College of Fine Arts, School of Art

Born in Costa Rica, Jacqueline Arias was adopted by American parents and moved to the Panama Canal Zone at age 4. While she only spent three years there before moving to rural Ohio, the experience made a profound impression on the artist, independent filmmaker and educator.

Now a University of Arizona School of Art graduate student, Arias is working with artisan women from Panama — the Guna people — to make traditional mola quilts that incorporate her personal designs and reference borders, military presence and the canal infrastructure.

One of her videos, “Panama Narratives,” which incorporates the mola mythology, was shown last fall at the Arizona Underground Film Festival in downtown Tucson. The short documentary coincides with National Hispanic Heritage Month, which also celebrates Latin America heritage.

Jacqueline Arias

Arias’ video explores her childhood experience, the U.S. intervention in the Canal Zone area and the relationship between its residents and the Panamanian and indigenous Guna people.

“I’m drawn to the Guna matriarchal society, where the molas are worn by women as protection, a tradition drawn from the story of a young woman who finds enlightenment through overcoming obstacles,” Arias said. “Through enlightenment, she shares the gift of protection and knowledge with other women of her tribe.

“In exploring how this mythology speaks to my personal experience — I am returning to my indigenous roots to find healing and knowledge and re-examining my Latinx experience of dislocation.”

The Guna people are autonomous from Panama and have fought to maintain their land, heritage and governance. Arias’ designs deviate from traditional mola subject matter, which is usually apolitical, she said.

“I’m interested in the mola because the materiality represents a material embodiment of indigenous cosmology,” Arias said. “They use reverse applique technique with fine needlework that stitches together multiple layers and colors of fabric. These layers represent a spiritual labyrinth, which can trap evil spirits within their patterns.”

Arias said she’s begun to incorporate her mola panels into printmaking to “talk about invisible labor, constructed borders and U.S. occupation.”

A second-year MFA candidate in the interdisciplinary program, Arias was selected for the Border Lab Graduate Fellowship program by the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, a $10,000 award possible with funding from the Office of the Provost and University of Arizona HSI Initiatives.

She studied photography at Parsons School of Design, experimenting with video art and performance work. Her work addresses the invisible social barriers in society and the feelings of cultural detachment they cause, she said.

Arias is enjoying her classes and hopes to graduate in 2024.

“I’ve learned so much in the short time I’ve been here,” Arias said. “I The instructors are just as nurturing as they are challenging. My goal is to soak up as much knowledge as I can while I’m here.”

• Jacqueline Arias’ website