On January 6, 1974, Mexican painter and muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros died in the city of Cuernavaca, Morelos, ten years after his release from his last imprisonment in the Federal District penitentiary, also known as Lecumberri Prison. During the prison period, Siqueiros' artistic creation never ceased, for it was there where he sought to display his creative freedom. He painted two screens that served as scenery for a staging carried out inside the prison. These screens were separated for a long time until the General Archive of the Nation (AGN) managed to obtain custody of the two pieces that today are part of the cultural heritage inherited by the painter.

David Alfaro Siqueiros created folding screens during his stay at the Lecumberri Penitentiary.
David Alfaro Siqueiros made screens during his stay at the Lecumberri Prison.

The history of these screens by Siqueiros dates back to 1960 when the painter entered the Lecumberri prison for the fourth time. Due to the solidarity, he developed with the railroad movement and its political prisoners, he was accused of social dissolution. This crime, which arose from the reforms to the Penal Code by President Manuel Avila Camacho in 1941, had been used to imprison any person, of foreign or Mexican nationality, who carried out political propaganda, disseminated ideas, or made demonstrations that were considered to affect public order or the sovereignty of the State, from the point of view of the group in government.

Wall screens made by David Alfaro Siqueiros during his stay at the Lecumberri Penitentiary.
David Alfaro Siqueiros created folding screens during his stay at the Lecumberri Penal Institution.

Due to his militancy in leftist political organizations, Siqueiros was imprisoned on several occasions. The accusation for the above-mentioned crime was the basis for his last imprisonment, the longest of his time in Lecumberri, which lasted four years, although, in reality, he was to serve a sentence of eight. During his stay in the penitentiary, the painter did not cease his creative activity and managed to get Carlos Martín del Campo, director of the penitentiary, to allow him to continue painting. This was facilitated by Martín del Campo's policy for the rehabilitation of prisoners, which found in the arts a path of redemption since by then he had promoted the creation of a mural interpreting the history of Mexico in bay "L", which was already finished by the time Siqueiros entered prison. Thus, Siqueiros was able to produce paintings with the easel technique, as well as the two screens used as scenery in the theatrical performance Licenciado, no te apures, written by Roberto Hernández Prado and staged by a theater group from the same penitentiary.

David Alfaro Siqueiros mugshot.
Mugshot of David Alfaro Siqueiros.

These screens were made on wooden supports measuring 4 meters long by 2 and a half meters high, with four sheets each, on both sides, thus allowing them to be changed quickly for each scenographic tableau. Siqueiros used different pictorial techniques in their elaboration and asked for the help of Juan Ramos Ramos, also a prisoner and expert in farm paintings.

Biombos by David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Screens or 'biombos' in Spanish by David Alfaro Siqueiros.

The scenography of the screens begins with the space entitled Sala de defensores: Los celos ¡horrible obsesión del preso! (Defenders' room: Jealousy, the prisoner's horrible obsession), in the background is the painting that depicts Rejas de juzgado: La libertad, su constante esperanza y su más grande amor (Courthouse railings: Freedom, his constant hope and his greatest love), for the third act is represented the Domicilio del Licenciado: Tan ladrón ¡pero tan ladrón!, que hasta las manchas de la pared lo retrataron (Home of the lawyer: So thief, but so thief, that even the stains on the wall portrayed him), and finally El patio central de la prisión: La H, o sea la crujía de la euforia o del dolor, del que se va y del que se queda (The central courtyard of the prison: The H, that is, the crunch of euphoria or pain, of the one who leaves and the one who stays).

David Alfaro Siqueiros painting.
Painting by David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Siqueiros was able to leave the penitentiary in 1964, after accepting the pardon granted to him by the Mexican authorities. After the release the screens left Lecumberri and passed into the hands of two private individuals: the first was donated by Alberto Antebí in 1986, who was Siqueiros' lawyer and would have received the screen as payment; the second was missing for many years and in 2015 appeared at an auction at Casa Norton, which was suspended so that the AGN could acquire the screen for 6,000,000 pesos.

Folding screens painted by David Alfaro Siqueiros during his stay at the Lecumberri Penitentiary.
Folding screens were made by David Alfaro Siqueiros during his stay at the Lecumberri Penitentiary.

With the recovery of the last screen, the AGN collaborated with the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, as part of the anniversary of the birth of David Alfaro Siqueiros, in an exhibition that presented the two screens as an artistic contribution from his stay in Mexico City penitentiary. The screens are currently part of the permanent exhibition entitled Siqueiros. Incarcerar la llamarada (Siqueiros. Incarcerating the Flare), which is on display in Gallery 1 of the AGN and where you can also find graphic and documentary material related to the artist's stay in the penitentiary.