I first encountered paño arte, intricate ink or pencil drawings on handkerchiefs created by incarcerated Chicanos, as a boy in south Texas. My older cousin had acquired a letter from Huntsville State Penitentiary. Each inch of the envelope was adorned with an elaborate internet of pictures executed in ballpoint pen. Vegetal motifs sprouted roses and daisies; tangled ivy revealed a menagerie of half-hidden doves, peacocks, and feathered serpents. Contained in the envelope was a larger treasure: a cotton handkerchief emblazoned with a surprising drawing of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
My cousin shared the letter as a result of she knew I favored artwork, however she was conflicted over the destiny of the artsy contraband. The artist was an ex-boyfriend, busted the earlier 12 months for making an attempt to sneak a couple of kilos by way of the Border Patrol checkpoint close to Kingsville, Texas. It was a torrid affair with a vato loco with few prospects, and she or he had determined to dump him previous to the arrest and fast conviction. (Vato, ruca, and pinto are Chicano slang for “man,” “gal,” and “convict,” respectively.) The man had dabbled in tattoo artwork. It appeared jail gave him the time to hone his abilities.
I don’t know what my cousin did with the art work. She didn’t need her mother to search out it, however she felt it flawed to easily chuck it within the rubbish. I believe her ex fantasized about his ruca clutching the handkerchief to her breast, wiping away tears of pleasure and longing. Whereas her passions for him had subsided, that nonetheless stays the meant impact of paño arte. The handkerchief capabilities as a second pores and skin; it’s a proxy for the absent dermis of the pinto, equally adorned. Like pores and skin, the paño is pliable, mushy to the contact, and a car for communication.
Over time, I encountered the uncommon instance of paño arte across the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio by chance. Hid in drawers or buried in linen closets, the paño was by no means on show. In spite of everything, it was not a degree of pleasure to disclose the truth that a baby, relative, or accomplice hung out in jail. The change is supposed to be non-public, the message is personalised, and the vulnerabilities disclosed are the sort a pinto essentially represses within the context of the penitentiary.
In 2018, I reencountered paño arte at Utah State College within the collections of the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Artwork. The handkerchiefs weren’t free. Somewhat, they have been matted, framed, and underneath glass. The recontextualization and re-presentation shifted the cultural work they carried out. Paintings that was by no means meant for public consumption was immediately on show, appropriately divorced from the tactile issue of the unique expertise, I assumed. However, like my cousin, I used to be torn in my evaluation of whether or not or not paño arte belonged in a museum.
My answer got here through the excellence between paño arte and artepaño. The previous is a non-public change to which the museum-goer ought to by no means be privy. The latter is public, a celebration of a singular creative custom born of tragedy. Artepaño legitimizes the hard-won efforts of artists working underneath super duress, and it elevates their output past labels designed to low cost it.
Editor’s Observe: That is a part of the 2023/24 Emily Corridor Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and the primary of three posts by the creator, the third of which can be a web-based exhibition revealed on Hyperallergic and despatched to all e-newsletter subscribers. Register right here for Álvaro Ibarra’s digital occasion moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Monday, February 26, at 6pm (EST).