“C” is for color and cordiality in Kuna lands

It troubles me a great deal to know that these islands (and many other similar islands and lowlands), are being threatened by the increasing water levels of the oceans. At this rate, pretty soon these Indigenous cultures will have to be absorbed by the mainland, which is bound to be a cultural disaster.
With a lot of pleasure (and a bit of envy!), may I share my translation of an Argentine colleague’s article about her visit to the famous mola territory. Marta Arancio is a textile artist living in the very textile province of Salta, Argentina. Here are her impressions after a three-day trip to San Blas Islands in Panama. Hope you like this article as much as I do. 
—Silvia Piza-Tandlich


A short visit to San Blas Archipelago, Panama

For over 27 years I anxiously awaited a chance to visit this peculiar area in Panama: The KUNA YALA territory. A small plane had the thirty minute task of taking me along with four other passengers, from Panama City’s Gelabert de Albrook airport, to El Porvenir Island in the San Blas Archipelago on the Atlantic side of Panama.

My friend Laurie, with know-how, admiration and contagious passion for the textile work of the Kuna women, booked my itinerary and talked to contacts in San Blas.

Lodging hall at San Blas Archipelago.

Laurie’s kindness  allowed me to be met by Eric at the El Porvenir Island airport, taking me by cayuco (a type of kayak) all the way to Nalunega Island where, at last!, within a few minutes I was surrounded by several women, all anxious to receive those packages of fabric quarters gifted by Laurie for their usual attire.

Laurie’s kindness allowed me to be met by Eric at the El Porvenir Island airport.

Thus, being surrounded by women was to become the norm for the next three unforgettable days. If these look like female islands it is due to the men leaving to work outside—in the campo—in order to bring food and money home. Women stay home cooking, doing laundry, caring for children, and dedicating a great part of the day to their traditional trade: mola stitching, which is mostly a social endeavor.

The great bohío huts are always clean, with clothes and hammocks hanging, showing only cooking utensils on the floor, a few toys, the stove… 

Typical sewing basket.

Some baskets for threads, needles, scissors, fabric remnants and some mola in progress are also visible inside dwellings.


The mola is a precious rectangle intended to become part of a blouse, in which case two identical molas are used—using the same design and color scheme, one in front and one in back. The blouse is made with gauze-like, flowery fabrics. The attire is complete with a wraparound skirt, and a kerchief to protect their head from the sun. At this point I must describe the multi-color group of elements presented as a characteristic unit, each element with its own function and with amazing profusion of color.

The mola, handmade piece which is fundamental for the blouse, could gather no less than five or six colors simultaneously, reverse-appliquéd in successive layers that are articulated thanks to careful assemblage, meticulous hand sewing, and care from the point of view of chosen design. The motifs could be geometrical (generally ancestral, whose meanings escaped me in such a short time although they’re frequently used); animals and flowers; and motifs having to do with contemporary references such as logos, numbers, cigarette brands, or any image they pick up during their exchange with tourists.

“Atlas beer” reads the legend on this mola (and “beer” is misspelled)

The flowery fabrics complementing blouses, could match prevailing mola colors much like complementary hues. Cotton wraparounds are usually two-toned—black or blue background—with green or yellow motifs. And the head scarf is red or yellow.

Woman showing leg Winis design.

The attire is completed with winis, which are glass beaded ornaments on feet and arms, with two or three colors and in many cases, showing frets or linked geometric designs.

Smiling woman offering mola for sale.

Young women’s almost permanent smiles were a stark difference from the gruffness of older women during the time it took to study me since like so many curious visitors, I wouldn’t want only what was being offered for sale, but seemed to always be observing them.

They exchanged comments, opinions, smiles, maybe criticism…all is possible when one doesn’t understand or speak their Kunan-Chibché language few visitors could learn. Some sort of complicity or naughtiness shows in their faces and leaves us at their expense: they’re owners of their land, culture and language, which allows them to be cordial and invite us to their table.

Noni fruit has medicinal and cosmetic properties.

 The first day with Eric we went to another island where fruit trees could be seen, which are strong in Kuna diet and health care—such as noni fruit.

Meal at San Blas Archipelago.

Although fish is a strong element in Kuna diet, I was offered plantain, yuca (cassava) or mandioca (tapioca), and a small and powerful grilled pepper. Before and after this small banquet we visited their homes under the ardent sun, and got to see their prolific mola production. Today I can share their faces, feet, works, smiles, games, and a “private mola exhibit” thanks to their cordiality, and despite a certain mistrust…in the sand in front of the sea.

 I sincerely thank Laurie Bjorjlund Lahey for connecting me to the people of San Blas, and allowing my dream to become a reality.

Marta en route to San Blas.

—Marta Irene Arancio, textile artist & ceramist, Argentina

Phone: +54 387 4395274


Kuna woman photographed by Marta Arancio.


