Alebrijes are fantastic figures made of wood, paper, cardboard, and wire. Although they were “invented” in the 20th century, they reflect deep cultural roots in the handcrafts of Mexico, and have become symbolic of the nation. Let’s explore these wonderful creations.
I recently wrote an article about the Osborne bull, and it got me thinking. It seems as though sometimes an artist can make something totally new, and yet it is so deeply integrated into the history and culture and spirit of a place, that it seems like it existed forever. Or, the idea of it had always existed, and it was a specific artist or designer who managed to manifest it and give it back to the people. Such is the case with alebrijes, these wonderful figures from Mexico.
The Origins of Alebrijes
The Dream of Pedro Linares Lopez
In one sense, alebrijes originated with Mexican craftsman Pedro Linares, born in 1906. Linares was already known in Mexico City for his paper mache (not quite paper mache; a local craft known as cartoneria) figures. He made Mexican carton pinatas and Judas figures for Easter festivals and other traditional occasions.
When he was 30, Linares fell ill and had a dream of his own death and rebirth on a mythical mountain. In his dream, there were rocks and clouds and trees that transformed into vividly colored impossible chimera-like creatures. These creatures were all shouting “Alebrijes! Alebrijes! Alebrijes!” (a meaningless word).
Upon his recovery, he started using paper mache to create the creatures he had dreamed of, and an art form was born. The figures were bought and collected by notable figures in Mexico, notably Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and became famous.
The Art of Oaxaca
However, Linares’ dream and art is only half the story. Oaxaca Mexico is a region of the country known for indigenous culture and crafts. Due to its remote, rugged terrain, it was not as heavily influenced by colonialism as other parts of Mexico, and has sixteen recognized indigenous peoples who continue many of their ancient traditions.
One of the most famous crafts of Oaxaca is the carving and painting of wooden figures. Often these figures depicted shapeshifting creatures from local legend, called naguals. These figures were carved out of a local sacred wood, and are said to be magical and bring good luck.
In the 1980s, a British documentary filmmaker named Judith Bronowski organized an exhibition of traditional Mexican crafts, and it was there that Arrazolan wood carver Manuel Jimenez met Pedro Linares.
Inspired by Linares, Jimenez adopted some of the visual style and detail of the paper mache figures into his wood carvings, and the two artists inspired each other. In the 1990s, these Oaxacan wooden creatures, although they were an ancient craft, also took on the name of alebrijes.
Although Jimenez kept his techniques within the family, other artists in Oaxaca began to mimic the style of Linares’ and Jimenez’s alebrijes. Although I don’t know that “mimic” is exactly a fair word, considering how closely these figures correspond with the existing myths, handcrafts, and design aesthetics of Mexico. It seems as though alebrijes were always there, they just hadn’t yet been given a name.
In Oaxaca, alebrijes have become an important industry. Each village and each family have their own style, and each figure is unique. They play a central role in the local economy, being sold and traded in local markets and becoming a signature souvenir for tourists and visitors. They have also launched the careers of many local artists and artisans, creating alebrijes that are extremely valuable.
Since 2007, the annual Mexico City Alebrije Parade has celebrated alebrijes as well as a host of other local arts and crafts.
At the parade, the alebrijes are larger than Linares ever dreamed of, and may be made of paper, cardboard, wire, fabric… anything that captures the spirit of these colorful creatures.
Like Toro de Osborne, alebrijes have become public domain, with a cultural significance that outweighs their commercial impact. However, they are protected by something like the European “designation of origin”: it is illegal to sell alebrijes without indicating the region and community that they are from.
These figures, with their wildly different origin stories, enormous range of materials, techniques, and colors, are absolutely inspiring, joyful, and fascinating. I want to make my own!