The Kuna and the Tourist

Notes on Creativity theme of the week:
Art and Culture

According to a World Bank study, 95% of people in indigenous areas live below the poverty line.  The reasons are multiple and historic and the way out of this situation often seems impossible.

The most effective solutions often lie within indigenous groups themselves, as no one is more vested in their survival than they are. The Kuna Indians of Panama are a community that has found its own means to generate income to care for itself.

Walking the fine line of seeking income while not compromising their culture, the Kuna have embarked on the tricky venture of accessing tourism dollars. One way in which they do this is to sell molas, their colourful traditional textile art, handmade using applique techniques. This art is prized by art collectors worldwide.

Designs on molas were traditionally only geometric shapes as they evolved from body painting of geometric designs.When Kuna women started wearing blouses, they sewed mola panels onto the front and back using the same patterns they had previously painted onto their bodies. Over time, Kuna women realized they could sell these to tourists. When tired of the pattern on a blouse, the women remove the panels and sell them. These panels are considered ‘alive’ as they were once worn.

Mola design has evolved to include abstract and realistic depictions of animals and flowers. These panels are made specifically for tourists and are considered by the Kuna to be ‘dead’ as they have never been worn.

While the Kuna have made some compromises with their traditional art, they have been very careful to keep their cultural identity and use the money they receive to meet the needs of their community, and not in order to westernize. The Kuna live almost exclusively in their own self-governing communities (comarcas) and Kuna women still wear their traditional dress daily.

Through group cohesiveness and valuing their own cultural identity, the Kuna are managing to care for and preserve their community while sharing their art with the world.

Image source

Today’s 4 Minute Writer  

Two Worlds

I watch her efficient hand gestures create a masterpiece before my eyes. The work is slow and painstaking, but she is patient. Her hands do the work by themselves- they have done this over and over and know what is expected of them.

I look at her in her colourful dress, arm bangles, and head scarf and I think of how different her life is from mine. Hers is the life right around her, her family, community, the food she eats- the simple things. Mine is a mess of inter-related webs across continents and identity-juggling depending on my setting.

Somehow I’m the one from a ‘first world nation’, the ‘better’ place to be from. I wonder the price we have paid to claim our status as ‘the best’.

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Filed under Creativity, Writing

6 responses to “The Kuna and the Tourist

  1. My husband and I went on a Panama Cruise a couple of years ago. We were so impressed by the intelligence and creativity of the Panamian people. As a result of the income from the Panama Canal the entire country is highly educated. It is a wonderful place to visit, and I suspect a wonderful place to live.

    • A Panama Cruise sounds wonderful- especially right about now that winter is about to set in.
      What impresses me about Panama is the variety in landscape, people groups and customs. So many different ways the intelligence and creativity you speak of is manifested. Truly a special country.

  2. It’s very fascinating to learn about the different people all over this globe. Thank you for sharing…

  3. It just shows, doesn’t it, that it can be done. We can keep our integrity and earn a crust. Now I just have to find out what my version of the Kuna designs is!

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