The San Blas Islands of Panama is an archipelago comprising approximately 378 islands and cays, of which only 49 are inhabited. They lay off the north coast of the Isthmus, east of the Panama Canal. Home to the Kuna Indians, they are a part of the comarca Kuna Yala along the Caribbean coast of Panama.
The inhabitants used to wear few clothes and decorated their bodies with colorful designs. When encouraged to wear clothes by the missionaries, they followed their body painting designs in their Molas, which they wore as clothing.
The Kuna Indians worship a god named Erragon. They believe that this god came and died just for the Kuna people. The Kuna Indians were driven off Panama during the Spanish invasion and they fled in their boats to the 378 islands around. The chief of all the islands lives on an island called Acuadup, which means rock island. The Kuna are hunters and fishers, they are a very clean people and on some of the islands have opportunities to attend school. Most of the men now speak Spanish, though the women carry on older traditions.
—Silvia Piza-Tandlich
Arancio article

Colombian Indigenous Material Culture – Part 2

The following is my translation of Martha Alvarez’s conference at the 5th WTA International Biennial of Contemporary Textile Art in Veracruz, Mexico. I find Indigenous cultures a fascinating source of inspiration and stamina from the human point of view, far beyond being the textile basis we already knew about.             —Silvia Piza-Tandlich

Indigenous Material Culture Within the Global Frame of Contemporary Crafts

This conference poses reflection upon the present situation and weaving practices—as well as their resulting objects of material culture, within the context of the Indigenous world—interferences in these practices, and changes generated in order to introduce objects into the global market.

SENA Fashion

2. Hand-Crafty Colombia

Nearly one million Colombians live directly or indirectly off of the crafts sector, greatly contributing to the national economy. There are some 450,000 artisans, 60% coming from rural areas and Indigenous communities, and about 65% being women.

Weaving hammocks

The Artesanías de Colombia (“Colombia Handicrafts”—entity that regulates everything related to crafts in my country—has categorized and characterized the sector in three groups:

Embera basket

Indigenous handicrafts: Production of entirely useful, ritualistic, and aesthetic goods, conditioned directly by physical and social environments, constituting a material expression of culture in communities with ethnic unity, but relatively self-contained. It represents live Pre-Colombian heritage with a certain level of development.

Knitting woman

Popular handicrafts: Production of objects that are both useful and aesthetic, made anonymously by a community exhibiting complete domain over materials which are generally from each area’s habitat.

Contemporary crafts, or Neo-crafting: Production of useful and aesthetic objects within the frame of trades, whose processes offer convergence of technical and formal elements coming from other socio-cultural contexts and techno-economic levels.

During more than a decade there has been a surge in the handicraft environment bringing forth great recognition to the handcrafted product. This phenomenon has encouraged the sale of objects with design, generating enthusiasm in this type of competitive production that can be introduced to global markets.

Another prevailing characteristic is the fusion of techniques and materials: for example, you can find a traditional ceramic vessel with a decorative motif in basketry.  This added value has considerably elevated sales of these products.

3. The Wayuu Case 

The Wayuu have their settlement in the Guajira Peninsula bordering Venezuela. They have an ancient knitting tradition and create multiple objects—especially blankets, hammocks and mochilas (circular-based bags with tubular body made with needles, with woven or gauze straps).

Wayuu mochilas

Nowadays, their products present the greatest intervention from industrial and textile design, to fashion design. They can be seen at international catwalk shows, boutiques, and mingling with all sorts of objects to the point of it not being easy to recognize whether they’re original Wayuu, or not.

PROENSA fashion bag

The traditional strap, which is part of the mochila is now woven alone by the thousands, and is sold as prime material to the creation sector and leather industry. Thus, it becomes a disarticulated piece far from its essence, and prostituted by commercialization greed.

Design by Silvia Tcherassi

At the Expocrafts International fair being held in Bogotá for over 20 years, you can notice that the Wayuu stand that had a shy presence long ago, has given way to over 20 in 2010—some specialized in accessories and fashion—and next to them you can see Wayuu women promenading with their “latest designs”—objects not even they can describe when I have asked about them: blankets with trendy finish and ornaments, pricey accessories, mochilas turned into backpacks…indeed, all sorts of interventions making the originalobject unrecognizable.

Many women come to my workshop wanting to explore and learn textile techniques, and for about two years I repeatedly hear requests: —”I want to learn to knit belts, cords and Wayuu mochilas, because it’s what clients ask for all the time.” I usually wonder, and question them, “What would they feel—what would women who bequeath tradition think, when they see what their culture turns into?” They don’t answer…

Author, Martha Liliana Alvarez Ayala is a Colombian textile artist, consultant and independent researcher.

Contact: http://marthalvarez-textil.blogspot.com/

Phones: 057+ 3112635283   – 3015991000