She also fulfills one-of-a-kind design requests. A Greek ship builder commissioned a pillow for a wedding performed at Versailles and requested a design with the gardens of Versailles in mola form, she said. I use the fabric like painting.
The second floor of her colonial-style home in the Obarrio section has been turned into a workshop, with women from the San Blas Islands as well as other provinces executing molas from Breebaarts designs in a large room that she refers to as the Guna Yala. In other rooms, seamstresses fashion the molas into the bodices of high-fashion gowns or use the decorative panels in everything from sundresses to pant suits.
Her bestseller is a two-tone jacket made from denim or raw silk that is entirely covered with mola motifs. Making such a jacket, she said, takes six weeks. Our production is very limited because everything is handmade, Breebaart said.
As far as color schemes go, black and white is the most popular now, she said.
Despite the current pervasiveness of molas in Panama, making them is a relatively recent phenomenon. In his book, Magnificent Molas: The Art of the Kuna Indians, French ethnologist Michel Perrin said Scottish surgeon Lionel Wafer met the people of the San Blas Archipelago as early as 1681 and noted the womens passion for graphic arts.
But their geometric designs of birds, beasts and other nature motifs were painted on their bodies, not cut from cloth.
The textile designs didnt appear until the second half of the 19th century and were an art of reaction, a hybrid art stemming from contact and conflict with whites, Perrin writes. The designs moved to clothing because of the influence of Western clothing they wanted to imitate or were obliged to wear.
I want people to treat molas as art, not as a handicraft, Saltzman said as she plopped a pile of molas on the floor the best vantage point for viewing the overall designs and began pointing out what transforms a mola into art.
Art you look at from a distance, said Saltzman as she pointed out a particularly well-executed design of two turtles one said, another happy on an orange background. You see this design comes alive.
One of the older molas in Saltzmans stock says simply Revolución 1925, commemorating a Guna uprising against Panamanian authorities whom they accused of repressing their traditions and forcing them to adopt Hispanic culture. The Guna briefly seceded from Panama, and their homeland is now recognized as an autonomous territory.
And after the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, when tensions between Washington and its former ally, Panamas de facto leader Gen. Manuel Noriega, reached a boiling point, motifs from Operation Justice Cause crept into the molas. Around the same time, molas also were being crafted that depicted the reporters who covered the invasion and their computers.
In her store, Saltzman displays folkloric masks, tagua seed carvings, baskets, Emberá bead work and wood sculptures made by other indigenous groups, but the molas are front and center.
They range from simple panels that sell for 50 cents to $3.50 that appeal to the back-packing crowd to museum-quality molas that sell for $100 or more. A king-size bedspread sells for $450 to $472.
I call find beauty in everything even the 50-cent ones, Saltzman said. My idea is to share them. Now the art of the mola is much more appreciated than it used to be.