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I first encountered paño arteAs a young boy growing up in south Texas, I remember intricate ink or pen drawings on handkerchiefs made by Chicanos incarcerated. My older cousin had received an official letter from Huntsville State Penitentiary. The envelope was decorated in ballpoint with an intricate web of images. Vegetal patterns sprouted roses and daisies, while tangled ivy revealed half hidden doves and peacocks. The cotton handkerchief inside the envelope featured a beautiful drawing of the Virgin of Guadalupe. 

My cousin sent me the letter, knowing that I like art. However, she was conflicted about what would happen to the contraband. The artist was a former boyfriend who had been caught the previous year trying to sneak a few kilograms through the Border Patrol checkpoint in Kingsville, Texas. It was a tumultuous affair with a vato loco She decided to dump her husband before his arrest and conviction. (Vato, ruca,Pinto are Chicano slang for “guy,” “gal,”You can also find out more about the following: “convict,” respectively.) The guy was a tattoo artist. It appeared that his time in prison allowed him to improve his tattooing 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 former lover fantasized about his ruca She wiped away the tears of joy and desire by holding her handkerchief against her breast. While her passions for him had subsided, that nevertheless remains the intended effect of paño arte. The handkerchief is like a second skin. It represents the absence of dermis in the body. pinto, Similar decorated. The skin is a similar structure. 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.

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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Original content by – “The Private Life of Paño Arte”

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