The Private Life of Paño Arte
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I first encountered paño arteAs a child in south Texas, I used to see intricate ink and pencil drawings on handkerchiefs, created by Chicanos in prison. My older cousin received a letter at Huntsville State Penitentiary. The envelope was covered in an elaborate web of images drawn with a ballpoint pen. Vegetal patterns sprouted daisies, roses, and peacocks; tangled vines revealed half-hidden doves and peacocks. Inside the envelope, there was a much greater treasure: A cotton handkerchief with a beautiful drawing of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
My cousin shared the note because she knew that I was an artist, but she had mixed feelings about the fate of this contraband. The artist, an ex-boyfriend of mine, was busted last year for trying sneak a few pounds through the Border Patrol Checkpoint near Kingsville in 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 had dabbled with tattoo art. 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 that her ex fantasized about him 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. 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.
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 author, the 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).
Original content by hyperallergic.com – “The Private Life of Paño Arte”
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