Nemesio Alfaro, Guna kayak guide extraordinaire, who I have worked with since my first season in Guna Yala in 2010, is an exceptional artist. He is never far from his colored pencils.
Since he was a little boy Nemesio has been fascinated by his culture and has spent many hours listening to Guna elders, including his parents, recount Guna legends and creation stories. These stories are filled with mystery, adventure, romance, and tell how Guna culture and traditions came to be. These original drawings, depicting parts of these Guna legends, are a work-in-progress towards a book of stories, which I will be helping to translate into English. Soon to come!
The Art of the Mola
The first thing that may catch your eye upon arriving to Guna Yala (or Panama, for that matter) are the beautiful, colorful blouses that many Guna women wear. In fact, they are quite colorful from head-to-toe! The mola is the square panel sewn onto the front and back of their blouses. In a technique called reverse appliqué, the mola is hand-sewn with great care by the woman who wears it. Some molas take weeks or even months to complete. Molas are extremely expressive, often depicting activities or objects from the lives of the Guna. Some are more abstract, such as a mola illustrating the path of a hermit crab. Many show the close relationship that the Guna share with their natural surroundings.
I love molas! Anyone who goes on a trip with me quickly discovers my “obsession” with them. Maybe it’s because my grandma is a woman of the sewing world. I currently have a stash of molas at her house, with an index card pinned onto each one, instructing my grandma what to do with that mola. She turns them into beautiful shoulder bags and pillows.
I am often asked, “Ilene, what do you do with all of your molas?” That’s a good question. Aside from the pillows and bags that my grandma makes for me, I give many of them to friends and family as gifts. They look beautiful framed! As for the dozens more that I have, I simply like to look at them. I like to feel the soft fabric with my hands. I like to remember the Guna woman who I bought it from and the story that it tells.
Here are the molas from my personal collection. The last one is my beloved grandma showing off her fine handiwork. (You can also find my mom snuggling with one of the pillows that my grandma made.)