Monday, June 27, 2016


I received a belated birthday gift today. 

It was a Mexican wood-carving.  It depicted a sort of monster – fire-breathing, and fierce of aspect.  He was originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, and he is a very fine fellow, who now resides on my kamidana shelf, as he is clearly someone to be reckoned with, and I thought it best to have him aligned with the kami and other watchful creatures who reside there.  

Here is Raulito Jugando con Fuego:
And here is a little of the fascinating story of these carvings.  There’s lots more on the Wikipedia page.

From: Wikipedia

Alebrijes (Spanish pronunciation: [aleˈβɾixes]) are brightly colored Oaxacan-Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures. The first alebrijes, along with use of the term, originated with Pedro Linares. In the 1930s, Linares fell very ill and while he was in bed, unconscious, Linares dreamt of a strange place resembling a forest. There, he saw trees, animals, rocks, clouds that suddenly turned into something strange, some kind of animals, but, unknown animals. He saw a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with bull horns, a lion with an eagle head, and all of them were shouting one word, "Alebrijes". Upon recovery, he began recreating the creatures he saw in cardboard and papier-mâché and called them Alebrijes.

Above & Below: Source

His work caught the attention of a gallery owner in Cuernavaca, in the south of Mexico and later, of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In the 1980s, British filmmaker, Judith Bronowski, arranged an itinerant Mexican art craft demonstration workshop in the U.S.A. featuring Pedro Linares, Manuel Jiménez and a textile artisan Maria Sabina from Oaxaca. Although the Oaxaca valley area already had a history of carving animal and other types of figures from wood, it was at this time, when Bronowski's workshop took place, that artisans from Oaxaca learned of the alebrijes paper mache sculptures. Linares demonstrated his designs on family visits and which were adapted to the carving of a local wood called copal, this type of wood is said to be magical, made from unitado magic.

The paper mache-to-wood carving adaptation was pioneered by Arrazola native Manuel Jiménez. This version of the craft has since spread to a number of other towns, most notably San Martín Tilcajete and La Unión Tejalapan, become a major source of income for the area, especially for Tilcajete. The success of the craft, however, has led to the depletion of the native copal trees. Attempts to remedy this with reforestation efforts and management of wild copal trees has only had limited success. The three towns most closely associated with alebrije production in Oaxaca have produced a number of notable artisans such as Manuel Jiménez, Jacobo Angeles, Martin Sandiego, Julia Fuentes and Miguel Sandiego.


Alebrijes originated in Mexico City in the 20th century, in 1936 . The creation of the first alebrijes, as well as the name itself, is attributed to Pedro Linares, who was an artisan from México City (Distrito Federal), who was specialized in making piñatas, carnival masks and “Judas” figures from cartonería (a kind of papier-mâché), which he sold in markets such as the one in La Merced

Above & Below: Source

In 1936, when he was 30 years old, Linares fell ill with a high fever, which caused him to hallucinate. In these feverish dreams, he was in a forest with rocks and clouds, many of which turned into wild, unnaturally colored creatures, which frequently features wings, horns, tails, fierce teeth and bulgy eyes. While seeing the creatures, he heard a crowd of voices which repeated the nonsensical word “alebrije.” After he recovered, he began to create the creatures he saw using papier-mâché and cardboard. Eventually, a Cuernavaca gallery owner discovered his work. This brought his work to the attention of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who began commissioning Linares to build more alebrijes.

The tradition grew considerably after British filmmaker Judith Bronowski's 1975 documentary on Linares. Pedro Linares received the Mexico's National Arts and Sciences Award in Popular Arts and Traditions Category for his work in 1990, two years before he died. This inspired other alebrije artists, and Linares’ work became prized in both Mexico and abroad. Rivera stated that no one else could have fashioned the strange figures he requested; work done by Linares for Rivera is now displayed at the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City. 

The descendents of Pedro Linares, many of whom live in Mexico City near the Sonora Market, carry on the tradition of making alebrijes and other figures from cardboard and papier-mâché. Some of their customers have included the Rolling Stones and David Copperfield. The Stones not only ordered and paid for their alebrijes but also gave the family tickets to their show.  Various branches of the family occupy a row of houses on the same street. Each family works in their own workshops in their own houses but will lend each other a hand when big orders come in. Demand rises and falls; sometimes there is no work and sometimes families work 18 hours a day. 

Above and Below: Wikipedia

The original designs that Pedro Linares made as alebrijes have fallen into public domain. However, according to Chapter Three of the Mexican federal copyright law, enacted in 1996, it is illegal to sell crafts made in Mexico without acknowledging the community and region which they are from. It is also illegal to alter the crafts in such a way as to be interpreted as damaging to the culture’s reputation or image. The law applied to the commercialization of the crafts as well as their public exhibition and use of their images. However, this law is rarely enforced as most crafts sellers in Mexico rarely state where their products are from. The name “alebrijes” is used for a wide variety of crafts even though the Linares family has sought to gain control over the name. The family states that pieces which are not made by them and do not come from Mexico City should state such. The Linares family continue to export their work to the most important galleries showing Mexican art worldwide. One example was called "Beasts and Bones: The Cartonería of the Linares Family" was displayed in Carlsbad, California. The show featured about seventy alebrijes and was so popular that it was extended by several weeks.

However, because there have been a variety of artists and artisans creating a variety of alebrijes with their own styles, the craft has become part of Mexico folk art repertoire. No two alebrijes are exactly alike. Outside of the Linares family, one of the most noted alebrije artist is Susana Buyo. She learned to work with cardboard and papier-mâché at one of the Linares’ family workshops. She is known as the “Señora de los Monstruos” by local children of Condesa, an upscale neighborhood of Mexico City. She is a native Argentinan who is a naturalized Mexican citizen. Her work can be found in various parts of Mexico City and in other countries such as those in Europe. Her work differs from that of the Linares in that many of her design include human contours and many with expression with are more tender than terrifying. She also uses nontraditional materials such as feathers, fantasy stones and modern resins with the goals of novelty and durability. 
Alebrijes by Luis Pablo

While Pedro Linares may have dreamed of these creatures, they did not occur in a vacuum. Similarities and parallels can be drawn between alebrijes and various supernatural creatures from Mexico’s indigenous and European past. In pre-Hispanic times, there was a preference for images with bright colors, which were often fantastic and macabre. Influences from images from Mexico City’s Chinatown (especially in dragons) and Gothic images such as gargoyles can be seen. Red carton demons called judas, which Linares made, are still constructed and burned in Mexico on Holy Week in purification rituals. More recent predecessors in Mexican culture artists Julio Ruelas and graphics artist/commentator José Guadalupe Posada, both of whom created fantastic and sometimes terrifying images in their work. Since their creation, alebrijes, especially the monstrous kind, have gained a reputation for “scaring away bad spirits” and protecting the home. Some, like master craftsman Christian David Mendez, claim that there is a certain mysticism involved in the making and owning of alebrijes, with parts of certain animals representing human characteristics.

Judith Bronowski's 1975 documentary on Linares  

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