More About Mexican Folk Art Concursos
Papelitos and Wonderful Memories

Mexican folk art concursosójuried contestsócome and go.  But what is the significance of a prize winning piece one year from now, or ten years from now?  It may come down to pieces of paper, papelitos, and the many wonderful memories of artisans and their fans.
In addition to having some knowledge of how the concurso system works, it is beneficial to be able to recognize the official paper work that moves the entire process forward.  As attendees and collectors, it all begins with a paper tag.
As entries are submitted for judging, a numbered tag is physically attached to each entry.  A roster of all numbers along with the corresponding artisan's names are kept separate from the judging process.  This system enables judging to proceed anonymously, and ideally without prejudice.  In some cases, entrants are asked not to sign pieces.  This again is in the interest of a fair, blind judging.
Yes, it's true.  As collectors, we can easily identify the work of known artisans, and so can the judges.  But I believe that in most cases, fair and thoughtful judging takes place considering only the work presented.  Of course, there are exceptions.
Typically, the all important tag is attached with a single strip of masking tape. 

Judging begins and the entries are narrowed down to only the pieces under serious consideration for prizes.  The contending pieces are then set out in sections for the judge's consideration.  Each entry must be inspected, admired, and regarded for their merit.  Once the prize winners are selected, the grand prize winners in each category must be moved, and again displayed for the judge's consideration so that the "best in show" and "special achievement" awards may be selected.  After these top honors have been awarded, the pieces are moved once again, and appropriately displayed for the public to admire. 
During all this moving around, tags may become separated from pieces, especially in the case of textiles.  When shopping at a concurso, it is imperative that you take special pains not to separate the piece from its tag.  If you are interested in purchasing a piece that is not tagged, get one of the concurso officials to assist while being extra cautious about how they determine the piece's price.  Each tag typically lists the price the artisan is asking, but again, if the piece is not tagged, use extra caution and apply common sense.  Once the doors are open, it is a very hectic environment, and you could receive incorrect pricing information.  Also, it is not permissible for anyone other than a concurso official to remove a tag, even though you may see this being done.  Grab an official, take them to each piece in which you have an interest, and let them remove the tag and record each tag properly creating your invoice.  This is the only way to ensure that you are being told the correct price for each piece, and in turn, for the artisan to receive the correct compensation.  And should several buyers want the same piece, the buyer who took the time to utilize the concurso official to remove the tag will win.  Usually.
As the new owner of this piece, you will also own the tag showing that your piece was indeed a concurso entry.  But all you have is a number and no name, and unfortunately your piece is unsigned.  It seems logical that you could go to a concurso official, match the number to the roster and get the artisan's name.  At the large concursos, this simply is not possible.  Given that all the pieces were only submitted 24 hours prior, there may be several hand-written rosters that have yet to be compiled (or may never be compiled).  It's a mad dash to conclude the judging and then correctly identify the prize winners.  Compilation of a comprehensive list of entrants is not the priority.
But there is hope.  Take your piece to the tianguis and ask who made it.  You will definitely learn the answer, if not meet the responsible artisan in person.  And you can at last ask them to sign your piece and snap a photo of you, the piece, and the proud artisan together.
In the case of purchasing a concurso prize winner, things are a little easier.  Once the prize winners have been determined, word begins to spread throughout the tianguis.  Officials do everything possible to invite top winners to be present as the concurso opens so they can share in the excitement and receive deserved congratulations.  Although their presence has been requested, artisans do not know in advance if they have garnered a grand prize of just a mention.  They will learn the winners at the same moment as the attending public.  Grand, first, second, third prizes and honorable mention pieces will have  ribbons attached, fashioned from pieces of paper and colored ribbon.  If you buy the piece, the ribbon is yours.  You would assume that artisans would collect their ribbons but this is not the case.  Again, check if your piece is signed and if not, ask the artisan to do so because they are most likely nearby.
For the artisans, it is never about the ribbons.  It is all about the diploma.  Later this same day, an awards ceremony takes place where each artisan proudly walks across a stage and receives the all-important official document that will be added to their "wall of fame".  Despite the seeming chaos of most artisan tallers, the diploma will be framed under glass and hanging within hours of arriving home.
Now, let's fast forward to one year from now.  You are at the Casa de Artesania and discover a piece of folk art that you wish to learn more about.  The Casa de Artesania always purchases pieces for resale from any given concurso prior to the doors opening to the public, along with many additional pieces from the tianguis.  First you want to learn the village in which the piece was made, but no one has the answer.  Upon discovering that the piece is unsigned, you are frustrated when no one can tell you the name of the artisan.
In all fairness, it all comes down to those little pieces of paper now numbering in the thousands.  Precariously attached with masking tape, the papelitos have most likely detached.  And once the prizes have been awarded, attaching names to pieces becomes much less important, except to us as collectors.
On the artisan's side of the equation, all those diplomas are impressive, but seem quite sterile given the hours upon hours of man power they represent, and the prize-winning folk art created in order to gain each piece of paper.  And since there are no photos accompanying each diploma, how does one recall what won in 1986, and in 1993, or in 2002?  But remember they do.  Just point to a diploma and ask, "What did you make to win?", and the answer will eventually come.
It is now ten years later.  The list of concurso winners are in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet.  The artisan's dimploma hangs among all the rest of the decade's premios (prizes).  And you have a wonderful folk art piece with a little piece of paper or a ribbon taped to the back side.  Ten years later, all that's left of the concurso are little pieces of paper and your memories.  But how wonderful those memories are. 
I wish in no way to diminish the importance of concursos or to take away from the value of a concurso-winning piece.  But the event is fleeting, and as soon as prizes are awarded, both for the artisans and the Casas de Artesanias, it's on to the next event.  Years later, it is only you, the collector, who will recall that this is a concurso winning piece.  And you can fondly recall the exhilarating experience of being there.
Article by Deb Hall, Mexico.
March 11, 2008
All photos by Deb Hall, Mexico.
This article written expressly for ZOCALO Folk Art, San Miguel de Allende & PŠtzcuaro, 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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