Frame; Panos

By Jo Phillips

Would you have expected that an exhibition could form from the scribblings of prisoners? That their makeshift means of communication with the outside in handkerchieves or bedsheets would become a piece of art history?

A new collection explores a long tradition of Mexican prison art. It all began in the in the 40s in the American southwest, when illiterate inmates would use paños to communicate with the rest of the world through illustrations. To this day, paños are still often sent to friends and family instead of letters, while, in certain prisons, the handkerchiefs are a popular form of currency.

Panos transcends violent environments, with inmates themselves using Panos as a means of living, as getting by. In 2005, the film “Pano Arte: Images from Inside” aired at The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, in which an interviewed inmate revealed that some of the more talented artists were protected by the renownedly tough and savage prisoners. Allegedly, the artist would create Pano for their fellow inmate to send to their family members on the outside, in return for coffee and cigarettes.

Most of the artworks are tattoo-like images of skulls, clowns, lowriders, and pin-up girls. Like so many art forms, the type of illustration might tell us about the personality of a prisoner. A religious drawing, for example, tells us something about the artist. Of course, it may be that it tells us nothing at all. With such an unconventional form of art, in which there aren’t many alternatives to a piece of tissue or a torn bedsheet, a lack of context into the artist himself can leave us curious, though this can, in turn, enhance a new absorbing and uncanny element.

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In many cases, the art may have been simply a pastime for the inmates, a form of expression with no recipient or intended meaning, the origins of each piece unclear. What we can gather though- something that there’s nothing contentious about- is that even brutal criminals have the affection to remember to send their mum a card in time for Mother’s day.

If you happen to be in New York this month May 3-31, Duckie Brown are presenting an exhibition of prison drawings, illustrated on handkerchiefs using ballpoint pens by Chicano inmates in Texas prisons during the 1990s.

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