Alebrijes of Oaxaca | A Short Documentary
Known for their brightly painted depictions of fantastical creatures, Alebrijes have become a sustainable livelihood for many artists residing in Oaxaca, Mexico. Learning to craft the intricate woodcarvings takes years to master and the most respected carvers have worked tirelessly in developing their own distinct style.
Alebrijes (Spanish pronunciation: [aleˈβɾixes]) are brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical (fantasy/mythical) 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.
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 animals 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, and has 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.
Pedro Linares was originally from México City (DF), born there June 29, 1906, and he never moved out of México City. He died January 25, 1992.
Alebrije named Michin Rojo with salute to Pedro Linares
Alebrijes originated in Mexico City in the 20th century, in 1936. The first alebrijes, as well as the name itself, are attributed to Pedro Linares, an artisan from México City (Distrito Federal), who specialized in making piñatas, carnival masks and “Judas” figures from cartonería (a kind of papier-mâché). He sold his work in markets such as the one in La Merced.
In 1936, when he was 30 years old, Linares fell ill with a high fever, which caused him to hallucinate. In his fever dreams, he was in a forest with rocks and clouds, many of which turned into wild, unnaturally colored creatures, frequently featuring wings, horns, tails, fierce teeth and bulging eyes. He heard a crowd of voices repeating the nonsense word “alebrije.” After he recovered, he began to re-create the creatures he'd seen, using papier-mâché and cardboard. Eventually, a Cuernavaca gallery owner discovered his work. This brought him to the attention of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who began commissioning more alebrijes. The tradition grew considerably after British filmmaker Judith Bronowski's 1975 documentary on Linares.
Linares received Mexico's National Arts and Sciences Award in the Popular Arts and Traditions category in 1990, two years before he died. This inspired other alebrije artists, and Linares’ work became prized both in Mexico and abroad. Rivera said 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 descendants 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. Their customers have included the Rolling Stones and David Copperfield. The Stones 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 its own workshops in their own houses but they will lend each other a hand with big orders. Demand rises and falls; sometimes there is no work and sometimes families work 18 hours a day.
The original designs for Pedro Linares' alebrijes have fallen into the public domain. However, according to Chapter Three of the 1996 Mexican federal copyright law, it is illegal to sell crafts made in Mexico without acknowledging the community and region they are from, or to alter the crafts in a way that could be interpreted as damaging to the culture’s reputation or image. The law applied to the commercialization of the crafts as well as to their public exhibition and the use of their images.
However, this law is rarely enforced; most crafts sellers in Mexico rarely give the origin of 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 says that pieces which are not made by them and do not come from Mexico City should state so. The Linares family continues to export their work to the most important galleries showing Mexican art worldwide. For example "Beasts and Bones: The Cartonería of the Linares Family" in Carlsbad, California, featured about seventy alebrijes and was so popular that it was extended by several weeks.
However, because a variety of artists and artisans have been creating alebrijes in their own styles, the craft has become part of Mexico's folk art repertoire. No two alebrijes are exactly alike. Outside of the Linares family, one of the most noted alebrije artists is Susana Buyo, who learned to work with cardboard and papier-mâché at one of the Linares family workshops. Known as the “Señora de los Monstruos” by the local children in Condesa, an upscale neighborhood of Mexico City, she is a native Argentinan and naturalized Mexican citizen. Her work can be found across Mexico City and elsewhere, such as those in Europe. Her work differs from that of the Linares in that many of her designs include human contours and many with expressions more tender than terrifying. She also uses nontraditional materials such as feathers, fantasy stones and modern resins, both for novelty and for durability.
