Alebrijes of Oaxaca

Alebrijes from Oaxaca. Fantasy and color of the Mexican imaginary.

The magical Mexican imaginary comes to life in multicolor!

In the southern region of Mexico, and exactly in the state of Oaxaca, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is the city of the same name, located at an altitude of 1550 m.

Capital of one of the most modest state in the country, the city of Oaxaca is built in the valley of the same name; Inhabited since ancient times, different cultures followed one another, from the Olmecs, which had their peak from 1200 BC to 500 AD, to the Zapotecs, from 200 AD to 700 AD, passing through the Mixtecs, from the XNUMXth century; and later it suffered the Spanish conquest towards the middle of the XVI century. This rich and eventful past has left a great influence on contemporary people, leaving its mark on society, art and culture. And precisely in the artistic field, this city has been distinguished by an extraordinary and incredible production of a particular type of sculpture: the Alebrijes.

Born in the fantasy ravaged by Pedro Linares' illness, they are imaginary figures that represent surreal and monstrous animals. This artist, born in 1906 in Mexico City, a collaborator with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, at a very early age suffered from very strong fevers that led him to have very heavy and overwhelming nightmares. These visions transported him to a wild environment and in contact with nature, and everything that surrounded him, be it a plant, a rock or a cloud, was transformed into very colorful animal shapes and very strange shapes: dogs with wings , birds with fangs and innumerable grotesque figures. All of them pronounced the same word continuously and obsessively: "Alebrijes, alebrijes", an incomprehensible term with no meaning. When he had overcome his illness, Linares shared these fantastic hallucinations with his family, and began to reproduce the figures of his nightmares in papier-mâché, modeling and decorating them just as he had imagined.

The extraordinary production of these never-before-seen objects attracted the attention of artists, including Diego Rivera, and gallery owners from the capital. Linares began to be known, his fame as a “cartonero” spread beyond Mexico, beyond the borders and his name was linked to the fantastic figures, thanks also to a series of events organized in the United States in the 80s by an English director, also dedicated to another famous artist, Manuel Jiménez, who was the first to make Alebrijes in wood from Linares's drawings. Throughout his life, Linares obtained numerous awards, also from the Mexican government itself, and died in 1992 at the age of 86. All his work, his passion and his art have been inherited by his children, who today continue with the activity in the field of their large family.

The valley of Oaxaca already produced small sculptures of animals locally, but with the impetus given by these manifestations, the manufacture increased significantly. In this region, wood carving was known and present since ancient times: the Zapotec art of the pre-Hispanic period and the Mesoamerican culture used this material to produce masks, totem poles, musical instruments and small objects. Many of these products were intended to support populations, such as claims for animals, used to attract them and thus be able to capture them, and also to scare them and thus be able to defend themselves. Later, in the colonial period, the carving took other routes because of Christianity, to the need of the missionaries to use all the useful ways to engage in conversation with the natives, so they began to build large statues of angels and saints, important crosses and altars to adorn and beautify the new Catholic churches, for processions and religious representations.

After the War of Independence (1810-1921), woodworking took a back seat, and specialized exclusively for practical purposes, such as the realization of objects of common use such as plates, trays, furniture, musical instruments and games ; Specialized sculptors began to be scarce, a profession only disseminated as a job of economic aid for peasants and other categories. For this reason, the new art form, linked to wood carving in an unprecedented and unique way inspired by Linares' papier-mâché, made the old models its own and from them created other originals never used before.

The first man who started and carried out this type of craft was, as we already said, Manuel Jiménez, originally from San Antonio Arrazola, a city that is located at an altitude of 1620 m and is located 10 km southwest of Oaxaca. As a wood carver he created masks and statues of angels and saints, but then he was inspired by Linares' work, making and customizing it and using the typical Copal wood of the area, and he began to sculpt amazing Alebrijes. Considered the father of wooden sculpture in Oaxaca, Jiménez began to develop this activity very young, alternating with the work of shepherd. In the 20s, this entire area became famous for its large sugar cane crops, and it attracted many workers from nearby areas, people from very different backgrounds and cultures. All this movement meant that in the 70s, when Jiménez had already started working on his sculptures for a long time, his fame began to grow: art dealers, tourists and fans knew him better and better and went to visit his workshop. This is how he was introduced to an environment of high birth, and his works were acquired by important businessmen. Thanks to this large influx of people, curious about a new and particular form of art, many carvers began to follow this same route sculpting Alebrijes, giving a new boost to the economy of the area.

Jimenez was always quite jealous of his art and only his family shared their experience and passion with him: in fact, it is his children and grandchildren who continue with his work today, maintaining the high quality and technique for its execution.

