This is a tantalizing book, for it introduces so many phases of the Cuna arts and leaves so many questions unanswered. The Cuna live on the San Blas Islands off the Caribbean shore of Panama, where their insular position has slightly slowed the process of acculturation. The author, a geneticist, has made many trips to these people and compares some of the customs which have changed between 1950 and 1967. The acculturation tempo has brought the customary intensification of Christianity, which has strongly affected the arts.
The Cuna had a full religious background in their arts and many uses for it in all the associated practices. Their religion centered in the Earth Mother, who with the Sun God produced all the plants, animals, and humans on earth and the “Tree of Life” that never ends. Events in this myth are told allegorically in pictures and chants. The pictures are a graphic art, but there is never any statement concerning the media. One can surmise from a fairly modern photograph that they are drawn on paper with a pencil and perhaps with the crayons in a box on the table. Before these materials were available, were these pictographs on stone?
The author speaks of record books giving the medicine men cues for their chants. To the anthropologist this is very important because this approach to writing is a trait more often found in the south-eastern part of the United States than elsewhere. It may be a derivative of the Mexican codices. The practice of the medicine men, both preventive and curing (as well as the exorcising of devils and witches), gives opportunities for wood carving and body painting. Burial also calls for spirit boats, ladders, bridges, hammocks, and other figures, together with a sepulcher carved of clay in the ground of the cemetery.
The principal item in the secular art is the making of the mola blouse worn by the women (although other pieces of clothing and ornament of this appliqué are worn by everyone). This is well described with many illustrations. It has been produced in recent years as a tourist item and this, as always, affects its quality. The blouse is an oblong piece of appliqué. Some designs are geometric and derived from an early time when the blouses were made of native grown cotton, home spun and woven, and painted with the patterns. For many years now the material has been commercial cotton cloth in black, red, and orange. The designs are composed of native scenes and objects, natural forms like “two insects in a flower garden” (p. 79) or copies from modern magazines, as “Table set with Gorham silver” from the Ladies Some Journal (p. 78).
Another interesting chapter deals with children’s art and shows the changes which have taken place in the years that Keeler has been a visitor. The subject matter of this slender book could well be expanded to twice its size, for every chapter arouses desire for more specific information. It would also bring about greater understanding of the position of art in this culture, if a few comparative relationships of these art forms to others in the general culture area could be discussed.