Mexican Folk Art
Shedding Light on a Hidden Process
Mexican folk art shows—generate
a great deal of attention, excitement, and yes, even controversy.
But what happens once the entries have been submitted and the judging
begins? Let's take a closer look at the hidden world of folk art concursos.
|It makes perfect sense that Mexico's
two oldest concursos are located in folk art rich Michoacán. The
Concurso de Artesanía
de Domingo de Ramos in Uruapan is in its 48th year, and the Concurso
Nacional de Cobre Martillado is in its 43rd year. But the majority
of concursos are tiny in comparison, and are held at the village level
throughout the year.
|The small concursos can be rewarding,
but also trying. Often times, the dates are not announced until a
week in advance, with everyone understanding the general dates enabling
them to finish their prize-winning piece, más o menos. There have
been times when we arrived on the appointed day only to learn that the
Casa de Artesania has changed the judging to the following day, or
worse, to the previous day and we missed it. Also, it is not
uncommon to wait hours past the announced concurso time for the winners
to be revealed, with no one gaining entrance until the judges duties are
complete. So attend, but attend with an ample supply of
flexibility and good humor.
|Another frustrating occurrence is the
entry of pieces not made by the name on the entry. What, you say?
Each entry is assigned a numbered tag which corresponds to a roster, the
concept being that entries are judged anonymously. Usually, each artisan is allowed one or two entries per concurso.
The prizes awarded not only involve a ribbon and certificate, but a
small amount of cash. Therein lies the temptation. Let's say
you are a prolific and talented artisan, and you have four pieces that
are worthy of the contest. Why not enter additional pieces under
the names of your children, even though one is only three years old?
When the prizes are given, you can imagine the confusion and snickering
when a proud Papa announces that that artisan is not present, coming
forward to claim his prize.
|We have discussed how to remedy this
deception with the artisans, judges, and with the Casa de Artesanía.
One frequent judge had the excellent idea of requiring a digital photo
be taken of the artisan as entries are received, and later verified
(with the help of village officials) as prizes are given, but this has
not come to pass.
|In the case of Michoacán, some
artisans consider winning a prize more of a burden than an honor, and
have quit entering concursos all together. Here is the reason why.
After winners are announced, winning certificates are next taken to the
official awards table where reams of paperwork are filled out. The
artisan is then given a voucher that is only redeemable between specific
hours on specific days, at, the Casa de Artesanía...in Morelia.
You can imagine that the (week day) bus ride to and from the state
capital is simply too much for many. And, as the artisans say
shaking their heads, "It's the principle".
|Now let's proceed from the village
level to the larger, better known concursos. Often times we catch
the judges mid-process to hear, "It's disappointing. This is not a
good year". Many factors enter into who actually enters a concurso,
and yes, there are mediocre years and then outstanding years, when the
creativity and quality seem to shine. Let's delve into the
|Consider the creation of a concurso
piece as an investment in both time and money. For each artisan,
it represents months spent on a piece that may or may not immediately sell,
and that must be created in addition to fulfilling regular paid orders
that will support his or her family throughout the year. As an artisan,
if you have ample orders and your work is in great demand, you simply do
not have the time. This is why some of the best-known artisans do
not enter concursos. Or it may be that financially, one simply
cannot set aside the time and materials needed to create a prize-winning
piece. Here's my prediction. In this year of economic
distress due to lack of tourism in central Mexico, I predict that the
upcoming concursos will be weak.
|And then, as always, there are
politics. The judges often lament while walking through the
tianguis, "Look at this fabulous work! Why didn't this person
enter the concurso?". Some, having seen the same artisans win year
after year, simply feel that they have no chance. And by creating
something new and exciting, other artisans may have faced ridicule at the
village level, never pursuing other concursos beyond. In the case
of the Premio Nacional de la Cerámica in Tlaquepaque, the entry forms
are given to state Casas de Artesanías, and they in turn inform a select
group of artisans of their choosing about this prestigious show.
In this case, Rick and I have personally intervened, providing
applications to deserving artisans who have never previously been
invited. And these artisans attended. And won.
|Now that you know some of the back
story, let's enter the closed sala where judging for a major concurso is
taking place. It's a pressure cooker in there, and no place for
the weak or ill-informed.
|The team of ten to twelve judges have
assembled, all recognized experts in various areas of Mexican folk art.
A monstrous task lies ahead. The entries have all been submitted
early that morning, and judging must be completed by tonight, though it
may be completed only minutes before midnight.
|First, the judges agree on a division
of duties. Again, entries are judges anonymously, tagged with
assigned numbers rather than the actual names of the artisans. In some years, judges work in teams, assigned to
categories according to their expertise. Other years, judges are
assigned categories completely outside their discipline, understanding
that each has a thorough knowledge in folk art, and might bring a fresh
eye to the process. In large concursos, more than twenty
categories may exist, ranging from copper, masks, guitars, natural fiber
indigenous rain coat weaving, carved wooden furniture, glazed clay,
brunido clay, lead-free clay, miniatures, and many divisions of
textiles. By late afternoon, the entries have been culled, and
those not included in final judging are picked up by disappointed
artisans eager to sell "concurso worthy" entries in the tianguis.
|Now the serious judging begins, and
proceeds not unlike a sanctioned dog show. For each category,
potential winners are set aside then carefully regarded once again.