Copal (Bursera Cuneata) wood carving was always present in these geographical areas. Originally from South America, this plant, also used as incense for the aromatic substances it has, is part of the indigenous tradition. Being a very tender material, freshly cut and still green, it is extremely easy to sculpt, and in fact it is worked with a machete and simple kitchen knives, always following the original shape, suggested by the wood itself. To leave the surface smooth and uniform, it is worked by passing over simple sand, and thus the Copal piece is ready to be decorated. In the past, aniline-based colors were used, but over time the artists realized that they did not last too long and that they were irretrievably losing their shine and becoming faded, that is why today they have been replaced by acrylic colors. In addition to the paint, which is applied thanks to brushes of various sizes made expressly by the artisans themselves to satisfy their decorative requirements, the Alebrijes are adorned with stingers, animal hair and cactus spines, materials also used for the pictorial part, being possible thanks to them leaving very fine and regular lines.

In this artistic process, men are the architects of the sculpture, while children and the elderly are in charge of smoothing and polishing, and women give their fundamental touch by painting these extraordinary works. The division of tasks is more developed in small towns, where the whole family contributes to the creation of these wonderful figures. This art form is obviously very popular and simple, without limitations or barriers, and leaves the artist free to express their creativity and inventiveness. Nowadays the subjects are chosen, in addition to the taste of the carver, based on the demand of the clientele and the production of the competition. The latter has made the different families of artisans specialize, creating various market groups; Depending on the type of carving, you can find simpler and more elementary sculptures with modest commercial pieces, up to real works of art by famous artists with much more interesting quotes. When a piece is liked, the craftsman proposes it again, but it will never be exactly the same: in shapes and colors there will always be some differences. Animals are the most demanded subjects, since they remind us of the original Alebrijes.

In the valley of Oaxaca, there are many centers where the Copal carving has distinguished itself, particularly in Arrazola, S. Martín Tilcajete and La Unión Tejalapam. This new market has increased the income of these small towns, but it has also impoverished Copal's resources; To overcome that, sculptors have attempted to carve wild Copal wood, and repopulate forests, but without much success.

To San Antonio Arrazola, after the breath of novelty and fantasy brought by Manuel Jiménez, now it is his children who continue with the tradition of the Alebrijes sculptures, creating in their workshops magnificent pieces already in demand all over the world.

AS Martin Tilcajete, 23 km from the city of Oaxaca, we find interesting artists, among whom we remember the Fuentes family, in which the names of: Epifanio, Efraín, and brother Ivan stand out, great teachers capable of performing with their exceptional small sculptures works of art; Jacobo Ángeles, and his wife María, he a carver and she is a fanciful decorator of her husband's sculptures, whom she pays tribute to with meticulous and wonderful paintings; Jesús Calvo Josa, a refined sculptor, known throughout the world for having used amoeba silhouettes with decorative motifs for his surprising creations (this after an illness and a continuous going to and from the hospital, where he was in contact with these shapes that impressed him) . A special mention also goes to the legend of Isidoro Cruz, one of the most sensitive and quirky carvers of the place. He approached sculpture at the age of 13 and was immediately noticed; his works were initially exhibited in Oaxaca, but over time his name became very famous and he was appointed head of the artisan center. Here, in contact with merchants and fans, he proposed his works for other places and promotes the work of other artisans in his area. A person with a lot of sight and openness, he always made himself available to other sculptors and above all to help young people who came to this activity.

La Unión Tejalapam, a small center 29 km south of Oaxaca, is the third famous nucleus for the production of Alebrijes. Here too, as in nearby towns, the making of these sculptures runs in the family: the most famous is that of Santiago, numerous and made up of many artists, from Martín to Quirino, to Placido Arturo, Francisco ... and really much others. These artisans are interesting for the type of sculptures adopted, coarser and more elementary than those of the others mentioned, and often made up of more elements. The founder was Martín, who started in the 60s after a period of stay in the United States. Peasant, only work in the field was not enough to support the family, so he began with woodworking as financial aid, and over the years it was revealed as his true passion.

Continuing with the ancient tradition of cardboard carving, these brilliant and visionary artists have created and given the world a fantastic and surprising universe, where imagination and dreams, coming from a thousand-year-old past, are still sources today. of curiosity and attraction. Each subject is an element in itself, unique and unrepeatable, be it one of the Alebrijes - only the pieces that have animal portraits with eccentric and monstrous details are called that - be it a sculpture, a mask or something else ...

Each town has that magic, that own cultural heritage that makes it colorful and diverse, like Oaxaca and its costumes; how Tlalpujahua and its Christmas backdrops; All of our Latin American peoples have a historical and cultural heritage that makes them unique. You just have to open your eyes and get to know them!

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