- Ancient Peru
- Modern Bolivia
- Modern Panama
- Modern Guatemala
Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles
Engaging the New: The Creative Tradition of the Modern Guna Cutwork Blouse Panel (Dulemola)
"Engaging the New: The Creative Tradition of the Modern Guna Cutwork Blouse Panel (Dulemola)." by Rebecca R. Stone, Ph.D.
As introduced in "Passing the Flame,” the Guna women's dulemola (blouse with two cutwork panels) expresses the textile artists’ propensity to creatively engage both tradition and change. However, a word about terminology and spelling is in order first. Historically, the Guna have been called both the Cuna and the Kuna, but changed their alphabet in 2010 (Boletín informativo ISGAR 2010, 2) to more accurately reflect their pronunciation. Most studies have not caught up with this change; however, we will adopt the “g” for “k” and “d” for “t” here. Likewise, most previous studies and current websites refer to the blouse panel as a mola and add the English “s” for plural (molas), although the correct plural in the Guna language is now molaguna. Further, mola actually means any item of clothing, so the fully correct terms are dulemola (singular) and dulemolaguna (plural) when referring to the blouse panel or the blouse with two panels respectively. The closest English translation of these correct terms is “Guna women’s clothing.’
The history of the dulemola is dynamic from its inception: inspired first by painted body art designs, to its early versions that adhere to missionaries’ notions of modesty, to its modern and contemporary development into globally inspired blouse with two cutwork panels (fig. 2). Orignally developed when Spanish missionaries required that Guna women adopt European standards of modesty by wearing blouses, the designs are inspired by the very body painting the blouses had to cover. Dulemolaguna constitute one of the most fascinating stories of the ways that “traditional" art innovates constantly, but within a set of parameters that reflect long-held cultural values, religious beliefs, and artistic practices. Indeed, dulemolaguna take the idea of syncretism introduced in "Passing the Flame” further than do many of the pieces in the rest of this exhibition. Syncretism or the "attempted union or reconciliation of diverse or opposite tenets or practices, esp. in philosophy or religion" applies well to them (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 2002, 3153). Further, the term palimpsest is clearly applicable as well, meaning "something that has changed over time and shows evidence of that change; something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/palimpsest).
These small pieces show not only local concerns (figs. 5b, 7b, 23-26), but also whimsical imaginative scenes (fig. 13), historical references (fig. 17), Christian imagery (figs. 20, 21), and popular culture figures (figs. 27, 29), and illustrate the breadth of imagery in the Guna corpus. Furthermore, on the first level of interpretation dulemolaguna can be viewed quite literally as physical amalgamations, layers of cloth united. As palimpsests, they not only layer cloth to construct images (see How Molas are Made below) but also add ever-greater complexity and layers of meaning over time as they gather subject matter from the widening world culture. At the same time, they are generally rooted in the design tradition of ancient indigenous Panamá, as figures 2-6 attest.
Modern and Ancient Panamanian Design Continuities
Although the blouses in question may seem to differ from Maya huipíles and Bolivian llikllas in that they began exclusively in the post-Hispanic era, they nevertheless maintain many of the basic design principles of ancient Panamanian ceramics (Helms 1981; see The Ties that Bind and Capturing the Rainbow). For several years, the Carlos permanent collection of Panamanian art included a case that placed a dulemola among ancient ceramics (fig. 3). This juxtaposition was meant to convey that, despite vast differences in time and medium, a coherent Panamanian aesthetic remains concerned with sinuous line, outlining, a basic palette, optical illusions, complex backgrounds, and figure-and-ground interpenetration. Finding the animal within the meandering, spiraling forms can be a wonderful challenge (as in the praying mantis in the ceramic of figure 5a and the two birds in the dulemola of figure 5b).
There is no doubt that the spiral motif has maintained its importance in Panamanian design over the millennia (figs. 4a, b). Even in figural scenes such as the Panama Canal and Bridge of the Americas (fig. 26), part of the sky is composed of spiral patterns, the staple of the “grandmother” or most geometric (and thus most traditional) examples. Whether squared off as in figure 4b or rounded as in figure 4a, the basic format remains. In the Guna language the term for a spiral is “biru-birut” (the phrase seems to repeat but also change, much like the motif).
