The Alebrije, in the southern region of Mexico, and specifically in the state of Oaxaca, overlooking the Pacific Ocean at about 1550 meters above sea level, lies the homonymous town.
Capital of one of the country’s poorest states, the city of Oaxaca is nestled in the valley that bears its name; inhabited since ancient times, different cultures followed each other in this area: the Olmecs, which had their heyday from 1200 b.c to 500 a.d., the Zapotecs, from 200 a.d. to 700 a.d., the Mixtecs, from the tenth century and finally the Spanish conquerors in the mid-sixteenth century.
This rich and tumultuous past has greatly influenced the life of contemporary people, leaving indelible traces in society, art and culture itself. It is exactly in the arts that this city has distinguished itself by the incredible, extraordinary production of a particular type of sculpture: the alebrijes.
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Born from the imagination of Pedro Linares, devastated by mental illness, these are imaginary figures of surreal and monstrous animals. This artist, born in 1906 in Mexico City, collaborator of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, at a young age suffered a high fever that caused him to have severe and overwhelming nightmares. In these visions he found himself in a wild environment and in contact with nature, where everything around him, plants, rocks, clouds, was transformed into colorful and strange shapes: dogs with wings, birds with fangs and countless other grotesque figures. All these shapes pronounced continuously and obsessively the same word: “alebrije, alebrije”, an incomprehensible and meaningless term.
Once recovered from the disease, Linares shared with his family these fantastic hallucinations and started to reproduce the figures which haunted his dreams with papier-mâché, modelling and decorating the animals as he saw them in his imagination. The extraordinary production of these objects, never seen before, came to the attention of artists – chief among them Diego Rivera – and gallerists in the capital. Linares began to be known, his reputation as a cartoneros expanded, in Mexico and abroad, and his name became intimately tied to those fantastic creatures, thanks to a series of events organized during the 80’s in the United States by a British film director. Another famous artist participated to these events: Manuel Jimenez, the very first to realize alebrijes in wood, basing on the designs of Linares himself.
During the span of his life, Linares received major awards, also from the Mexican government, and died in 1992 aged 86. All his work, his art and his passion have been passed down to his sons who, even today, continue the business as part of their large and varied family.
The valley of Oaxaca produced already small sculptures of animals at local level, but with the push given by the alebrijes, manufacturing increased considerably.
In this region, woodworking was known even since ancient times: Zapotec art of the pre-Hispanic period and the Mesoamerican culture used wood to make masks, totem poles, musical instruments and small items. Many of these objects had a precise use, as the calls for animals, used both to attract them during the hunt, or to ward them off in case of danger. Later, in the colonial period, due to the spread of Christianity and to the need of missionaries to use any means in order to convert the natives, the local woodcarving took other routes: they built large statues of angels and saints, huge crosses and altars to embellish and adorn the new Catholic churches, for religious processions and representations.
Following the War of Independence (1810-1921), the religious aspect of woodworking was overshadowed by its use in exclusively practical purposes, as the realization of everyday objects such as plates, trays, furniture, musical instruments and games; specialized sculptors began to disappear, profession that spread more as additional work for farmers and workers of other categories. For this reason, the new art form, linked to woodcarving in a new and unique way and inspired by Linares’ papier-mâché, took possession of the old models to create new ones, original and never used before.
The man who first brought forth this craft was, as already mentioned, Manuel Jimenez, a native of St. Antonio Arrazola, a city that is located at an altitude of 1,620 meters, 10 km south west Oaxaca.
Already a wood carver, he created masks and statues of angels and saints, and was inspired by the work of Linares, developing it and personalizing it; using Copal wood, typical of the area, he began to carve wonderful alebrijes. Considered the father of the wooden sculpture of Oaxaca, Jimenez undertook this activity in his young days, when he lived as a shepherd. In the ’20s, this area became famous for its large plantations of sugar cane, which attracted many laborers from the surrounding areas, drewing in people from different cultures and backgrounds. All this movement brought a rapid growth of Jimenez’s reputation in the ’70s, when the artist had long since started to work on his sculptures: art dealers, tourists and admirers began to know and to visit his workshop. He was thus introduced in a more elevated milieu, where his works were appreciated and purchased by large and important businessmen. As a result of such a new influx of people, intrigued by the features of this new art form, many carvers began to sculpt alebrijes, giving new impetus to local economy. Jimenez was always quite jealous of his art and only the family shared with him his experience and passion: his sons and grandsons continue the work today, while maintaining high quality and technique.
