Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Buying molas on the islands

Kuna Yala, the homeland of the Kuna Indians (San Blas Islands) is an archipelago of 350 islands, give or take, on the Caribbean coast of Panama. The Kuna are famous for their molas, reverse-applique fabric art panels, worn in their blouses. This art form ranges from simple pieces sold to cruise-ship tourists to museum-quality works, stunning in their design and execution.
I've been going the San Blas Islands to buy molas since 1999. I've visited about 10 of the most traditional islands, extending almost to the Colombian border. Each trip, I base myself in a little bamboo hut, with my delightful Kuna hosts, whom I've now known for many years.  I eat a lot of seafood and coconuts. Each day, I focus on one island. 
Over the years, I've explored different islands with different results. Three of the ones I went to have been reliably good, the other two only sometimes yield fruit. I also know some Kuna artisans from these same islands, who are in Panama City for a few years, so that their children can go to school.
The buying rituals were, shall we say, energetic. On any buying trip, I'm trying to balance what I'm seeing with customers' interests. I look at more than 1,000 pieces, of which I'll buy 100-200. I buy the entire blouses that molas are sewn into. The first few days are the most challenging, as I figure out the trends and issues. Is the image I'm seeing one I'll see again? Is it limited to just one island? (I posted earlier on the trends and motifs I found on this trip.)
Kuna women are quite emphatic. They have plenty to say when I don't buy. They also wait for the longest time to pull out the best work, even though I've asked for it from the outset. I always like to peruse everything before deciding. Not possible. Whenever I was told that she'd shown me the last, and we concluded our deliberations, the woman would suddenly find a new bunch. One woman told me that if she sold me any more (I'd just bought 9 blouses), she'd have to go around naked. Somehow, more suddenly became available! 

Over the long term, it becomes harder to find high quality work. It also becomes harder to find women who know the meaning of the traditional motifs. On my latest trip, one Kuna man put this in perspective in a way I hadn't quite put my finger on before; the more the girls go to school, the more the traditional art suffers. This is such a dilemma. If they don't get an education, their options will be terribly limited. If they do, they will be less able to carry on their cultural traditions.
I'm almost done prepping the molas. I still have to separate several of them from the blouses, pick threads from most, clean, classify, grade, sort, photograph and code. I'll let people know when the molas are going to hit the website.

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