Though strongly based on spirals, swirls, and other dynamic meandering shapes, one can nonetheless pick out the typical subject matter of fierce tropical animals that also appear over the millennia in both media. They appear in both relatively realistic (figs. 5, 7) and fantastical visionary versions (fig. 6).
This is not necessarily surprising, given that local flora and fauna stay basically the same (see Flora and Fauna in Guna Textile Art below), as does the equally long tradition of shamanic religion as an important factor in Guna culture and art (see Guna Religion[s] below). Although it might seem farfetched to link ceramics painted thousands of years ago with the cloth compositions of today, in fact the visual link within this long, strong aesthetic tradition is obvious. Ceramicists pursued the brightest possible clay slips to decorate the surface, including a rare and nearly unique purple (how it was produced was recently deciphered by conservator Kathryn Etre. Likewise, the Guna still choose the most colorful and wildly patterned cloth for the blouse yokes, sleeves, and ruffle; arguably their love of color helped them to invent the purple slip long ago and accept vividly colored machined cloth from the missionaries to make multi-color dulemola in modern times.
In terms of patterning, the clear preference in both times and media is for geometry, undulating lines, outlining, spirals, completely filled space, inverted pairs of images, and multiple readings. The tiny sewn zigzag edges are impressively difficult to achieve (e.g., fig. 7b, inside the background squares; fig. 17, the tail feathers of the central bird; figs. 23 and 29, throughout). They echo the painted outlines of angular and flaring elements (figs. 5a, 6a), described as "power edges" in my work on the depiction of shamanic trance in ancient Central and South American art (Stone 2014, 137-140). The continued practice of shamanism over the millennia in Panamá helps to explain the constancy in artistic choices despite European incursion up to and including modern tourism. In addition, in this area women have long been chiefs, artists, and leaders (e.g., Espinoza Perez 2007). Similar flora and fauna, such as the leatherback turtle (Fig. 7a,b), are other clear continuities over time. The ties between past and present Panamá are abiding.
Indigenous art that enthusiastically enters into the modern and contemporary global scene and engages the Western-dominated world and its popular culture may be thought to suffer in "authenticity" and/or "quality" as a result. However, every object is authentic for its moment of conception, though some are always more skillfully rendered, have more sophisticated possible meanings, or appeal to the current audience more than others. The recent introduction of the sewing machine certainly threatens the predominance of hand sewing. The two techniques are not mutually exclusive, however: some recent technically “transitional” examples combine hand sewing with sloppy machine stitching (figs. 8a,b). A machine stitch runs on the surface and so cannot achieve what the hand can, especially the nearly invisible stitches that hold the turned edge under in figure 8, center. However, even some contemporary hand-sewn pieces do not reach the pinnacle of sewing, as seen in figure 8, below. The full range of quality exists side by side in the markets and household booths of the Guna in the 21st century. Hopefully that there will always be a market for skillfully wrought hand-made goods. Discerning buyers often help keep the quality of arts at a respectable level; undiscerning ones get lesser products for higher prices.
Dulemolaguna originally were "meant" to be paired together and sewn into the fronts and backs of blouses, but are now sold individually and inserted into many other types of objects as well. This may be seen as a diminution of the “tradition” yet it was in fact European imposition/change that sparked such a creative and unprecedented garment form in the first place. The elaborate panels were inset into a gathered sleeved and ruffled hemmed, yoked blouse, a very Western format without precedent in the ancient Central American cultures in which women almost exclusively went bare breasted (e.g., Stone-Miller 2002, 70-77).
The continuing evolution and creative reinvention of the dulemola featured geometric, then figural, then scenic compositions, with all three now co-existing in the oeuvre. Each step embraced the newly available machine-made fabrics and the ever-brighter synthetic dyes, recently approaching the neon (just as in contemporary Maya and Bolivian textiles, see Creations of the Red Goddess and Capturing the Rainbow). These mass-produced cloths and chemical colorants, again, could be seen as lowering the overall aesthetic quality; however, it could also be argued they introduced more possibilities in color and pattern, one of the main artistic goals of their makers.
