From traditional Indian molas to modern frescos to the varied architectural styles of the capital´s towering skyscrapers, Panama is itself a work of art. Indigenous cultures have a stronghold in society, as do the predominantly Caribbean and Spanish roots in Panama´s language and customs. Today´s Afro-Panamanians and Chinese-Panamanians are a reflection of the republic´s history, as are the ever-growing number of foreign populations that call Panama their home today.
For a tourist, ¨art¨ often becomes synonymous with souvenirs: what can I buy to bring home with me from Panama? While everything from coffee, rum to handmade jewelry are popular gifts from Panama, two of the more iconic pieces of art coming from Panama are the Panama hat and the Kuna´s unique mola.
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 and range from 100 weaves per square inch to up to 2000. While the Panama hat became popular in the 19th century as an accessory to beach-inspired vacation attire, older men in Panama´s interior still wear their hats with a strong sense of cultural pride. Regional pride is also evident in the specific design that each area weaves into their hats, and is a beautiful, customized emblem of Panamanian culture.
The mola is an increasingly popular fashion icon, tool for solidarity and commonplace item in homes of many Panamanian families. Traditionally a part of the costume of Kuna Indian women, one of Panama´s indigenous groups, these intricately woven, layered pieces of cloth handmade by Kuna women are no longer just a traditional style of dress. Now handbags, wallets, wall-hangings and more, molas are not just an expression of indigenous folklore, but a connection with nature and a movement of social-awareness in Panama.
Another traditional art born from the Kuna culture are the handmade, beaded necklaces, and leg and arm bands that Kuna women wear their whole lives. A single strand of beads wrapped around their calves and forearms, this distinct accessory creates a sleeve said to ward off evil spirits.
The palm fiber masks of the Embera indigenous tribe have also been seen in Panama´s marketplace for cultural exchange. These masks are intricately woven and use all natural materials to represent animals like the tapir, jaguar and more.
The pollera, the national costume of Panama, is undoubtedly a beautiful art form highly prized in Panamanian culture. Brought over during Spanish rule in the 16-17th centuries, this outfit, a two-tiered skirt and peasant style blouse, is said to have originated from the style of clothing worn by servants to combat the high, tropical temperatures. The polleras are often made of fine fabrics, 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. There is also a parade featuring the national dress on the Azuero peninsula in November, where the dresses are typically handmade, called the 1,000 Polleras Parade (Desfile de las Mil Polleras). Typical jewelery and head pieces for the polleras costume, especially tembleques made of intricately colored and adorned fish scales, are also a national symbol of cultural tradition.
Today, much of Panamanian traditional art, including pre-Colombian art, has been preserved and replicated, allowing the country´s traditions to live on. There is also an emerging art scene in Panama City that offers everything from modern art paintings to wood carvings to interior design. Panama City offers excellent shopping with many international clothing chains that allow Panamanians to be more 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 jazz to Latin pop.