The art and handicrafts of Panama are a tangible link to its diverse past and a testament the people’s ability to adapt to the times while maintaining a strong sense of identity. Indigenous arts have been adapted to use modern materials and Spanish colonial crafts have endured to become Panamanian crafts.
The mola is the most famous and recognisable Panamanian handicraft item. Produced by the Kuna women, from the San Blas Islands, it is an intricately patterned cloth panel, used as adornment on their traditional blouse. Molas are hand sewn works of art. The women use multiple layers of brightly contrasting fabric, intricate stitching and embroidery to form concentric type patterns which depict some aspect of traditional life. Molas are internationally recognized and sort after in quilting and embroidery circles and have started to become collectors’ items. Mola art has bloomed into its own creative endeavor and many are now made with non-traditional scenes for foreign buyers. However, true collectors prefer the items sold after a Kuna woman no longer wishes to ware her blouse and removes the worn molas to sell as a front and back pair. The San Blas islands themselves are the best place to purchase your own Molas.
The Emberá and Wounaan Indians of the Darién region are known to produce high quality woven baskets. In recent years they have taken this utilitarian skill and developed it into an art form, producing baskets with traditional patterns and brighter non-traditional designs, both styles are internationally recognised for their high quality craftsmanship. The Emberá and Wounaan are also skilled carvers. They create life size pieces of stunning quality out of Cocobolo, a tropical hardwood, and detailed miniature figurines meticulously carved from the tagua nut.
Around the towns of Penonomé and Ocú there is a strong, cottage based, hat weaving industry. While the Panama hat of rich movie star and gun toting gangster fame is actually of Ecuadorian origin, Panama does produce its own top quality hats. Straw hats woven in Panama are called pintadas. They are the traditional hat of the rural working class and can be seen worn throughout the provinces. High quality pintadas are woven so tight they actually hold water.
Mask making is an important traditional activity around the province of Los Santos. The masks are used as center pieces in wildly colourful costumes worn at fiestas. Made out of papier-mâché and based on serpent or dragon heads, the masks are elaborate, stylized, devil faces that would be downright scary if they weren’t so colourful.
The pollera is the national costume of Panama. It is an immensely detailed outfit consisting of a blouse and long skirt with many pleats, ruffles and decorative hemming. They are almost completely hand sewn and require such delicate stitching and embroided decoration that one dress can take up to 6 months to complete and use 10m of fabric. Anyone with the slightest experience in needlecraft will appreciate their superior quality and finesse.
Most handicraft items can be seen and purchased in their province of origin, molas in Kuna Yala, baskets and carvings in Darién, hats in the central provinces, masks and polleras on the Azuero Peninsular and all can be found in Panama City.