- "Devora Stein" by Uriel López Baltazar,
- "Alebrhijos" by Santiago Goncen,
- "Totolina", by Arte Lado C,
- "AH1N1" by Taller Don Guajo,
- "Volador", by Taller de Plástica El Volador,
- "La mula del 6" by Daniel Martínez Bartelt,
- "La gárgola de la Atlántida" by Juan Carlos Islas and
- "Alebrije luchador" by Ricardo Rosales,
Alebrijes of Oaxaca
Alebrije El Ciclo de Oaxaca by Jacobo and Maria Angeles on display at the Museo Estatal de Artes Populares de Oaxaca in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
Development of the craft in Oaxaca
Pedro Linares was originally from México City (Distrito Federal). In the 1980s, British filmmaker, Judith Bronowski, arranged an itinerant demonstration workshop in U.S.A. participating Pedro Linares, Manuel Jiménez and a textil 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 when artisans from Oaxaca knew the alebrijes paper mache sculptures. Then Linares’ designs were adapted to the carving of a local wood called copal.
The Oaxaca valley area already had a history of carving animal and other types of figures from wood, and Linares’ designs were adapted to the carving of a local wood called copal. This 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. One of the most important things about the fantastical creatures carved of wood is that every piece is removable, it's how you can tell you have a piece carved by one of the original great carvers. The later carvers didn't learn the technique of making each piece fit so well that it could be removed and put back in again and again. Those pieces have more than tripled in value. The painting on these figures is also more intense and varied.
The first to copy the fantastic forms and bright colors was Manuel Jiménez, who carved the figures in local copal wood rather than using paper. Animal figures had always been carved in the central valleys area of Oaxaca by the Zapotecs since the pre-Hispanic period. Totems of local animals were carved for luck or religious purposes as well as hunting decoys. Figures were also carved for children as toys, a tradition that continued well into the 20th century. After the craft became popular in Arrazola, it spread to Tilcajete and from there to a number of other communities, and now the three main communities are, San Antonino Arrazola, San Martin Tilcajete and La Union Tejalapam, each of which has developed its own style. The carving of wood figures did not have a name, so the name “alebrije” eventually became adopted for any carved, brightly colored figure of copal wood, whether it is of a real animal or not. To make the distinction, the carvings of fantastic creatures, closer to Linares’ alebrijes, are now sometimes called “marcianos” (lit. Martians) . Oaxacan alebrijes have eclipsed the Mexico City version, with a large number of stores in and around the city of Oaxaca selling the pieces, and it is estimated that more than 150 families in the same area make a living making the figures.
Woodcarving, along with other crafts in Oaxaca, grew in importance as the state opened up to tourism. This started in the 1940s with the Pan-American Highway and has continued to this day with the construction of more roads, airports and other transportation coincided with the rising prosperity of the U.S. and Canada making Mexico an affordable exotic vacation. Oaxacan woodcarving began to be bought in the 1960s by hippies. Prior to the 1980s, most of the woodcarvings were natural and spiritual world of the communities, featuring farm animals, farmers, angels and the like.
These pieces, now referred to as "rustic" (nistico), were carved and painted in a simple manner. Later known for their alebrijes, carvers such as Manuel Jimenez of Arrazola, Isadoro Cruz of Tilcajete and Martin Sandiego of La Union began by carving animals as youths, often while doing other chores such as tending sheep. By the 1960s and 1970s, these carvers had enough of a reputation to sell their work in the city of Oaxaca. As more dealers shipping to other parts of Mexico and abroad visited the rural villages, more exotic animals such as lions, elephants and the like were added, and eventually came to dominate the trade. Eventually, traditional paints gave way to acrylics as well. Another development that encouraged woodcarving were artisans’ contests held by the state of Oaxaca in the 1970s, which encouraged carvers to try new ideas in order to win prizes and sell their pieces to state museums.
While the sales trend has been mostly positive for Oaxacan alebrijes, it is dependent on global market fluctuations and on tourism to Oaxaca. There was a decline in sales in the late 1980s, possibly due to global market saturation and the dominance of repetitive, unimaginative designs. Sales rose again in the 1990s. Sales fell again in 2001, when tourism from the U.S. fell and fell again precipitously 2006 due to statewide social unrest. It has not fully recovered since.
