'People of the book' reflect gospel in art

"The people of the book" - a reference to the Book of Mormon - is what many Cuna Indians consider themselves, according to Marjorie Conder, curator of a new exhibit of a unique Cuna art form at the Museum of Church History and Art.

Cuna identification with the gospel is reflected in the exhibit, "Relief Society Molas - Cuna Indian Textiles from the San Blas Islands, Panama." The bright-colored fabric molas have been on display since April 14 and will be exhibited through mid-1990. An opening reception was held April 28.The gospel has been preached among the Cuna people only since the 1950s, but it was readily accepted. Many of the people, including some of the sylahs, or village chiefs, were fascinated with the Book of Mormon.

In the book, they found striking similarities to their own oral history and legends, Sister Conder noted. Such parallels among the Cuna include accounts of a visit - following eight days and nights of darkness - from a long-awaited father who taught them the true way of life, and the burying of their records in a hill to protect them from people who were trying to destroy them.

As people among the Cuna have embraced the gospel they have blended it with praiseworthy aspects of their own culture, as exemplified by the molas in the museum exhibit.

"Mola" literally means "clothing," but the word has come to mean a multilayered rectangle of fabric worked in applique and reverse applique, Sister Conder said. Molas traditionally have been used as the fronts or backs of women's blouses.

The molas consist of two to four layers of cotton fabric, commonly red and black. With the applique technique, a swatch of fabric is sewn onto the piece. Reverse applique involves cutting fabric away to reveal fabric beneath.

Thus, the Cuna create designs and, more commonly, pictures. In the museum exhibit, some of the molas depict gospel themes, such as the First Vision and the restoration of the priesthood.

In an interesting amalgamation of cultures, one mola in the exhibit is copied from a photo in the 1982 Relief Society Courses of Study of a paper cutout from Poland. The cutout, a Polish design titled "Wycinanki," was pictured in the manual as part of a cultural refinement lesson.

Sister Conder remarked: "Some of the most provocative questions that we hope to have visitors think about is, What does it mean to be a Latter-day Saint?'What is essential to do or believe?' What must be abandoned from a familiar culture?'What can be retained?' What cultural trappings ultimately make no difference to the progress of the gospel?'How can peoples from various cultures mutually enrich one another?' "

The same questions apply whether one lives near to or far away from the headquarters of the Church, she noted. "However, it may be easier to start thinking about these issues in the context of an unfamiliar culture as we sort out what is and is not ultimately compatible with the gospel."

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