After Panama became an independent nation in 1903, a law was passed that said the “wild indigenous tribes,” notably the Kuna, had to be “compelled to lead civilized lives.” Women’s blouses called mola, with their geometric and pictorial patterns that articulated the Kuna understanding of the world, were banned. At this point the Kuna had had enough of colonial interference, and the result was their 1925 Revolution. Following a period of negotiation, the Kuna established the right to practice their traditions as well as gaining virtual autonomy over their own territory in the San Blas Islands, now called Kuna Yala.
The graphic panels on the mola blouses – done in reverse appliqué and embroidery – depict everything the Kuna see around them, from ancient plant and animal spirits to reimagined television news and Disney characters. Drawing with Scissors includes nearly 200 molas that are among the earliest known and those that were made yesterday, some by Domitila Deleon de Fernandez, the granddaughter of the leader of the 1925 Revolution. Photos in the exhibition show the matrilocal Kuna world of the San Blas Islands where, in order to protect old and successful traditions from the negative impacts of globalization, no outsider may own property.