Gradually the plain parts of blouses began to be exuberantly patterned with printed designs (such as the polka-dot back cloth of figure 9), written on, and incorporate zippers (fig. 10) to help the blouses fit more tightly and be put on more easily.
The highly valued bright colors and undulating lines long preferred in ancient Panamanian ceramic art were re-invented using rickrack (visible in figure 10 on the back shoulders and in figure 19 as two undulating, interlocked strips). Thus, in reality, the pre-existing Guna aesthetic continues using new, convenient commercially available materials.
The Guna textile art world continues to change rapidly in the 21st century. Besides cutwork panels and blouses, now consumers can buy single, loose examples rather than pairs and simple miniature appliqués sewn into coasters (fig. 11).
Dulemola bits were also incorporated into wine bottle carriers (fig. 12), t-shirts, purses, cowboy boots, hair ties, bikini tops, and earrings, among other items, with new formats appearing almost daily (such as here, here, and here). This expansion of items too does not necessarily automatically constitute degradation, but rather one can argue that these artists are evolving their art form on their own terms and appropriating items from other cultures in new ways. In the last few years, Guna women proudly wear sparkling embroidery and polyester lace additions to their blouses, which are simply recent appropriations from the global market. They also appear in some of the newest items that use actual appliqué as a technique, without any cutwork at all (fig. 11). True appliqué incorporates shaped cloths placed on top of a background cloth and sewn down. There are certainly many newer items that have embroidery and appliqué along with cut-work and so may be considered technically “transitional” examples (e.g., fig. 21a).
In addition to what pleases them personally, like all artists, changes are introduced according to perceived tourists' and collectors' tastes. Selling dulemolaguna certainly forms a significant part of the Guna economy, so this is understandable; the global world is market-driven and indigenous entrepreneurs are no exception (Tice 1995).
Tourists and serious collectors alike are often amused by the imaginative global and fantastical imagery like two dogs in sunglasses carrying what seem to be purses or suitcases (fig. 13). Such unprecedented subjects sell well, plus they show the many levels of creativity that persist within this art form.
On the other side of the tradition-change equation, a consumer may choose to only purchase those panels remaining in blouses, ones from the artist herself, and/or those made of cotton, thereby choosing what was "traditional" fifty years ago or more. In deciding which era is the "classic" one, admittedly an arbitrary choice, outsiders act as forces against change, maintaining a market for organic dyes or hand-woven cloth. Buyers may love the geometric ones, and not accept polyester lace for the ones they buy. It is a complex interplay with no absolutes, no abstract moment of the "authentic" to be pinpointed. Instead, there is constant evolution on both sides of the interaction between the Guna and the world outside their comarca (reservation) boundaries.
The Guna People and their Environment
The Guna live in Guna Yala (“Land” or “Mountain of the Guna,” a narrow strip of the north coast from west of Panamá City to the border with Colombia and including forty-nine of the 378 "San Blas" Islands (figs. 14-16). The capital is El Porvenir (Spanish for "The Future"). An estimated population of over 50,000 people speak the Guna language (Narang 2007).
The Panamanian government refers to Guna territory as a comarca indígena, an administrative unit that houses a substantial Indian population; its closest equivalent is to the Indian reservations in the United States. The term marca, means "march or mark" and co- means "together or jointly," so comarca means roughly "we march together." The Guna have been called "a people who would not kneel," so this idea of marching together is fitting (Howe 1998). However, in other ways the Guna maintain only a semi-autonomous status in the country and are subject to Panamanian laws and strictures which they constantly question and protest.
While they call themselves Dule, meaning "people," when asked if an outsider should refer to them as such the reply was "No, Dule is for our own use" (Tomás Ávila, personal communication, 2015). The people speak Dulegaya, which means "people-mouth." It falls within the Chibchan language family, one that has united parts of upper and lower Central America with northern South America for thousands of years. Today there are forty-nine communities in Guna Yala, governed by the General Congress, led by three Saila Dummagan ("Great Sailas" or Paramount Shaman-Chiefs).
Traditionally, Guna families are matrilineal (property passes to female offspring) and matrilocal (the groom moves to become part of the bride's family and lives in her house). The groom takes his wife’s last name as well. Furthermore, women can be and are sailas. As mentioned, they make considerable money making and selling dulemolaguna, giving them economic power as well.
The coastal and island environments of the Guna play a large part in their life and culture. Naturally, the sea and its riches are central. On land the many species of birds, animals, plants, flowers, form a principle part of their dulemola imagery. Paddling canoes (fig. 16) and then free-diving for lobsters (fig. 24) provides one of their main sources of money, alongside selling coconuts. Indeed, the Guna have always been organized into families of merchants. Today they import goods from Colombian, Mexican, and Chinese ships and sell them in their small retail stores and booths for tourists in Guna Yala and Panama City. Such self-determination through trade may be a primary reason that the Guna have successfully functioned independently.
Long ago, the Guna peoples arrived in South America as part of a Chibchan language family migration moving eastward from Central America. By the time of the Spanish invasion in the early 16th century they lived in what is now northwestern Colombia and the Darién Province of far eastern Panamá. Later they began to move westward due to conflicts with the Spanish and with other indigenous groups, such as the Emberá (Howe, 10-14), In relation to this history, however counterintuitively, a dulemola with apparent references to Spanish colonial times (fig. 17) includes a two-headed bird resembling the Habsburg eagle, the royal symbol of the Spanish monarchs at the time of the Conquest.
When Spaniards Alonso de Ojeda and Vasco Núñez de Balboa explored the Colombia coast in 1500-1501 they made the first outsider contact with the Guna. According to contemporary Guna people, the large numbers of mosquitos on the coast drove the Guna to migrate onto the San Blas Islands, according to the Guna today.
However, the first outsider to seriously chronicle the Guna was Lionel O. Wafer, a Welsh ship's surgeon who became a pirate, but was abandoned by his shipmates in Darién after receiving a gunshot wound. He was nursed back to health by the Guna and in 1695 published A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America, which described the matrilineal customs, body art, and shamanism, plus the flora and fauna of the area. Since the Guna were suffering abuse at the hands of the Spanish colonial police, they were known to take pride in killing the Spanish and often sided with other Europeans against them. This preference for English speakers continued through time, including at times the Americans (fig. 19), though the Guna are far too independent to maintain long-term alliances with foreigners (Howe 1998).
During colonial times outsiders of various nationalities invaded Guna territory and waters in search of gold, rubber, and sea turtles. Pirates were a constant threat all through the Caribbean and along the coasts and island chains (ibid., 11-14).
Beginning in the 19th century, coconut trading ships brought the European cloth, scissors, thread, and needles that the Guna would use to create the blouses, which missionaries of many sects demanded. Missionaries, particularly the Baptists, settled among the Guna and attempted to convert them, who tolerated and in some ways accepted the new Christian religions, although to this day their own shamanic belief system has always taken precedence (see Guna Religion(s) below) (Fortis 2012; Personal communication, Tomás Ávila to Rebecca Stone, 2015).
In the early twentieth century, the Panamanian government tried to suppress many traditional customs, which was bitterly resisted. In 1925, a short-lived yet successful revolt took place (now known as the Tule Revolution under the leadership of Iguaibilikinya Nele Kantule of Ustupu). The uprising was supported by American adventurer and part-time diplomat Richard Marsh. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and Human Rights of the Tule People of San Blas and the Darien and garnered the support of the U.S. ambassador. A treaty was signed between the Panamanians and the Guna in which the latter were allowed a greater degree of cultural autonomy. In 1938, the Comarca de San Blas became an autonomous state with a Panamanian governor installed on the island of Porvenir as a liaison between the sailas and the national government.
A blouse that references the Panamanian flag in its yoke and sleeves (fig. 19) may refer to a positive moment in the Guna relationship with Panamá. In the 1990s the Guna were given direct representation in the national government for the first time. Perhaps because they received this act of being “seen,” a Guna woman wears a statement of loyalty. It is no accident that the red, white, and blue colors and the stars are reminiscent of the United States flag; when the U.S. helped Panamá gain independence from neighboring Colombia, the new national flag consciously emulated their saviors’ own. The ways in which textiles overtly and subtly reflect the ebbs and flows of the political climate and historical circumstances is clear.
