Members of the Gunadule community are sometimes called “cuna,” “tule,” and “kuna.” But for Abadio Green Stocel, a leader of the community, those terms are improper. Instead, “Gunadule” is a word made up of two parts that better represents their culture: “guna,” meaning “surface of land,” and “dule,” which translates to “person.”

Today, most Gunadules live in Panama, but the community originated in Colombia. About 70,000 live in Panama, while there are only around 2,000 left, residing near the Gulf of Uraba, in Colombia. Many consider the few in Colombia, however, to be the wisest. Amelia Santacruz, another community leader who helped bring to life a new art exhibition at the Gold Museum in Bogotá (Cra 6 No. 15-58), is among the most respected.

The community’s signature designs are known as “molas,” and they are made by Gunadule women to write their own cultural history. They consist of layered fabrics that are then cut away to form geometric shapes, representing aspects of nature and the different layers of the world. The exposition, which will be hosted at the museum until June 17, 2017, displays molas in different forms.

Some ornate displays depict Gunadule women wearing them in their dresses or shirts. Others have patterns made to look like turtles, birds, and other features of the environment, while newer themes include references to the modern world, including coins, helicopters, and even pop culture.

But in the beginning, molas were all about protection, as the women who make them learn through the story of Nagegiryai, a spiritual leader (nele) who could go into a sacred location somewhere within the layers of the universe known as “galu.” After she went there in her dreams, she came back to teach all the women how to write by making molas and recreating what she saw during her visits to places where no humans live.

Kuna from Panama with their molas. Courtesy: Museo del Oro
Kuna from Panama with their molas. Courtesy: Museo del Oro

In all, there are 13 different varieties of protection molas and each is being exhibited at Gold Museum. They are woven in four styles: with arrows pointing towards both the center and the corners of the mola, connected spirals, spinning diagonals, or independent modules.

Other types of molas include the “goaniggadi,” which shows living activities of the society, and the “naga,” which is used for to protect women and as a traditional source of fertility. The community’s women are the only ones who can weave molas, and young Gunadule girls begin learning the knowledge and techniques from their mothers and grandmothers when they are between four to six years old. At first, girls are not allowed to use scissors, but when they grow older, they start cutting the fabrics. This is seen as allowing them to defeat bad spirits — with every cut as an arrow.

Making a single handmade mola the size of a book can take a woman between five and seven days. They don’t use any special tools. They simply sit down on the dusty floor and move their hands with very precise stitches. The result can be exquisite — as this temporary exhibit titled Capas de Sabiduría (Layers of Wisdom) will show the country for the next eight months.

Museo del Oro, Sala de exposiciones temporales
Carrera 6 No. 15 – 88, Bogotá