The alebrije market is divided into two levels, the production of unique, high-quality, labor-intensive pieces and the production of repetitive, average quality and inexpensive pieces. Those who have produced exceptionally fine pieces have gained reputations as artists, commanding high prices. Larger pieces are generally made only by the better carving families. While pieces can be bought and ordered from the artisans directly, most sell to middlemen who in turn sell them to outlets in Mexico and abroad. The most successful carving families sell almost exclusively to dealers and may have only a few pieces available for the drop-in visitor. Within Mexico, Oaxacan alebrijes are often sold in tourist locations such as Oaxaca city, La Paz, Cancún, Cozumel and Puerto Escondido . Most pieces sold internationally go to the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan, where the most expensive pieces end up in ethnic craft stores in urban areas, university towns and upscale resorts.
Cheaper pieces tend to be sold at trade shows and gift shops. Tourists who buy pieces directly from carvers pay about twice what wholesalers do. . The price of each piece depends on the quality, coloring, size, originality and sometimes the reputation of the carver. The most expensive pieces are most often sent abroad.
Pieces sold retail in Oaxaca generally range from $1 to $200 USD. The most commercialized figures are those of dogs, armadillos, iguanas, giraffes, cats, elephants, zebras, deer, dolphins, sharks and fish. Animals are often painted with bright colors and designs and carved with exaggerated features that bear little resemblance to what occurs in the natural world.
Anthropomorphism is common and carvings of animals playing musical instruments, golfing, fishing, and engaging in other human pursuits are very popular. Fantastic creatures such as dragons and chimeras and others are also carved, even carvings of Benito Juárez, Subcomandante Marcos, chupacabras (imaginary beings that eat goats), "Martians," mermaids, and helicopters. The diversity of the figures is due to a segmented market both in Mexico and abroad which rewards novelty and specialization. In a number of cases, carvings return to images from Mexican culture such as angels, saints, and Virgins, which will have somber faces even if they are painted in very bright colors. Devils and skeletons are often parts of more festive scenes depicting them, for example, riding dogs and drinking. Foreign customers demand more creative figures with little repetition. Prices abroad range from between three and five times the retail price in Oaxaca, with a median of $100 USD, with lowest usually around $10 and highest around $2,000. One of the most expensive pieces sold from a carving village occurred in 1995, when a doctor from Mexico City paid Isidro Cruz of Tilcajete the equivalent of $3000 USD for a piece entitled “Carousel of the Americas.” This piece took Cruz three months to complete. Typical household income of families from Arrazola and Tilcajete averages about $2000USD per year, but exceptional artists can earn up to $20,000 per year. Two thousand a year is substantially more than average in Oaxaca and allows families to build or expand housing and send children to secondary school. However, most families carve as a sideline with agriculture providing basic staples. In some towns, especially in Tilcajete, the economy has shifted from agriculture to the making of wood carvings with a number of families abandoning farming altogether.
However, for most households in Oaxaca, the success of alebrijes has not replaced the need to farm or to alleviated the need to send family members to Mexico City or to the United States and work and send remittances back home.
Despite Oaxaca’s reputation for the production of crafts by indigenous peoples, alebrije makers are monolingual Spanish speakers who generally do not identify themselves as a member of an indigenous group although almost all have Zapotec ancestors.
The alebrijes are considered to be novelty items for the makers rather than expressions of a cultural heritage. More traditional woodcarving, such as utensils, toys, religious figures and the like are still made by older residents, but these crafts are overshadowed by alebrijes. Approximately 150 families now devote themselves at least part-time to the making of alebrijes, with carving techniques being passed down from generation to generation and many children growing up around fantastic figures both finished and in process.
Due to copies from other places, a certification scheme is being considered to ensure the viability of crafts from this area. That would include educating consumers and working with reputable stores.