The Kuna (also spelled Guna or Cuna) Indians live on the San Blas archipelago off the east coast of Panama, a cluster of some 378 islands in the Caribbean Sea. They are politically autonomous, and much of their traditional culture is intact.
Since the late nineteenth century, Kuna women have been making what are called molas, reverse appliqué panels made in pairs for the front and back of women’s blouses. As mola collector Jane Gruver describes, “several layers of cloth are stacked together and the design is made by cutting through the different layers of fabric to expose the desired color. Once the specific shape is achieved, the area is stitched around. Sometimes embroidery and applique are also used to add detail.” This colorful, wearable textile art is an integral part of Kuna culture.
The earliest molas featured geometric designs, which the Kunas translated from their customary body painting designs, but now a vast variety of representational subjects are common, including animals, plants, domestic scenes, political satire, dragons, mermaids, superheroes, spacecraft—and biblical stories!
The first Christian missionary to the San Blas Islands was Annie Coope, a single woman from the United States who arrived in the first decade of the 1900s and established a school on the island of Nirgana in 1913. A significant number of the Kuna embraced Christianity, such that there are now churches on thirty of the islands, as well as eighteen Kuna churches in and around Panama City, according to Wycliffe. A Kuna translation of the New Testament was published in 1995, at the behest of Kuna pastor Lino Smith Arango, and a Kuna Old Testament was completed in 2014.
The mola above shows two men hammering nails into Christ’s palms as two mourning figures—presumably John and Mary—stand behind. This piece is from the collection of Sandra and Bob Bowden in Chatham, Massachusetts, who are among today’s major collectors of modern biblical art. It is one of forty molas in the traveling exhibition Eden to Eternity: Molas from the San Blas Islands, available for rental for a nominal fee.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “Mary’s Fecund Yes” by Victoria Emily Jones, on Annunciation by Mats Rehnman: My latest ArtWay reflection was published Sunday. It’s on a whimsical Annunciation painting by touring storyteller, author, and visual artist Mats Rehnman, influenced in part by the Annunciation design woven into several nineteenth-century carriage cushions from Scania, Sweden.
ART TALK:“Saying Yes: The Annunciation in Contemporary Art” by Victoria Emily Jones: Speaking of the Annunciation . . . my March 18 presentation from the Breath and the Clay creative arts gathering is now online! (The aforementioned Rehnman piece is one of six I discuss.) With permission from the conference organizers, I have uploaded it to my YouTube channel for public viewing.
It’s an act of vulnerability for me to share it with you, as I’m aware of the ways in which it is deficient (in terms of speech delivery and production values). I lack technical prowess and a charismatic personality and am self-conscious about being on camera—but hopefully with practice, I will improve. The main thing is, I want the work of these artists to be known and shared. I hope to demonstrate how art can pull us deeper into the biblical story, revealing new and sometimes surprising angles or simply helping us dwell there with love and intent, and also how it’s possible to do “theology through art,” relying not exclusively on academic writings or sermons (great as they both are) to do that important work.
While I have created a video for a scholar friend’s art history channel, this is the first on my own channel—which I invite you to subscribe to. (I need at least 100 subscribers to create a custom URL for the channel.) I don’t have imminent plans for more videos, but I am starting to brainstorm ideas and will probably send out a survey to my blog subscribers to get a better sense of what you all would want to see. Several of you have requested that I get into video making, but I’ve been slow to move on it, wanting to better figure out my niche and what I could uniquely bring to such a dense market. I realize that video is a content format that is overwhelmingly preferred to blog posts these days, so I want to make use of it. But videos are much more time-consuming and difficult to produce without having a budget or a team behind me, and also not having the direct access to artworks that museums and other entities have. Please pray for this upcoming venture!
CROSS-CONTINENTAL MUSIC VIDEO: “Song of Hope” by Praveen Francis and friends: This Afro-pop music video is a collaboration between musicians, dancers, and technicians in India, Guatemala, the UK, Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, and the United States. The project was initiated by Praveen Francis, a music producer and sound engineer from Coimbatore in Tamilnadu, India, who wrote the original composition. The languages are English, French, and Lingala, but the hook is a series of nonlexical vocables: “Na na na . . .” [HT: Global Christian Worship]
The video was released April 10, 2021, shortly before the second COVID wave hit India. “This Pandemic has ravaged all our lives,” Francis says. “But we will not give up. We will fight back because there is still HOPE.”
EXHIBITION: Constructed Mysteries: Spirituality and Creative Practice, February 8–April 18, 2021, Olson Gallery, Bethel University: Curated by Kenneth Steinbach and Michelle Westmark Wingard, Constructed Mysteries showcased the art of nine mid-career artists or artist teams whose work engages Christian spirituality: Heather Nameth Bren, Shin-hee Chin, Caroline Kent, Scott Kolbo, Joyce Yu-Jean Lee, Nery Gabriel Lemus, Marianne Lettieri, Cherith Lundin, and Justin Randolph Thompson and Bradly Dever Treadaway. The exhibition has come to a close, but there’s a wonderful twenty-minute video tour of it that’s archived on YouTube, with artist commentaries starting at 2:44:
In addition to the video, there’s an exhibition catalog available for online viewing. It features a series of artist interviews, which address topics such as silence, the importance of process, and the nature of parable. And of course it includes photos of all the works in the exhibition. Let me highlight just two.
The first is by my friend Marianne Lettieri [previously], whose work is informed by her “increased awareness of the enchantment of everyday actions and moments—the sequences of ordinary human existence.
I would hate to think that life is just the important events. You get married, you get an award, have a baby. These are big things, and some are what we call sacraments in the church, but I’ve realized that peeling potatoes, fixing the faucet, and other common tasks make up most of our daily living. The big moments are a part of it, but it’s the string of these small moments that are present and sacred acts we need to pay attention to.
Much of her art illuminates the value of domestic labor, such as Fenêtre de Réparateurs, which sets forty-one used pincushions, still bearing the threads put there by their previous owners, into a wooden framework, evoking a stained glass window. “This work speaks about a culture of menders—people who choose to save, repair, and transform damaged things,” says Lettieri.
Second, Traveling Shoes is a performative sound work by longtime collaborators Justin Randolph Thompson and Bradly Dever Treadaway, from 2013’s Flux Night in Atlanta. It involved a two-seat shoe-shine “chariot” being dragged through the crowds, stopping to gold-leaf the shoes of anyone who was interested. All the while, on the back of the chariot, a three-piece jazz band played the song “Dem Golden Slippers,” which uses clean, shiny shoes as a metaphor for living an unstained life in preparation for Jesus’s return. The original performance, which lasted around three hours and has been re-created in several different contexts since then, is archived in a twelve-minute video, which is what was on display at Bethel. To go alongside, the curators asked the duo to submit a photograph from the performance series; they went the extra mile and used a photo as the basis of a new mixed-media work that incorporates objects used in the performance, such as a mechanic’s rag and an antenna, which is what I’ve posted here.
RELIGIOUS POEMS SAMPLER: “Original and unorthodox poems about theology,” compiled by Mark Jarman: An excellent selection of ten poems, all but one available for reading from the Poetry Foundation. Jarman is a leading poet of the twenty-first century and a Christian. He was too humble to include one of his own poems on the list, but his poetry is much in this vein, so for number 11 I would add Jarman’s “Five Psalms,” from his collection To the Green Man (2004).