Colonial missionaries have long struggled to completely Christianize the Guna, who still deeply believe in Nan Dummad, the Great Mother, and respect the environment they inhabit as a spiritually alive being. In short, their spirituality is highly syncretic. As informant Tomás Ávila avers, "We have our own religion of Mother Earth, Catholic Baptist, Mormon — all religions in the village [are] now all the same" (personal communication to Rebecca Stone, 2015). Along with Mother Earth, the eighth and final cosmic level (the ultimate afterlife goal), now called Baba Nega also meaning Father and Dios, is allied with both the Christian God and with Jesus. When a Guna person dies, if s/he identified as Catholic, the foreign funeral takes place first, but the traditional one always follows, considered the final act.
Though perhaps distinctive with its specifically eight cosmic levels (see fig. 9 for the geometric encapsulation of this in a dulemola), Guna religion falls under the larger category of shamanism (Fortis 2012). Dulemolaguna are not directly used in a shamanic way (such as to induce visions) but can reflect hybrid religious content (figs. 20, 23). The shamanic content might be subtle in these highly syncretic compositions. The two churches in figure 20 have uneven-armed – i.e., Christian – crosses inside the buildings. On top of them, however, are equal-armed ones, which Guna see as the crossing posts of the roofs of their wood and thatch living structures called palapas (fig. 21).
The Madonna is shown as luridly pink (fig. 22a), perhaps like the Caucasians who brought the new religion (it could be noted that Anglos often turn this shade of pink in tropical climates!). Yet there is an unusually high percentage of albinism among the Guna (1/150 births versus the world average of 1/17,000 [Marsh 1934; Jasso 2015]. Those Guna with light coloring, called sipus, are elevated as Children of the Moon and Grandchildren of the Sun and considered sacred. Albino children are tasked to stay up during lunar eclipses to shoot arrows at what is considered to be the winged beast eating the moon (Jeambrun 1998, 906; Walden 2014, 380). This is part of a shared worldview among many indigenous American peoples, who tend to see the unusual as a blessing rather than a curse (see Dialogues in Thread; Stone 2014, 155-160, 186-188; Stone 2016). Thus, a pink mother and child may represent a syncretic element between the cultures in which light-skinned foreigners and native people both play spiritual roles. Yet Mary holds the Baby Jesus up high among giant tropical flowers and grasses. The Madonna wears long sleeves, unlike the short, puffed sleeves of the dulemola, perhaps further respecting missionary modesty standards and mimicking European dress, where the climate is considerably colder. Her head cover is veil-like, though Guna women cover their heads routinely in brightly colored cloths (fig. 23; among younger women, Wester printed bandanas have become popular of late). Clearly, the Madonna and Child imagery in this piece treads a thin, creative line between the religions.
Dulemolaguna through Time
The story of the dulemola begins not with cloth and scissors but with the preexisting body painting practices of the Guna. Lionel Wafer described late 17th century Guna body painting as follows, “They made figures of birds, beasts, men, trees, or the like, up and down every part of the body, more especially the face…. The women are the painters and take great delight in it. The colors they like and use most are red, yellow, and blue, all very bright and lovely” (1704, 110). He did not mention geometric patterns; however, this may reflect a European preference for figural art or it may be true that their body art featured flora and fauna, still a major subject area in dulemolaguna today (figs. 24-26). It is significant that early on the women were the surface-decorating artists, just as they are to this day. In turn, men carve very important shamanic spirits in the form of wooden figures (Fortis 2012).
