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Young Folk Artists at MEAPO: A Personal View of FOFA's 2013 Contest

by FOFA Member Doris Friedensohn

In Brooklyn NY, Details to Follow

San Bartolo Coyotepec, Mexico, Monday, 5 August 2013.


Bedazzled! That's what I felt as our FOFA contingent along with nine judges entered the spacious second floor gallery of MEAPO (Museo Estatal de Arte Popular "Oaxaca") to view the work of young folk artists. What a vibrant, over-the-top pastiche of color and form: spiky animal carvings brilliantly painted, tapestries in lush vibrant tones, unlikely constructions of dried red and yellow flowers, ceramic earth mothers (sitting, squatting and standing), spouting milk or water, embraced by lizards and snakes, adorned by birds, cradling their children.


Tucked among these aggressive scene stealers were quiet gems: exquisitely designed necklaces and earrings, narratives of everyday life woven into a slender purse, and a dignified skeletal figure paired with an equally dignified, minimalist tree. Ambition and talent, it was quickly apparent, would not be measured simply by scale or visual hoopla.


One hundred and nineteen submissions by artists age 30 and under from the Oaxaca Valley filled the space. The staff of MEAPO had done an admirable job: hanging carpets and other woven pieces on the barn-red walls, positioning objects on freshly painted pastel sculpture stands, and resting a few oversized pieces on the black tiled floor.


The judges - - four Mexicans, two Mexican-Americans, a Canadian, a Brit, and an American - - picked up their clipboards and put on their neutral faces. We had all met for a briefing the evening before at Casa Panchita, FOFA's headquarters in Oaxaca. The procedures, Arden Rothstein explained, were straightforward. Awards would be made (one winner and several honorable mentions) in five categories: ceramics, weaving, wood carving, painting on carved wood, and other modalities. In addition, a special prize would be given for the best work (in any of the categories) by an artist no older than sixteen. Works were to be judged on 1) technical mastery; 2) innovation within the context of folk art traditions; 3) artistic expression in interpreting the theme of the competition, "Celebrating Mother Earth."


FOFA Judges 2013

While I've visited Oaxaca and the surrounding pueblos a half a dozen times over the years, I'm not an academic specialist or a serious folk art collector. But the work does sing to me - - especially the wit, high color, strong design, and feminist edginess. At this FOFA competition, I was curious to see what would grab my attention and/or unsettle my expectations.


Moving around the gallery, I stumbled on the first of many irresistible Earth Mothers, "La Madre Tierra en su Esplendor." This woman with an electric (and off-putting) lime green face is the work of two artists, an 18-year-old sculptor and a 25-year-old painter from San Antonio Arrazola. (The artists' names were not revealed until after the judging.) Grabbing one of my FOFA friends, I announced that I loved the unlovable lime green face. I resonated to the goddess' huge, impeccably rounded pregnant earth-belly and perfectly round breasts echoing her belly. More than that, I was charmed by the contrast between these three globes and the phallic ear of corn, resembling a baby's bottle, which she holds in one hand. The corn, pointing outward, ends in a bright red spot which I know to be a nipple. This Earth Mother, with elaborately tattooed arms and legs, is not only abundantly female but slyly male. She "embodies" an ancient idea that is curiously and powerfully of our time, too. Who are these savvy artists, I wondered? Young feminists announcing their powers? Or, perhaps, internet-inspired post-feminists, borrowing ideas from sci-fi, horror films and video games? (Imagine my shock - - and the need to rethink some culturally specific assumptions - - when they turned out to be two brothers.)

Mother Earth Figure

From the mysteries of the woman with the lime green face, I gravitated toward sweet simplicity: a small ceramic piece entitled "Cuidemos a Nuestra Madre Tierra"/ Caring for our Mother Earth. Were I a New York Times critic covering this exhibit, I would want the newspaper to reproduce this image of a globe-shaped object, with faint facial features, which shows the earth crying. The tears of la Tierra stopped me in my tracks. They drew me in. But the real draw was generated by two gentle figures, a girl and boy, one on either side, embracing and comforting the earth. We have reason to worry about the earth's future, this preternaturally wise, ten-year-old artist knows. Yes, indeed. By the time s/he is thirty, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis will have destroyed nations; Mother Earth, unless we care for her now, will be utterly disconsolate.


Good art is unsettling, uplifting, painful, and provocative, too. If it doesn't prompt us to feel more deeply and think freshly or more critically, art is not doing its work. The joys of the FOFA 2013 contest entries belong, first and foremost, to the artists. They have struggled to master their craft; and they have risked investing traditional forms with their fears and forebodings, their quirky delights and sense of wonder. In encouraging these artists, FOFA members and visitors to MEAPO share in the bounty. Our investment, judging from this concurso/competition, has yielded a windfall of riches.

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