Tokyo has Godzilla, New York has King Kong… but since only one monster isn´t enough, Mexico City has monumental alebrijes!
While there is some debate about their origin, it is certain that current form of these colorful creatures were developed and popularized by paper mache artisan Pedro Linares in the mid 20th century. They evolved from Judas figures, adding elements such as various body parts from creatures, both real and fantastic in many many different combinations and painted them in fantastic colors and often designs.
It is one form of paper mache which has grown tremendously in recent years, both in popularity and size.
In 2006, the Museo de Arte Popular decided to sponsor a parade, exhibition and contest for paper mache artisans called “Night of the Alebrijes.” This remains the official name of the event, but it is far better known as the “Desfile de Alebrijes” or Alebrije Parade, as this is the most popular aspect of the event, drawing crowds of thousands with line the streets of the city from the Zocalo (main square) to the Angel of Independence on Reforma.
They come to see the creations made each year for the event ranging in height from a meter to up to six meters tall. According to Emilio Ortiz of the Museo de Arte Popular, the works would be even taller, but overhead wires form a barrier.
While large alebrijes were not uncommon before the advent of the parade, they rarely reached over a meter and never over two. They generally remain light enough such that the traditional frame of split reeds sufficed for support.
These monumental works and the competition among the participating artisans has meant significant innovation both in technique and aesthetics. Alebrijes of 2 or more meters in height and/or length generally require stronger support than reeds can give, so most entries have wire frames (called “almas” (souls)) with really large pieces using light construction rebar, which requires welding skills. Some entries have also experimented with adding movement to pieces, from mechantical devices, electronics and some clever wire joining and pulley systems.
The vast majority of the works still use cartoneria (a hard paper maché) as the skin for thier creations, but are not limited to paper by any means. There have been alebrijes with details and even sections of glass, fabric, plastic (especially that recycled from bottles), yarn, sequins, beads and more. Designs are left to creators’ wild imaginations with few restrictions, apart from prohibitions against entries with political and social themes to keep the event light-hearted.
And there are human participants, too!
The event has been a major boon for caroneros in the Mexico City area and an influence both in Mexico City and beyond. The popularity of monumental pieces has promoted the creation of monumental altars for Day of the Dead in the Zocalo and the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Monumental alebrijes now appear at the annual Mojiganga in Zacualpan, Morelos and the city of Querétaro now has its own version of the parade. But the main event for these works remains this parades, and attracts entries from various parts of central Mexico.
The next Monumental Alebrije parade is October 22, 2016 (12pm) and will feature around 200 of these monumental creature. They are best seen on parade, but if this is not possible they are left on display on Avenida Reforma for about two weeks afterwards.
All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter and Alejandro Linares Garcia