The Art of Being Kuna

    -- edited by Mary Lyn Salvador, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997/2002, 360 pages.

This magnificent volume is an outgrowth of a Kuna arts exhibition at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History (connected with UCLA) which presented materials from the last 100 years. The exhibition was ten years in the planning, and the effort shows clearly in this oversized book (9 X 12). More than 500 photos and drawings are included, with 330 of them in dazzling color. In a book of 360 pages, this is very visually striking and makes the book a pleasure to browse through as well as to read for ethnographic content.

Well-known to many for their colorful mola cloth designs, and known to many folklorists because of decades of published research, the Kuna were active collaborators with the museum staff and book designers. It was important to all parties that appropriate Kuna representatives be involved, not only in the final products but in the planning and processes as well.

The essays in the book clearly demonstrate how the Kuna of Panama have “created an aesthetic system that crosscuts all aspects of their culture and is linked to their worldview” (p. 30). Indeed, one chapter is titled “The Artfulness of Everyday Life.” This fascinating essay demonstrates how Kuna aesthetic values at the culture’s root can be found in their morality, religion, cloth, speech, dance, music, social relations, even the layout of villages. The method by which the mola designs are built out of layers of cloth is reflected in the book’s subtitle, “Layers of Meaning Among the Kuna of Panama,” and this concept is applied to many parts of Kuna culture, those that are overtly artistic and those that are not.

Primary art systems which are examined include language and literature, carved “authority staffs,” iconography, and music. And of course, photos of molas permeate the book and display an astonishing variety of designs and figures. As well as the “traditional” patterns like an octopus or coconut tree, we find molas representing basketball players, Tony the Tiger, a Titan rocket, the Flintstones, Bible stories, current political figures, even a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle!

In addition to studies of the arts, chapters appear on the local flora and fauna, the village political system, five centuries of struggle against intruders, spirits and curing disease, religious syncretism in festivals, puberty ceremonies, urban migration and other topics.

Since this review is for a journal that focuses on ethnomusicology, I will give special mention to Sandra Smith’s chapter on “The Musical Arts of the Kuna.” Smith has been doing ethnomusicology research among the Kuna for thirty years and has published a book and numerous articles on Kuna music.

She reports an interesting finding: “No unifying musical system or repertory is common to all of the Kuna instruments. Each of their instruments is associated with a unique repertory based on unique compositional rules” (p. 293).

Key elements of society and music are inextricably entwined. Smith states that the Kuna classify specialized cultural knowledge into a number of categories, and all except one category of specialized cultural knowledge are brought to life in the form of musical performance.

In one panpipes ensemble, the paired instruments are said to consist of a complementary male-female couple, and the notes of the melody are played in hocket fashion (but with something more complex than strict alternation). Kuna musicians gave Smith a fascinating analogy about a husband and wife journeying by canoe to explain the musical relationship. Smith devised a graphic notation system to represent the interlocking melody notes.

Unfortunately, some misprints mar the article. Chunks of text on pages 303-304 are repeated elsewhere, leaving page 302 with missing information at both ends. As well, the introduction to the article states that there will be a description of the puberty celebrations and their music, and a comparison between the compositional processes of two different types of panpipe ensembles. Neither of these expected elements appear in the chapter. However, the article ends with an excellent section on aesthetic evaluation and profitably compares a type of dancing with the process of making a mola and with a myth about the origins of the panpipes swirling in a whirlpool from heaven to earth.

Except for the missing information, the music chapter is quite informative and interesting. The book as a whole is a rich treasury of colors, ideas, and “layers of meaning” about diverse aspects of Kuna culture and how they are integrated by common aesthetic values.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.3 of

Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony