MIT Anthropology Spotlight

MIT Anthropology Mola

The MIT Anthropology Mola

MIT Anthropology represented in Kuna craft


During his more than 40 years working with the Kuna people of Panama, Professor James Howe established a close, collegial relationship with the subjects of his research, people who became agents as well as subjects of their own ethnography. Some years ago, Howe commissioned from a Kuna woman a special tapestry called a mola for the MIT Anthropology Program. In the Kuna language, the word mola means "blouse," referring to the colorful clothing Kuna women began to make and wear in the early 19th century. From what is known of Kuna culture at that time, pressure from missionaries and others outside the Kuna community was the most likely cause that led Kuna women to begin wearing blouses, and styles of traditional body painting were transferred to fabric. The blouses from this period were mostly made of blue fabric with colored panels sewn into the bottom on the front and back. Eventually, these colored panels got larger and more prominent, until they came to dominate both the fronts and backs of the blouses. Molas worn by Kuna women today consist of two colored rectancular panels sewn together, with sleeves and yokes attached.

Today, molas are produced with trade cloth and commercial needles and thread, but the elborate designs are hallmarks of longstanding Kuna craft and tradition. The simplest molas consist of two layers of fabric of different colors, but often molas are made with many layers of vibrantly colored fabrics, using a Kuna variation of reverse appliqué. Mola designs can include elaborate repeating patterns, highly stylized representations of objects and landmarks, and even scenes of activity and people. Molas are often commissioned by visitors to the Kuna regions of Panama, and have become prized items for collectors.

In the MIT Anthropology mola, which was made by a Kuna woman living in the Comarca of San Blas off the Carribean coast of Panama, the scene depicts an interaction between a researcher and a member of the Kuna community. On the left side of a table sits an anthropologist, who is seen taking notes, while a Kuna tribesperson sits on the right, telling a story – a colorful representation of the participant observation ethonography practiced by faculty in the MIT Anthropology program. The MIT Anthropology mola is a testement to the groundbreaking and essential work of Professor Howe with the Kuna, and a representation of MIT Anthropology's ongoing mission of generating valuable knowledge about human social worlds.

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