Kawsay Ukhunchay Collection Collaborates with Denison Museum to Bring Exhibition of Panamanian Molas to OSU

This spring, as part of an institutional collaboration with Denison University Museum, the Kawsay Ukhunchay Andean and Amazonian Indigenous Art and Cultural Artifacts Research Collection’s display in Hagerty Hall 255 features a collection of Panamanian molas (handmade Guna garments traditionally made and worn by women) along with Guna nuchukana (carved wooden figures known to have healing powers). These items on loan from Denison Museum complement our semester-long theme on Storytelling Tapestries. Previously, this collection of molas was part of a year-long exhibition at the Cleveland Museum, titled “Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panama.” https://denison.edu/places/museum/wh/134629

Molas, which translates to “shirts” in Guna, are traditionally worn by women and feature vibrant colors and complex, handmade appliques whose designs depict flowers, birds, reptiles, and animals. Some of the designs on loan feature Guna mythology, geometric abstractions of important geographical motifs like mountains, or political epicenters like town halls. Others reveal elements of religious and social syncretism with references to Christian stories as illustrated books about Christianity and Bibles were both popular and widely available to mola makers in the 1960s.

The molas were donated to Denison University by Dr. Clyde Keeler (Denison Class of 1923). Keeler was a geneticist studying albinism among Guna populations. He acquired a large collection of Guna material during his many research trips and donated most of his collection to Denison Museum.

Molas became a symbol of Guna (Kuna) culture and political protest during the San Blas Rebellion in 1925 (also known as ‘La Revolución Tule’ or the Kuna Revolution), when Guna people rose up in opposition to national impositions by the Panamanian government including efforts to “Westernize” and “nationalize” Guna culture. During this time, the government forbade Guna women from wearing molas. The women insisted on wearing their molas as an act of defiance which solidified their bravery and opposition to national assimilation efforts. Molas since then have increasingly taken on depictions of national struggle, Guna political participation, and social transformation.

The Kawsay Ukhunchay Collection’s external OSEP grant (Ohio Sustainable Energy Partners) in 2023-2024 has enabled productive institutional collaborations such as the one with Denison Museum along with research opportunities for students at both campuses and broader exposure to campus-wide and general publics. The display, located in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in Hagerty Hall 255 also features a loan of storytelling tapestries and story cloths from OSU’s Historical Costumes and Textiles Collection and a collection of pre-Columbian Panamanian ceramics acquired through the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

Take advantage of this unique exhibition at Ohio State this spring and stop by Hagerty Hall 255, visit our website https://u.osu.edu/aaac/, or contact Professor Michelle Wibbelsman (wibbelsman.1@osu.edu) to schedule a visit as we continue to celebrate and contribute to Ohio State’s student research opportunities, public engagement, and diversity efforts!