The Private Life of Paño Arte

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 received a letter from Huntsville State Penitentiary. Every inch of the envelope was decorated with an elaborate web of images executed in ballpoint pen. Vegetal motifs sprouted roses and daisies; tangled ivy revealed a menagerie of half-hidden doves, peacocks, and feathered serpents. Inside the envelope was a greater treasure: a cotton handkerchief emblazoned with a stunning drawing of the Virgin of Guadalupe. 

My cousin shared the letter because she knew I liked art, but she was conflicted over the fate of the artsy contraband. The artist was an ex-boyfriend, busted the previous year for trying to sneak a few kilos through the Border Patrol checkpoint near Kingsville, Texas. It was a torrid affair with a vato loco with few prospects, and she had decided to dump him prior to the arrest and rapid conviction. (Vato, ruca, and pinto are Chicano slang for “guy,” “gal,” and “convict,” respectively.) The guy had dabbled in tattoo art. It seemed prison gave him the time to hone his skills. 

I don’t know what my cousin did with the artwork. She didn’t want her mom to find it, but she felt it wrong to simply chuck it in the garbage. I suspect her ex fantasized about his ruca clutching the handkerchief to her breast, wiping away tears of joy and longing. While her passions for him had subsided, that nevertheless remains the intended effect of paño arte. The handkerchief functions as a second skin; it is a proxy for the absent dermis of the pinto, similarly decorated. Like skin, the paño is pliable, soft to the touch, and a vehicle for communication.

Over the years, I encountered the rare example of paño arte around the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio by accident. Concealed in drawers or buried in linen closets, the paño was never on display. After all, it was not a point of pride to reveal the fact that a child, relative, or partner spent time in jail. The exchange is meant to be private, the message is personalized, and the vulnerabilities disclosed are the kind a pinto necessarily represses in the context of the penitentiary. 

In 2018, I reencountered paño arte at Utah State University in the collections of the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art. The handkerchiefs were not loose. Rather, they were matted, framed, and under glass. The recontextualization and re-presentation shifted the cultural work they performed. Artwork that was never intended for public consumption was suddenly on display, appropriately divorced from the tactile factor of the original experience, I thought. Nevertheless, like my cousin, I was torn in my assessment of whether or not paño arte belonged in a museum.

My solution came via the distinction between paño arte and artepaño. The former is a private exchange to which the museum-goer should never be privy. The latter is public, a celebration of a unique artistic tradition born of tragedy. Artepaño legitimizes the hard-won efforts of artists working under tremendous duress, and it elevates their output beyond labels designed to discount it.

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Unrecorded artist, “Untitled” (date unknown), ink and colored pencil on cotton, 15 x 15 inches

Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and the first of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an online exhibition published on Hyperallergic and sent to all newsletter subscribers. Register here for Álvaro Ibarra’s virtual event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Monday, February 26, at 6pm (EST).

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