The woodwork of Copal (Bursera Cuneata) has always been present in these regions. Originating from South America, this plant, used as incense for its viscous substances and aromatic emits, is part of the local tradition. Being a very soft material, when still green and freshly cut it is extremely easy to carve and easily workable with a machete or common kitchen knives, always following the original form suggested by the wood itself. To make its surface smooth and uniform, the artist simply polishes it with sand and, at this point, the piece of Copal is ready to be decorated. In the past were used colors based on aniline, but over time the artists realized that these did not last long and hopelessly faded losing their brilliance: therefore they have been replaced with acrylics colors. In addition to painting, which is accomplished through brushes of various sizes often manufactured by the artisans themselves so that they can better meet their decorative needs, the alebrijes are adorned with stings, animal dander and cactus thorns – materials used also for the pictoric part, because they are able to produce very thin and regular traces.
In this artistic process, men are the architects of the sculpture, polishing and smoothing are reserved to children and the elderly, while women give their vital contribution painting these extraordinary artifacts. This it is an art form very popular and simple, without limitations and barriers, which leaves the artists free to express their creativity and imagination. Nowadays subjects are selected not only according to the taste of the artist, but also according to customer demands and to the needs of competition. The latter led the artists to specialize, creating several niche markets; depending on the manifacture’s quality, it is possible to find simple sculptures at low prices, as well as real masterpieces of famous artists at very interesting prices.
When a piece is good selling, the artist keeps producing it, but it is never exactly the same: it is always slightly different in shapes and colors. Animals are the most requested subjects, because they refer to alebrijes’s original tradition.
In Oaxaca’s Valley several centers are distinguished for Copal carving, especially Arrazola, S. Martin Tilcajete and La Unión Tejalapan. This new market has increased the income of these small villages, but has also led to the depletion of the resources of Copal; in order to reforest the area, the sculptors have tried to work wild Copal, but without great results.
In S. Antonio Arrazola,, after the wave of novelty and imagination brought by Manuel Jimenez, his sons still carry on the tradition of alebrijes, creating in their workshops magnificent pieces now appreciated worldwide.
In S. Martin Ticajete, 23 km from the city of Oaxaca, we find interesting artists, such as the members of the Fuentes family: Epifanio, Efrain, and his brother Ivan, great masters in achieving with their outstanding sculptures small masterpieces; Jacobo Angeles, carver, with his wife Maria, decorator of her husband’s fanciful sculptures, to which pays homage with meticulous and wonderful paintings; Jesus Calvo Josa, fine sculptor, known worldwide for using the amoeba’s silhouettes as a decorative motif for his surprising creations (a result of a disease and the constant coming and going from the hospital, where he was in contact with these forms that hit him). A special mention also goes to the legend Isidoro Cruz, one of the most sensitive and extravagant local carvers. He approached the sculpture to the age of 13 and was immediately noticed; at first, his works were exhibited in Oaxaca, but over time his name became famous and was appointed head of the handicraft center. Here, the contact with traders and admirers allowed him to bring his works elsewhere and to promote the work of other artisans in his area. A man of vision, he was always very willing to help others sculptors, especially young people who approached this activity.
La Unión Tejalapan, a small town 29 km south of Oaxaca, is the third center famous for the production of alebrijes. Here, as in the neighboring villages, the realization of these sculptures is a family affair: the most famous is the Santiago family, large and composed of many artists, from Martin to Quirino, Placido Arturo, Francisco… and many others indeed! These artisans are interesting for their raw and elementary sculptures, and often composed of several elements. The founder was Martin, who started in the 60s after a period in the United States. Originally a farmer, he was unable to support his family with the farm work, so he devoted himself to woodcarving as a support activity, but over the years it proved to be his true passion.
Continuing in the ancient tradition of woodworking and cartoneros, these talented and visionary artists have created a fantastic and surprising universe and made it known to the entire world, a universe where imagination and dream, coming from a millennial past, are still a source of immense curiosity and attraction. Each subject is a separate element, unique and unrepeatable, whether it’s a alebrije – and only those artifacts resembling animals with bizarre and monstrous characteristics are called alebrijes – or a sculpture, or a mask or something else…