Mexican Folk Art Concursos
Shedding Light on a Hidden Process

Concursosjuried Mexican folk art showsgenerate 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 Artesaní 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 contributing factors.
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 be found.
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 process?
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 toldfrom reliable sources including artisans, judges, and the Casas de Artesaníasthrough the years.
Flawed or fabulous, I love concursos.  I always come away having learned something new about the current state of Mexican folk art.

When attending your next concurso, keep the following in mind:

●  Go with patience.  Concursos rarely happen at the appointed hour.
●  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 possession.

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 artisan. 

After all.  Isn't that why we came to the concurso?  Happy buying!
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.
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