is French, came to Panama to help launch the Christian Dior line in the Americas and wound up marrying her boss. The couple, who both had their pilot licenses, often took trips to the San Blas Islands on the weekends.
“One day I was looking at these beautiful girls with their molas and said, ‘I’m going to make my own mola designs,’” said Breebaart, who studied art in France and lived in a household where there was a full-time dressmaker on staff.
Her first design was a pineapple motif that that was appliquéd on a simple shift. That was 1978. The pineapple became the logo for her business, and she hasn’t looked back since. Beauty queens, socialites and even Rosalynn Carter are clients.