The evolution of the Kuna Mola: From cultural authentication to cultural survival

Marks, D 2012, The evolution of the Kuna Mola: From cultural authentication to cultural survival, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Fashion and Textiles, RMIT University.


Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title The evolution of the Kuna Mola: From cultural authentication to cultural survival
Author(s) Marks, D
Year 2012
Abstract The San Blas Kuna Indians, an American Indian indigenous people, live in an autonomous territory in Panama and are considered to be a micro island nation. The distinctive mola blouse worn by Kuna women is recognised as an identifier of the Kuna people and also of Panama, and the history of this dual symbolism is investigated through an interdisciplinary approach. A “reference collection” comprising molas from six museums provided the basis for understanding the evolution of molas over the last one hundred years. A visual analysis comparing molas in these museums with contemporaneous archival photographs prompted an investigation of the role of the mola in Kuna culture, since the iconography of the mola panels is obscured when worn as part of the dress ensemble of Kuna women. The conceptual framework developed for this dissertation comprised four elements: cultural authentication; flow theory; cultural survival; and identity. The origin of the mola is explained in terms of the concept of cultural authentication developed by Eicher and Erekosima (1980) and this is linked to the concept of the invention of tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983). Each of the components of cultural authentication outlined by Eicher and Erekosima was found to occur. The motivation for the continuation of the high quality mola production can be explained by a combination of factors, which relate to Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory and the central role of ritual, which are linked to positive well-being. Previous research has established a link between textile making activities and the well-being of women in Western cultures and this research confirms that the theory is applicable to non-Western culture.

The concept of ‘serious leisure’ is also found to be relevant to non-Western culture. The continuation of mola production is also considered in the context of the cultural survival of ethnic nation-states and the concept of ‘islamiento’, developed by Chernela (2011), is extended to encompass the overarching strategy developed by Kuna leaders since the move of the Kuna people to the San Blas islands, during the second half of the 19th century. This dissertation explores the reasons why the mola developed during the first part of the 20th century as part of the everyday dress ensemble of Kuna women, and why after the Kuna Revolution in 1925, the role of the mola in creating Kuna identity was reinforced. The association of the mola with Panama has in recent years also created a market for the mola as a tourist souvenir. Finally, the dissertation examines the role of museums in preserving Kuna material culture, which is not possible under local conditions. This dissertation concludes that museum collections are an integral part of a strategy to ensure cultural continuity and survival. Museum collections provide an important resource, vital for researchers from Kuna Indian communities, to trace the evolution of mola design and the significance of the mola for cultural identity.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Fashion and Textiles
Keyword(s) cultural authentication
cultural survival
Kuna mola blouses
visual analysis
invention for tradition
museum collections
serious leisure
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