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Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles
The inset cut-work panels in women's blouses from the traditional Guna of the north coast and off-shore San Blas Islands of Panamá are an unusual modern indigenous art form. They were first made in strictly geometric patterns. Still made to this day, these geometric examples (see here, here, here, and here) are called the "grandmother" ones. Since the Guna are matrilineal (women inherit from their mothers) and matrilocal (husbands move to their wives' village when they marry), grandmothers are extremely important and respected.
Although we might expect that geometric patterns are basically decorative or meaningless, they are deeply significant to the Guna people, who conceive of the universe as composed of eight layers or worlds, arranged rather like an onion. This cosmology is communicated well by abstract patterns that often feature four or eight elements.
The emphasis on spirals and meanders also encapsulates Guna belief that these worlds are labyrinths, complex paths that souls negotiate after death. Spirals are called
"biru birut"; seemingly the phrase itself mimics the repetitive turning of the motif. They are incorporated into the more figural panels, such as the one that shows the Panama Canal. Thus, the grandmother patterns are never eclipsed even when the globalized contemporary world intrudes.
Guna women artists are perhaps above all inspired by the natural world in which they live. A paradise of hundreds of small islands among turquoise waters, the “San Blas” islands are their main home. The northern coast of mainland Panamá adds a long strip of verdant land to Guna Yala, or Gunaland. These two areas include a remarkable array of land and water animal and plant life, much of which is reflected in the imagery of the dulemola, the name for the cutwork blouse panel. Just a few of the many natural subjects include birds representing the skies; coral, fish, turtle, and lobster, for the sea; as well as snakes, horses, dogs, and cats, for wild and domesticated animals. Brightly colored flowers are featured throughout Guna art as well.
Not simply an “encyclopedia” of the Guna environment, imagery of flora and fauna plays many roles in the textile arts, sometimes an activist one. A Guna leader in the fight to maintain native food sources in the face of massive contemporary pollution of the sea might wear giant turtles. A woman shaman might wear a dulemola displaying the leaves that make an effective snakebite poultice. Natural living things are given the same kind of respect as humankind, hence the plethora of subjects that celebrate plants and animals.
In recent years, cutwork blouse panels have featured a wide range of political, religious, and popular culture subjects that may not seem like traditional Guna imagery. Guna artists have taken on topical images from their country, such as the famous Panama Canal. Years of United States personnel in the Panama Canal Zone brought many new products, ideas, and practices to the attention of the indigenous communities of Panamá. When the Guna finally received representation in the Panamanian government in the 1990s, their loyalty to the country and its economic life was earned, as reflected in the red, white, and blue blouse with parts of the Panamanian flag incorporated into its yoke and sleeves.
Religions likewise change, and the age-old shamanic practices of the Guna now co-exist with almost every institutionalized Western religion imaginable. The Guna have endured outside missionaries for centuries, hence the imagery of churches and the Madonna and Child, who is given the exaggeratedly pink skin of Anglos but set among exuberant tropical flowers.
Guna women textile artists also embrace new imagery and ideas of the commercial world outside their territory they call Guna Yala. The dulemola itself is the result of European missionaries’ intervention, from their scissors and machined cloth to their ideas of “proper” female attire. Contemporary popular culture subjects also appear, such as the Trix™ cereal rabbit. These globally inspired subjects must be seen as an integral part of the modern Guna artistic oeuvre and appreciated on par with the more “indigenous” or “traditional” imagery.