Paños: don't cry for me, dear Chicano

The decorated handkerchiefs made by Mexican gang members in American state prisons are much more than mere curiosities. Curator Jimmy Pantera is bringing this intriguing tradition to Recyclart by exhibiting the collection belonging to French artist Reno Leplat-Torti.

The tradition goes back to the first half of the last century, when predominantly illiterate convicts being held in state prisons in Texas, California, and New Mexico used handkerchiefs (pañuelos) to communicate with the outside world. Pantera saw the exhibition that Reno Leplat-Torti is touring around the world in Liège last year, and is now bringing it to Brussels. To get into the right mood, he has programmed a Mexican band and a striptease for the exhibition opening. 
“The first handkerchief I ever got my hands on – a hip hop Mickey Mouse with a baseball cap and baggy pants – was really weird, but it peaked my interest,” says Reno Leplat-Torti, who now owns a collection of about 300 handkerchiefs. “It was made in a state prison in California. It was only when the convict’s family contacted me and suggested that I buy more that I discovered there was a whole underlying tradition that is not only limited to the USA.”
Leplat-Torti soon realised that the handkerchiefs treat a variety of themes, depending on the intended recipient. “The ones with Mickey Mouse and teddy bears are made for children, while the Jesus figures are for family members and the black & white images with skulls, clowns, and pin-ups are for fellow gang members. The latter are strongly influenced by macho Chicano culture and are the most popular.”
“It is a way of expressing their identity. They are especially proud of them when they are rejected by the country where they live,” says Leplat-Torti, who is himself a silk screen artist and comic book illustrator. “That is also evident from their tattoos and graffiti art.” The handkerchiefs are very difficult to collect, however. The artist-collector stays in touch with the (ex-)convicts or with their families via letters and email. “But you have to win their trust, only then will they think about that crazy French artist when they’re released because they want to forget their past in prison, and perhaps also want to make a little money.”

They also immediately stop drawing these handkerchiefs when they are released, even if they are talented artists, because it is a strictly prison-related activity. It is, moreover, highly democratic. You only need a handkerchief and a biro, which you can buy in the prison commissary. “When ‘inside’, this is a talent – a necessity even – because people want to stay in touch with the outside world, and also because in a prison economy, handkerchiefs can be traded for cigarettes or food. Once they are ‘outside’, they no longer see the point.”
Leplat-Torti is currently making a documentary about the phenomenon. His favourite handkerchief was made in 1934. “It is signed Cannon-Ball, and features prison bars and a poem written in ink.” It is unlikely that these drawings also contain secret messages for the outside world, but the prison system is increasingly on its guard about that. “Sending handkerchiefs to people has been banned in a few places because they are afraid that convicts use them to communicate with other gang members.” This, of course, will only increase interest in Leplat-Torti’s collection.

A tradition that until a century ago did not go much further than the prison walls or convicts’ family members has now started a world tour. “A collection owned by a fellow collector from New York was exhibited in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. Demand for my collection has been increasing constantly since it was added to the catalogue of the international comic strip publishing company Le Dernier Cri. “ It is soon moving to Serbia, and next year we have an exhibit booked in the Philippines. “The fact that criminals pour out their hearts on their handkerchiefs has universal appeal.” 

28/5 > 19/6, Recyclart,

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