From the traditional indigenous molas to modern frescoes to the varied architectural styles of the capital city’s towering skyscrapers, Panama is itself a work of art. Generations past have each left their mark, fusing styles from different beliefs and traditions. Simple colorful homes and quaint plazas in Panama’s interior stand as an imprint of the past, all with an impressive and natural backdrop. Panama’s capital is a canvas with building restorations, sculptures and even street art to promote urban culture and cover up grey cement. Former U.S. school buses are given a complete makeover before hitting the streets, a moving art piece with favorite idols, icons and even family members depicted in bright colors and imaginative style (note: these buses that oncer served as a form of public transportation have now been replaced by the Metrobus). The various examples of indigenous arts and crafts in Panama continue to be a symbol of national art and pride, furthering the use of color and the natural surroundings as an inspiration to their designs. The pollera, Panama’s traditional dress for women, is a stunning form of artistic expression, highly celebrated and honored in Panamanian culture.
For a tourist, art often becomes synonymous with souvenirs as in ‘what art can I purchase?’. Two of the more iconic pieces of art or fashion coming from Panama are the Panama hat and the mola.
A mola is a colorful and intricately-woven textile of layered fabrics, generally sewn to represent a local animal species or geographic design. The word mola means ’shirt’ in the Guna language and the designs were originally painted on female bodies. Later they were woven into cotton textiles, until pre-made fabric became available thanks to Spanish colonists, giving them their current design.
The Panama hat is a tradition born in the heart of the country, in the Los Santos and Veraguas provinces. One hat may take an entire year to complete as they are woven from millimeter-thick pieces of straw. While the Panama hat was made popular in the 19th century as an accessory to beachy, vacation attire, in the interior of Panama, the older men wear their hats with a strong sense of regional pride. Towns that produce such hats make their individual mark by weaving a specific design into the hat. Such hats can range in quality from 100 weaves per square inch to up to 2,000!
Another traditional art born from the Guna culture are beaded necklaces and jewelry. The most distinct Guna accessory is a single strand of beads that the Guna women wrap around their calves and forearms many times creating a sleeve. These are said to ward off evil spirits.
The Embera indigenous tribe has also made a small industry of one of their cultural traditions – palm fiber masks. The masks are intricately woven and use all natural materials to represent animals like the tapir, jaguar, etc.
Returning to the central region of Panama, the pollera, a beautiful national costume of Panama, actually has its roots in Spain thanks to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The outfit, which consists of a two tiered skirt and peasant style blouse, is said to have originated from the style of clothing worn by servants, which was much lighter and comfortable for the hot climate. The polleras are often made of fine fabrics like silk, and the adornments and jewelry worn with the outfit became a sign of one’s wealth. Today, the art of the pollera lives on, and the traditional dress can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. A Pollera festival is put on every year in Panama City to commemorate the traditional dress and culture of all regions of the country.
Today, much of the traditional art of Panama, including pre-Columbian art, has been preserved and replicated, allowing the country’s traditions to live on. There is also an emerging art scene in Panama City offering anything from modern art paintings to wood carvings and interior design. The city inhabitants are very much a la mode when it comes to clothing and style in comparison to some of their Central American neighbors. The musical art scene is another thriving sector with several internationally renowned artists varying from reggaeton to latin pop.