Many Mexican handcraft traditions evolve and modernize, mostly due to the changes in market. But that is not always the case.
The making of coloful, fantastic monsters called alebrijes is a relatively newcomer to Mexican handcrafts, with two major variations… those made of hard paper mache (cartoneria) usually with parts from more than one real or imaginary animal and a second carved from wood and usually depicting a single entity. The first has its origins from Mexico City and the second is rooted in the rural traditions of Oaxaca.
Because of their newness and completely secular nature, the making of alebrijes allows much flexibility in design and even in technique. In the past 15 years or so, monumental paper mache versions have appeared and there is even an annual parade dedicated to them sponsored by the Museo de Arte Popular (MAP).
Another innovation can be attributed to this same institution. Several years ago, group of Mexican artisans attended a light festival in France and presented the notion of alebrijes to their French counterparts. The brainstorming that followed resulted in the idea of creating versions that would not only be lighted, but also movable, unlike traditional alebrijes, which are static.
These artisans collaborated with MAP and the National Handcrafts School in Mexico City to work out how such could be accomplished. The result are frames of aluminum and other light materials, which fits over a person, resting on the shoulders. The arms and legs of the alebrijes are controled by those of the wearer.
The skin of lighted alebrijes are made from plastic, material and/or fiberglass, translucent enough to allow the LED light system underneath to shine and accentuate the colors of the alebrijes. Although much larger than traditional alebrijes, they are limited to being not too much taller than a person, given the need to keep the weight down. The effect is similar to a mojiganga, a traditional giant puppet of paper mache, but much more 21st century.
While both alebrijes and mojigangas are painted in bright colors, the neon colors of the lighted alebrijes outdo tradition.
These giant puppet creatures are regularly exhibit at MAP during the monthly Night of the Museums event which takes place on the last Wednesday of the month. (Dates for the rest of 2016 are 31 Aug, 28 Sept, 26 Oct, 30 Nov and 14 Dec.) Despite their regular showing, the lighted creatures continue to be a big hit, with lines to enter the museum stretching over a block just to see the creatures move, and of course take selfies with them.
They are also lent and rented out for various public and private events, especially at night, which allows them to be fully appreciated.
All photos by Alejandro Linares or Leigh Thelmadatter