10 Mar Alebrijes: magical craft and guide animals
How is the first alebrije born?
Strolling among the craft stores displaying plenty of these colorful little animals, someone would be forgiven for thinking that alebrijes have always been part of Mexican culture. Spoiler Alert: it’s not! They are actually the invention of a Mexico City artist, Pedro Linares, who was born and raised in the La Merced neighborhood and proudly carried on the family tradition of papier-mâché craftsmanship.
As it is known in Mexico, papier-mâché is still a popular art: it’s been used to produce many different figures, although perhaps the most famous products are the famous piñatas. A festive decoration, in any shape and multi-colored, filled with candies and gifts that can be obtained by clubbing it until it breaks, letting them fall to the ground. Pedro Linares also used to make this kind of product in his workshop, along with other figures of votive use, for religious holidays.
It was 1936, Linares was 30 years old and suddenly became seriously sick. He fell into a deep sleep from which he did not awaken for some time: when he recovered, he told about a fabulous lifelong dream. He had walked for a long time in an enchanted forest, where there lived fantastic creatures that could not exist in the real world: donkeys with wings, lions with dog heads, roosters with bulls’ horns. Their feathers, their fur, their scales shone with bright, intense colors; these creatures moreover spoke, but they always said only one thing: alebrijes!
This traumatic experience turned into an opportunity for Linares to convert himself from a simple papier-mâché craftsman to an internationally renowned artist: among his papier-mâché works, he began to make his own mythological figures and named them alebrijes. Not only he invented a new form of art, he coined a name that did not exist before and to which it is still impossible to give meaning today. What is even more extraordinary is that Pedro Linares gave birth to a new Mexican tradition: it became so strong and beloved that it quickly crossed the borders of the capital and was replicated, in different ways, in other Mexican states.
Today alebrijes are one of the most famous products of Mexican handicraft in the world; they are almost recognized as a symbol of this country’s culture, a virtuous example of how a nation’s art can be reborn and renewed at any time, if only certain genius minds were left free to create.
The Oaxaqueña tradition: alebrijes carved in wood.
Even though its origin is in Mexico City, several Mexican states have initiated their own original tradition of alebrijes over time. In the Oaxaca region for example, alebrijes are made by masterfully carving copal wood: the most experienced artisans say that it’s the shape of the tree or the branch itself that tells the artist what creature to carve there. In the sinuosities of the wood they already see a belly, a tail, a snout: there is where the magic begins.
However, certainly the most attractive detail of these statues is the colorful decoration, made after weeks of wood treatment: to prevent moths from deteriorating the work over time, the copal must be properly treated, all micro-fractures between the plant fibers must be filled, a dense and smooth base must be created. Firstly a white base is spread and later on a monochromatic colored base.
The second stage is just as long and intricate: on this colored base each artisan draws an infinity of textures and greeks, the more detailed and fine the greater their precision and mastery. Every single dot, line, and meander is painted by hand, with no possibility of error; an average-sized statue can take months to make, larger ones years.
As a matter of fact, copal carving is a very old craft tradition, widespread throughout all Mexico. This kind of handicraft was always considered of great value, but what makes the Oaxaqueña tradition of alebrijes unique is not just the material, but its unique substratum of pre-Columbian indigenous traditions.
The alberijes have thus become the modern version of the ancient nahuales, the guiding animals of the ancient Zapotec culture.
There are currently three towns specialized in making these magical creatures: San Antonio Arrazola, La Union Tejalapam and San Martin Tilcajete. Certainly the atmosphere of these places contributes to the charm of their creations; it’s something Europeans cannot quite intend, nor remember perhaps.
Imagine a single tiny dusty street, lots of stores lining it, the doors open as a sign of invitation, no one to check the goods, no danger. Each store is a home, when you cross that threshold you don’t enter a store, you enter their home, you enter their everyday life because each store represents a family that has been carving copal for generations now. Each store has hundreds of pieces more or less elaborate, more or less expensive but all certainly unique. The whole village is like this: houses, workshops, families, and colorful alebrijes.
The tradition of alebrijes in Oaxaca began in the 1960s during carnival; at that time, masks were almost exclusively carved, often with the features of animals, or rather Nahaules. Over the years this art has evolved into a more elaborate and original version.
How art evolves: the future of the Alebrijes
Right at San Martin Tilcajete we discovered one of the most famous alebrijes workshops in the world, its name is “Jacobo y Maria Angeles”. Jacopo and Maria are a pair of dreamy artists who have made their passion and love for Mexico a job and a reason for living. Their dedication is evident in every detail, it is clear in the passion they pass on: copal carving began at home, it was passed down from father to son, but then the family expanded and now Jacobo and Maria Angeles run a business with hundreds of employees: apprentices, artists, markenting and communication experts who help keep Mexican tradition and culture alive with the times.
Although they have grown so much, their workshop has maintained a family atmosphere and with the same dedication ever they tell the story of their indigenous Zapotec origins; through the most contemporary alebrijes they perpetuate the symbolism of the Zapotec culture. Their language is manifested through the animals of the Zapotec calendar and the endless decorative greeks of their unique pieces.
Their workshop is a model to emulate, an example for all those artisans who think that with progress their art is losing value and meaning: in Tilcajete they have managed to do exactly the opposite. They have transformed an ancient children’s game into a great artistic work and a valuble symbol for their country.
Nowadays, the art of the alebrijes is beginning to become known outside Mexico. The Angeles workshop has already had the opportunity to exhibit their work in other cities around the world and their unique pieces are beginning to attract the attention of keen collectors.
It was precisely in Oaxaca that we were lucky enough to attend the opening of one of their exhibitions and I realized that I was in front of something unique, something that would make history: the creation of art. Sometimes we forget that art’s value is not only in the loss of its author and the impossibility of reproducing it; its heritage is in contribution it makes to its era. There are rare times in life when we will have the privilege of seeing it come to life right before our eyes, we just have to open our eyes and hearts very well.