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Exploring the Kuna in "Fabric Collage"
In 1965, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts exhibited "Fabric Collage." The exhibition showcased contemporary hangings by five United States artists, a collection of American quilts, and San Blas Indian appliques. Paul Smith eloquently described the connection between the three parts of the exhibition in the catalog introduction: “A technique common to all three is the stitching together or superimposition of fabrics, an art form practiced by many civilizations of the past. It is possible to see other affinities between folk art and contemporary fabric collage: American quilts were often composed of bits of old wedding dresses, uniforms, and other fragments recalling the past - a device employed in contemporary applique, which often utilizes pieces of fabric which have been worn or in other ways used, evoking memories of a previous context and the warmth of human association. This association of the past with the present, intrinsic in collage, simultaneously refers to two different experiences: art and reality. In folk art, however, the assembling of cloth into patterns was secondary to their immediate function as objects of use.”
The lure of this exhibition is garments made by the Kuna, who are indigenous people of Panama and Colombia that now mainly occupy the San Blas Islands. Their matriarchal society makes Molas, which play a large role in sustaining their economy. The Kuna use a substantial amount of reverse applique in the making of their Molas. It is unknown how exactly this unique technique came into use in their design. It appears to be the way they were naturally inclined to construct their pieces. The structure of reverse applique uses many layers and many stitches; conceptually this makes sense as Molas are worn and passed down through generations and in dowries and need to withstand time.
Originally the Kuna painted their bodies as a form of expression. Upon the influx of missionaries they were encouraged to wear clothing (late 1800s). To cover their bodies, the Kuna kept colors and patterns from their body painting designs and employed new influences of western culture throughout the years. Some examples of a Molas that were exhibited in "Fabric Collage" depict the following: Winston cigarette box, Boy Scouts, Atlas beer, rockets, windmills, and General Electric to name a few. Currently, the majority of Molas are composed of geometric designs.
In the initial stages of implementation (transition into clothing) it's likely English was not spoken amongst the Kuna. Our archival photo of a woman and child reading Vogue is a illustrative example of the total obscurity of one society's culture being forced upon another - welcomed or not. All politics aside, it's abstract - a natural occurrence of collaborative influence, the collage of people on one planet. It was through Sam Hilu of the Odyssey Shop that the Molas of the Kuna made their way to the attention of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.
What it is about a particular contemporary slogan, advertisement, or western idea that Kuna are inspired to portray? Is the portrayal an homage, satire, or simply visual aesthetic? The Kuna's reflection of our society in their art is still powerful after all this time.
For other archival materials from fiber exhibitions, take a look at the library's digital collections database.