Leave it to Mexico to turn the stuff of nightmares into colorful decorations. After all, this is the land that laughs at both death and the devil.
Alebrijes are brightly colored figures that range from only a few centimeters to up to meters tall. However, the name really refers to two separate but somewhat related handcrafts.
The original alebrijes got their start in Mexico City, evolving from the cartoneria/paper mache work of Pedro Linares (1906-1992). The romantic version of the story has monsters with parts of various animals appearing in the fevered dreams of Linares while he was deathly sick, whispering “alebrijes, alebrijes.” For decades Linares and family stuck to this story, but by the early 1990s research by Susana Masuoka demonstrated that the figures evolved from “Judas figures,” images of the devil made to be destroyed on Holy Saturday. Eventually the family dropped the story as the historical account, but as myth it remains important. Some alebrije makers such as Susana Buyo give them otherworldly attributes such as guardians against bad luck. They even featured for a very short time as protagonists in a cartoon series for children called “Brijes.”
The paper versions for the most part keep their “monster” aspect, often integrating elements of insects along with other animals and are still painted in bright colors, often with intricate designs. In 2006, the Museo de Arte Popular began an annual parade of monumental-sized alebrijes, with groups of professional and amateur craftspeople vying for prizes. It is by far the museum’s most popular annual event, with local and national media coverage. These alebrijes are made up to 3 meters tall (any higher and they cannot pass under telephone wires) and up t0 10 meters long. They come with fanciful names, often from Nahuatl, and sometimes with backstories and costumed human entourages.
The other alebrije tradition grew out of the wood carving traditions of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. Although a number of local sources here insist that Pedro Linares had Oaxacan roots or familial connections, this is not the case. The Oaxaca version is credited to Manuel Jimenez, who was influenced by the work of Linares. Jimenez’s version is almost always of one recognizable animal, although some may add wings or horns. Carved from a soft local wood called copal, they are also brightly painted with designs which have become so intricate that some artisans have taken to using syringes filled with paint to make fields of tiny dots.
These have become popular with tourists, not only because of their tamer nature but also because Oaxaca is a major tourist destination. While made in various parts of the Central Valleys, there are two communities particularly known for their production: Arrazola, where they originated, and San Martin Tilcajete. However, there is a downside to this craft. The Mexico City version uses waste paper, but the Oaxaca version uses a natural resource which has been heavily depleted, leading to strong regulation regarding the cutting of trees. Some artisans, such as the Angeles family in Tilcajete, have led reforestation campaigns. Another tactic is to take advantage of the painting, which really gives the pieces their value, to decorate other items such as small boxes, crosses and bottles. This is particularly common in Arrazola.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.