In the balmy temperatures of Guna Yala it is possible to expose much of the body to act as the “canvas” for skin painting. Importantly, Wafer did tell us of the minimal clothing worn in the 17th century,
"They wear no Cloaths, ordinarily; but only the Women have a Clout or piece of Cloth about their middle, tied behind with a Thread, and hanging down to their Knees; or Ankles, if they can get one large enough. They make these of Cotton; but sometimes they meet with some old Cloaths got by trucking with their Neighbor Indians subject to the Spaniards; and these they are very proud of. Mr. Dampier relates how we prevailed with a morose Indian, by presenting his Wife with a Sky-colour'd Petticoat; And nothing will oblige the Women more than to give them Cloaths, especially of Gaudy Colours." (Wafer 1704, 137)
This passage provides several important insights that relate to later blouses, skirts, and dulemola panels. Nothing was worn on the torso except a hanging panel down the front, somewhat like the triangular women's pubic aprons shown on some lower Central American female figurines except longer (e.g., Stone-Miller 2002, 86). In a way, these were like ancient men's breechcloths, rectangular and going to the knee. Cotton cloth was scarce, either laboriously made locally or fortuitously traded. Thus, trade for cotton cloth was already in place well before the missionary incursions. In addition, this scarcity made larger pieces of cloth more prestigious, so when outsiders brought it in long bolts (the origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards”), it was eagerly snapped up within the pre-existing value system. To the Guna cloth would still have functioned as much or more for display than for any real climatic necessity. These women's pubic aprons did cover the genitals, however, so they represented the Guna's idea of modesty before outsider influence. Introducing larger wrap-around skirts, capable of showing more of the already highly prized bright colors, fulfilled previous patterns. Likewise, the indigenous ways of decorating women’s torsos in colorful drawings succumbed to European notions of more complete female body concealment when the blouse was imposed, but the imagery so important to them simply found a new location on a blouse.
Most insightfully, Wafer comments on the age-old Guna love for "Cloaths, especially of Gaudy Colours." To this day, the aesthetic of women’s dress favors the brightest and most patterned textiles in myriad combinations (figs. 1, 22, 23). This is true across most, if not almost all, indigenous peoples; the value on the most brilliant colors first led them to explore natural dyes, then, once trade with outsiders was established (see Capturing the Rainbow and Creations of the Red Goddess), to embrace the aniline ones discovered in the mid-19th century, and now the neon colors available today. Not simply a way to enhance the beauty of art, color saturation and variety has spiritual overtones; during shamanic trances, colors are intensely saturated and patterns determine the visual field.
In terms of body painting, since missionary intervention requiring blouses and skirts, and the preference for beaded arm and leg bands, only the face remains a surface for painting, which has become minimalistic and somewhat anachronistic. Today older women may still paint a dark blue stripe down their foreheads and noses, as seen in figure 23.
The earliest blouses were very large, almost like dresses, and worn untucked. However, gradually the dulemola panels and the blouses themselves approached European proportions and were worn tucked into the skirts. This tucking actually means that some or most of the dulemola is obscured; part is visible, part hidden. In the overall scheme of the exhibition, this covering of something that the woman has spent hours upon hours making participates in the Quechua idea of uhku (see Dialogues in Thread) or the hidden revealed. This strategy of layering clothing maintains indigenous values and religious beliefs while simultaneously pleasing the European overlords. It aptly restates the many layers that make up the dulemola as well. Such an adaptive, yet subversive, strategy is also true of modern traditional Maya women (see Creations of the Red Goddess).
Flora and Fauna in Guna Textile Art
One of the universal aspects of Native America thought is that Nature is considered one entity comprising humans, other animals (humans are animals too), plants, and spirits. The Guna are no exception. The magnificent edible leatherback turtle (fig. 7b) and the Caribbean spiny lobster (fig. 24) are two of the many sea creatures that have always been treated with utmost respect. Today, as an endangered species — due primarily to pollution and perhaps to global warming and repeated El Niño events — sea turtles are all the more precious to the Guna and to the scientific community at large. As part of the Guna willingness to interact with outsiders for good outcomes, they work together with scientists to teach the next generations about sea life and ensure its continuation. Indeed, the Rodolfo Chairi School, runs a sea turtle protection program in Narganá, one of the most westernized of the islands in the Guna Yala. The school program reflects a productive mixture of traditional and new ideas, much like the dulemolaguna themselves.