Each judge argues the merits of a favorite piece, and eventually a grand
prize is selected for each category. First, second, and third
prizes plus special mentions are also chosen. Now, it's time to
pick "the best in show", so to speak. The various category winners
are once again reviewed. The entire judges panel argues and votes,
sometimes for hours, until the top winners are at last selected.
Exhausted, the judges wander back to their hotels, their findings a
secret until the concurso doors open the following day.
|In the world of concursos, there are
folk art trends and there are judging trends, which in turn, fuel folk
art trends. The nineties were an interesting period when bigger
was deemed better, and anything that could be made into a tower was.
Ceramic pineapples and monoliths of ollas reached near mythic
proportions, and the ornamental decoration could only be described as
wedding cake baroque. Beginning in 2000, judges began awarding top
honors to works emphasizing traditional designs and methods, and
thankfully, that trend continues today.
|We have been patiently waiting outside
locked doors, and at last enter the concurso anxious to procure top
prize winners. But the most-interesting work is marked as...sold?
It is something to which we have grown accustomed over the past 18
years. First, the governor, if not the president himself, have
selected their favorites. Next, top corporate concerns such as
American Express and Banamex have purchased during VIP previews.
Next, the Casa de Artesanía has made sweeping selections all bound for
their various retails stores for resale. And finally, the special
friends of the Casa de Artesanía have all been through before the doors
opened to the public. When everyone is at last admitted, there is
disappointment and confusion ("Oh no. No one is permitted inside
before we officially open the concurso", being the official line) as the
most beautiful objects are moving out the doors towards waiting trucks
and vans, just as the public is entering.
|The pre-sale situation has been
candidly discussed with all parties, because, does this not dissuade
people from traveling miles to attend folk art concursos? Despite
having the opportunity to only shop from what is left behind, this is
not the case. Every year, more and more people attend and the
buying is like a frenzy. Upon realizing that there is less
available, shoppers whiz from spot to spot grabbing anything that
catches their eye. The system for purchasing is unclear, and
pieces are sometimes sold twice leaving shoppers to argue over who was
first. In all the excitement, pieces are broken, and others walk
out the door without payment. But there is wonderful treasure to
|Along side the shopping hysteria, artisans
are congratulating each other, or accosting the judges as to why their
entry did not win. The judges have expressed an interest in
holding a panel following judging with the artisans, discussing the
factors upon which their decisions were based. The judges
understand that no critical review of folk art exists outside of the concurso system, but to our knowledge, this post-concurso review has not
taken place. And perhaps that is for the best. Once top
honors are awarded, many clones of the previous year's winners magically
appear the following year in hopes of also winning. What would happen if the judges
actually expressed what they are looking for during the selection
|My observations about concursos apply
to most, but not all concursos. And my experiences are in the
states of Mexico, Jalisco and Michoacán and do not apply to other states
in Mexico. That said, this is an accurate accounting of what I
have seen, heard, and been told—from
reliable sources including artisans, judges, and the Casas de Artesanías—through
|Flawed or fabulous, I love concursos.
I always come away having learned something new about the current state
of Mexican folk art.
attending your next concurso, keep the following in mind:
● Go with patience. Concursos rarely happen at the appointed
● Seek out the artisan who actually made your piece.
Sometimes, the designated artisan listed on the numbered tag and on the
corresponding official roster is not the
name of the artisan who actually created the piece. After judging,
no one cares, and the true artisan will proudly come forward if you ask.
● Realize that the the most successful and famous artisans, often
times, are not entered in the concurso.
● Also consider that due to economic hardship, the most talented
artisans may not be entered in the concurso.
● Also know that the judges feel that the truly groundbreaking
work first appears in the tianguis, not the concurso.
● As talented as the judges are, their choice may not be your
choice for first place. Purchasing a piece of folk art based
solely upon the fact that it is a prize winner at a concurso is a
mistake. Let your soul guide you to the piece of folk art truly
meant for you.
● Upon entering the concurso hall, take a deep breath and try not
to get caught up in the frenzy. There is so much good folk art,
both in and outside of the concurso.
● When purchasing, take an official by the arm (typically they
have a lanyard with ID around their neck, and are carrying a clip
board), and physically guide them to each of your purchases making
certain they take the proper tag off of the proper piece. Stay
with them until all purchases have been made, then retrieve your
purchases immediately. Do not leave without everything in your
I'll close with this advice. When possible, seek out the artisan
and tell them how much you love their piece. Typically, the
concurso opens, the buying proceeds at lightening pace, pieces are
retrieved, and the artisan is left blinking, wondering what just
happened. It is truly wonderful to face the maker and tell them
that you appreciate their talent, and that this special piece is going
home with you. Nothing can replace this moment, for you or for the
After all. Isn't that why we came to the concurso? Happy
|Article by Deb Hall, Mexico.
February 27, 2008
All photos by Deb Hall, Mexico.
This article written expressly for ZOCALO Folk Art, San Miguel de
Allende & Pátzcuaro, Mexico.
All rights reserved, and no portion of this article may be reproduced
without the written permission of Deb Hall, Mexico.
|To reach Deb Hall, or to contact
ZOCALO FOLK ART- go to
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|ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, 2008.