Competing with the riotous hues of the houses in Cartagena are the handicrafts and souvenirs for sale. Hundreds of shops as well as hundreds of sidewalk vendors display their wares each day, and the rainbow of colours will follow you around wherever you go. It’s like walking through a city where every surface is encrusted with skittles.
The most prominent handicrafts available in the city are the crocheted mochillas and woven goods of the Wayuu people, an indigenous group half-a-million strong that represents over 50% of the entire Amerindian population. They inhabit the arid coastal desert of the Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia (and they spread across the artificial borders into Venezuela, too).
By Tanenhaus (Flickr: IMG_0652.JPG) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
These proud people were never subjugated by the Spanish, retain most of their traditions, have a reputation for being smugglers, and keep themselves to themselves. Henri Charriére, the French criminal who wrote the book Papillon, about his escape from a penal colony in French Guiana, lived perfectly protected among them for several months. When he felt he had to move on, he was quickly recaptured.
Wayuu mochillas are crocheted from cotton or woolen yarns. The colours are almost always bright and contrasty—sometimes almost fluorescent—or they can be a mix of earth tones called “cafés”. The women crochet the bodies of the bags, the men weave the bag straps. They also weave hammocks.
The other big craft sensation in the city are molas, these are reverse-appliqué panels made by the Cuna women. The Cuna (a.k.a. Guna or Kuna) are an indigenous people of Colombia and Panama. Families are traditionally matrilineal, with husbands moving in to live with his wife’s family and taking her mother’s last name. The family is ruled by the oldest woman in the house.
By Imakjak [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Molas form part of a Cuna woman’s traditional outfit. They are decorative panels of reverse-appliquéd fabrics forming geometric patterns, stylised animals and fish, flowers, mythical beasts, representations of the nose rings they wear, and such. The best ones are many layered, each layer cut away and hemmed to reveal the fabric beneath it. You can avoid buying molas made for tourists by checking to see whether the piece has been previously stitched (there are usually stray threads along the edges) because the most authentic molas are those that the women wore as part of their outfits for a while, and then were taken apart and sold to mola collectors when they’d tired of the design.
Thanks to Liz, a Colombian artist friend I met in a shop in the city, we were taken to a main source of authentic molas. Many of them are faded, some are damaged, stained, or need washing; all of them are gorgeous and have been used to decorate the midriff of a Cuna woman’s blouse.
It was hard to choose just a few…we bought about 50, Kris and I, and intend to use some of them as covers for our handmade books, others we chose as presents for specific friends.