What Is That Creature?

They’re called alebrijes, handmade sculptures of fantastical animals

You know those brightly colored sculptures you see in some galleries and shops, the ones shaped like weird looking animals? Well, they might look like kids toys, but they’re actually pieces of high quality art.

Alebrijes (pronounced all-eh-brie-haze) are Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures. Alebrijes originated in Mexico, and were created by an artisan named Pedro Linares.

alebrijes.JPGIn the 1930s, Linares became very sick and while he was in bed, he dreamt (or hallucinated, more likely) of a strange place resembling a forest. There, he saw trees, rocks and clouds that suddenly turned into strange animals that 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.

After Linares recovered, he wanted to show people the animals he had seen, so he took some paper and molded the figures from memory, making papier-mâché forms. Then he 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 the1980s, British filmmaker Judith Bronowski arranged a roving Mexican art workshop in the U.S. featuring Manuel Jiménez, a sculptor and painter from Oaxaca. It was there that Jiménez learned about the alebrijes.

The Oaxaca valley area already had a history of carving animal and other figures from wood, so Jiménez adapted Linares’ papier-mâché sculptures into wooden forms. He carved the figures from copal, a local wood that’s said to have magical properties, rather than using paper. This version of the craft spread throughout Oaxaca and surrounding areas, and is what we know alebrijes as today.

To make an alebrije come to life, the first step is to find a piece of wood with just the right shape. The carving starts when the artisan “reads” the piece of wood and decides what form it will take, based on its knots, size, curves and grain. Then, the artisan carves the wood with hand tools, including machetes, files and sometimes scissors. The tools used depend on the size of the wood and the hardness. Animals are often and carved with exaggerated features that bear little resemblance to what occurs in the natural world.

Once the main shape has been carved, the piece of wood must be dried in the sun. Sometimes it’s soaked in gasoline and baked to kill off any bug eggs that might be hiding in the wood. This step can make the wood crack or break, so all the spaces in the wood are filled with small pieces of wood or resin. After the piece has been shaped, it must be sanded.

Alebrijes are known for being brightly painted and whimsical. Before acrylic paint became popular, the wood pieces were painted with natural pigments made from minerals, ashes, fungus, insects and herbs. These pigments limited the brightness of the piece, but also increased its worth. From only one main ingredient, such as the bark of the male copal tree, many colors, from yellow to green to blue, can be made by adding either lime juice, baking soda or alcohol. This is pure chemistry: the artisans play with the acidity or alkalinity of the pigments. The natural pigments were not only expensive, but also hard to find, which is why many artisans turned to commercial acrylic paints.

No matter which type of paint is used, there are several layers that go onto an alebrije. First, the background must be painted in solid colors. There can be more than one color used, but this layer is always solid. Then comes the second layer, with small details and patterns. These sometimes mimic feathers or spots, but most of the time are geographic patterns. The spots and lines are hair thin, and shows the artistry of the piece; it takes a steady hand to achieve such intricate detailing. After that comes another layer of patterns, in colors that are different than those used in the first layer, but still complimentary. The layering can continue for awhile; some artisans make their alebrijes with up to 10 layers of patterns and outlines.

One of the most important things about these figures is that every piece is removable, meaning the head, legs, arms, tails, etc., can all be taken off and put back on. This is how you can tell you have a piece made by one of the great original carvers. Newer carvers didn't learn the technique of carving each piece so it could be removed and put back on again and again. Those pieces are more valuable, and the painting on these figures is also more intense and varied.

The alebrije market is divided into two categories: the high-quality, labor-intensive pieces that are handmade, and the average quality, inexpensive pieces that all look alike and are mass produced. Those who have produced exceptionally fine pieces have gained reputations as artists, commanding high prices for their work. The most successful carving families sell almost exclusively to dealers and wholesalers, and may have only a few pieces available for drop-in visitors.

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 U.S., 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.

The price of each piece depends on the quality, coloring, size, originality and sometimes the reputation of the carver. 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.    ,