Handicrafts: Alebrijes

BY: ALE BORBOLLA

Alebrijes (pronounced all-eh-brie-haze) are brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures. The first alebrijes, along with the use of the term, originated from a Mexican artisan named Pedro Linares. In the 1930s, Linares became very sick, and while he was in bed, unconscious, Linares “dreamt” or hallucinated, more likely, of a strange place resembling a forest.

There, he saw trees, animals, rocks, clouds that suddenly turned into something strange, some kind of animals, which he had never seen before. 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." Talk about a bad dream!

With the devilish figures running through his mind, Linares gave life to his vision and the art of making alebrijes was born.

After Linares recovered, he started to remember his hallucinations and he wanted his family and everybody to know about the animals he saw, so he took a piece of paper and he molded the figurines from his memory. He then painted them as he saw them in his dream.

His work caught the attention of a gallery owner in Cuernavaca, in the south of Mexico and later, artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

In the 1980s, British filmmaker, Judith Bronowski, arranged an itinerant Mexican art craft demonstration workshop in the U.S. 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 about the alebrijes papier-mâché sculptures. Linares showed his designs on family visits which were adapted to the carving of a local wood called copal; this type of wood is said to be magical.

The papier-mâché-to-wood carving adaptation was pioneered by Manuel Jiménez, native from Arrazola, a town in Oaxaca. This version of the craft has since spread to a number of other towns, most notably San Martín Tilcajete and La Unión Tejalapan, and became a major source of income for the area, especially for Tilcajete.

Many rural households in the Mexican state of Oaxaca have prospered over the past three decades through the sale of brightly painted, whimsical wood carvings they call alebrijes to international tourists and the owners of ethnic arts shops in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. What is called “alebrijes” in Oaxaca is a marriage of native woodcarving traditions and influence from Pedro Linares’ work in Mexico City. 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.

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. Only the better carving families generally make larger pieces. 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 designed and carved with exaggerated features that bear little resemblance to what occurs in the natural world.

The process may seem quite simple but it takes a whole lot of craftsmanship to make an authentic alebrije. First, a piece of copal wood must be picked, which is no easy task. There are female trees and male trees and each branch has a different shape, which is key for the piece it will be made into.

Before we get into the cutting process it is of extreme importance to mention that the copal tree is highly endangered as a species. It was originally used by native Mexicans for rituals and has not been preserved properly, which is the main reason why its commercialization has turned into a black market mafia. The few forests that do grow copal only sell it to their own people, turning everything into a big, mean, difficult operation.

The whole process was supposed to be done by only one person, from the cutting of the tree to the final painting, but now it is more typical for families to involve all the members in the making of an alebrije. There are two main workshops in Oaxaca where alebrijes are made; Jacobo and Maria Angeles workshop and casa Don Juan. Both workshops are located in San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca.

To make an alebrije come to life, the first step is to find the right piece of wood, with the right shape. The carving starts when the artisan reads the piece of wood and decides what it will become, based on its knots, size, curves and grain while the wood is still “wet.” Then, the artisan carves the wood with hand tools, including machetes, files, and sometimes scissors, depending on the size of the piece of wood and the hardness. Once the main shape has been carved, the piece of wood must be dried in the sun, sometimes soaked in gasoline and baked to kill off all the bug eggs the piece might hold. This step might make the wood likely to crack or break, which is easily fixed by filling the spaces with small pieces of wood or resin. When the piece has been shaped, it must be sanded to perfection, so the pigments stick the way the artisan means them to.

Before acrylic paint became so popular, the wood pieces were painted with natural pigments, including minerals, ashes, fungus, insects and herbs.

These pigments limited the brightness of the piece but also increased its value. From only one main ingredient, such as the bark of the male copal tree, many colors can be achieved from yellow to green to blue adding lime juice, baking soda or alcohol. This is pure chemistry: the artisans play with the acidity or alkalinity of the pigments. Natural pigments are not only expensive but also hard to find, which is why many artisans turned to commercial acrylic paints to do the job. Either with acrylic paint or natural pigments, there are several layers that go into making an alebrije.

First, the background must be painted solid. Sometimes the creature’s body is sectioned and the background colors can be as many as the artisan wishes, but always solid. Then, comes the second layer; small details in patterns that sometimes mimic feathers or spots, but most of the time are geographic patterns. The spots and lines are as thin as a hair sometimes, the artistry comes from keeping a steady pulse to achieve the beautiful spaces between colors.

After that layer comes another layer of patterns, complementing the first layer, in different colors. Some artisans make their alebrijes with up to 10 layers of patterns and outlines, some less. Bottom line, this is quite the intricate handicraft.

All photos by: Jorge A. Lopez Mendicuti