The coral reef is the natural habitat for the turtles, lobsters, and fish, and so figures prominently in dulemolaguna subject matter. It may appear in a geometricized abstract version that captures its meandering spiky patterns (fig. 25; a similar interpretation is also visible in fig. 1 to the top right) or in a highly illusionistic style in which fish turn in space to glide convincingly toward the viewer (fig. 26). Foreshortening, or the artistic distortion of shapes that seeks to capture the way that humans see three-dimensional objects in space, a new concept in Guna artistry, an influence of Western art. However, it may be applied convincingly in the way that the lower right corner fish is shown turning so that part of its far eye is visible. A subtler three-quarter view is seen in the boat in figure 27 and a slightly more rudimentary version is seen in the two faces in figure 30. The fact that completely different stylistic interpretations can coexist at one time is important. Just as purely geometric motifs are still viable today, different artists produce highly individualistic interpretations of the same subject matter, from geometricized coral to realistically swimming fish. This represents the willingness to incorporate the openness to change that is celebrated within the Guna aesthetic tradition.
The Guna and Popular Culture
What we might call loosely "popular culture" or "global influence" is an significant, perhaps dominant, element in contemporary dulemola. As early as the middle 20th century outsider imagery began to appear in the corpus: around 1940 day visits to Guna Yala were allowed so contemporary products, logos, ideas, and images (figs. 27-29) began to filter into the islands.
At that same time, Guna men were leaving the islands to work in the Panama Canal Zone (fig. 28) and so absorbed not only Panamanian popular culture but American. Again, to take up this new subject matter was a choice, a creative one, based on the artists’ desire to engage with the novel and possibly to maximize profits along the way. The bright colors and patterns found in European goods were already well loved in the Guna aesthetic.
It could be argued that cartoon/logo imagery was especially appealing with its bold flat colors, dark outlined figures, novel type of writing, and dynamic poses (all engineered to attract buyers). Cereals from the United States apparently became available, as the Trix™ Rabbit in figure 28 attests. In a bizarre instance of overlap between Trix™ cereal and Native Americans, the Trix™ rabbit actually dressed up as an "Indian" in a television commercial (click fig. 29).
Painting his ears like feathers, and snatching more from a dime-store Indian to fill in between them, he is asked to do a rain dance to earn the cereal from the children. Strangely, he does the Twist, but it does produce rain. However, the water strips the paint from his ears and feathers from his head, revealing he is again trying to trick the kids out of their sugar cereal. The commercial epitomizes the past when respect was lacking toward Native Americans. Yet the Guna turning around and immortalizing the Trix™ Rabbit — it is impossible to know if the artist saw the commercial— makes for a noteworthy re-appropriation. Interestingly, in relation to syncretism, rabbits do carry some trickster qualities in the indigenous Americas and Africa.
Another of the many popular culture subjects that appear in contemporary Guna dulemolaguna is Santa Claus imagery (fig. 30). Historically, Saint Nicholas mythology began as early as the third century AD, but has evolved to become a staple of Western Christian-related culture today. As such, the Guna have explored Santa’s visual possibilities, as well as his appeal to tourist buyers. Instead of appearing out of a chimney — for which there is certainly no need in Guna Yala! — in this dulemola white-skinned figures emerge from giant tropical flowers (more significant to the peoples of this area than evergreen trees). First, their white skin may well relate to Santa Claus being a European character that made its way to America and thence to the Guna. However, as mentioned above, there is a very high rate of albinism among the Guna. Thus, pale skin is not exclusive to outsiders, but may well represent a bridge between the cultures.
In terms of making deliberate and dramatic changes in the tradition of dulemolaguna, one most interesting things about this example, however, is the adoption of a somewhat three-quarter view of the faces, with both eyes showing but the nose in profile. Western illusionistic style, including foreshortening (also in figs. 26 and 27), is certainly within the skill level of dulemola artists, however, arguably it is not a very popular choice because it goes against the indigenous traditional artistic choices. While it is a huge generalization, ancient and more traditional Native American art favors presenting subjects as they are, not as they look at a given moment to a human viewer. That may explain why the chins of the Santa hat figures are in three-quarter but both eyes are visible. This wonderful artistic accommodation aptly sums up the flexible, innovative creativity of the Guna.