Tradition and innovation at the Alebrije parade

For the 13th year in a row, monsters have taken over the streets of the historic center of Mexico City. The Monumental Alebrijes Parade has become the kick-off to the capital’s Day of the Dead celebrations, one of its most important tourist seasons, drawing over 450,000 visitors for a nearly two-week time period.

The parade is the brainchild of the Museo de Arte Popular. Prompted by the popularity of monumental paper mache works in the 2000s, they sponsored a contest for making giant alebrijes, both to challenge local artisans and to promote the craft.

Alebrijes, as Pedro Linares invented them, are relatively small, from no bigger than a hand to maybe a half meter. At these sizes, the paper mache “skin” is laid over a frame of either reed strips or wire. Up to about a meter or so, both of these kinds of frames work if the alebrije is relatively simple. However, the larger the creature gets, the more factors come into play into making something that will hold up. Innovation in the “engineering” of these creatures comes into play, one reason why participation in this event has been popular among a number of Mexico City schools.

One of the attractions of the annual alebrije parade is that it allows for entries that are traditional and innovative, and even some that challenge the whole idea of what an alebrije is. The most traditional of “cartoneros” (paper mache artisans) is that alebrijes are made only with paper, paste and paint, with a wire or reed frame. Any other materials inside or out and the creation does not meet the definition. This view is heavily promoted by the descendents of Pedro Linares, who obviously have a stake in preserving the legacy.

There will and always should be a market for such recreations, but there are arguments for a broader definition. First of all, maestro Pedro himself was an innovator, essentially developing alebrijes by innovating with a traditional paper mache product … effigies of Judas Iscariot that are burned on Holy Saturday. His innovations, and the banning of the burning of Judas for various decades, led to the creations taking on the new name.

The second is the age-old tug of war between generations. Older generations want to preserve their forms and prestige, and younger generations want to make their own mark. This is seen in all kinds of creative pursuits.  Lastly, we should take into account that maestro Pedro created his alebrijes using materials that were available to him, which were quite limited to what is available 70 years later. Plastics, rubber and all manners of decorative material either did not exist or were out of Linares’s economic reach. Cartoneros who use plastics and other materials are using what they have on hand, the basis of almost all handcraft traditions.

Aside from materials and building techniques, there are questions of design and decoration. The Linares family insist that true alebrijes have parts of at least three animals (real or imagined) and all decorative features are painted on, generally in garing and clashing colors.

Most of the entries in the alebrije parade do follow the Linares recipe, with no or only minor variations.

DSC_0090ChitamJonon
Chitam Jonan by Felipe Linares

Most of the practicing members of the Linares family participated in the parade this year, creating mostly traditional pieces. The one above shows parts of several animals and only animals. The colors are bright, but pig’s face is surprisingly realistic. One reason for this might be that the alebrije was sponsored by a major chain of taco places famous for their tacos al pastor, made from pork. This theory is reinforced by the fact that there are stylized spits of the style that the meat is cooked.

 

 

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The slide show above shows a number of traditional alebrijes. The overall designs are one that maestro Pedro could have made. The only real distinction is that paint is far finer than what Linares did and reflects the probably participation of trained artists in the design and execution.

 

 

These two are interesting in that both use corrogated cardboard and tubes… and, instead of working against the material, work with it by taking advantage of the sharp edges and tubular effects in the alebrijes design. This is a very recent development which may have to do with the fact that newspaper is disappearing, leaving such paper products as the most abundance waste to be found.

 

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The above alebrijes are interesting is that they show certain artisans’ willingness to fold, twist and otherwise manipulate small bits of paper and cardboard to create fine details. With a few exceptions such as claws, Linares’ pieces indicated details such as spines, scales and very small feathers through paint. That is not to say that maestro was not capable of this kind of work, he most certainly was, but did not do this likely because of economic factors.

 

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Another issue is the purely decorative features as seen in the slideshow above. In the case of the vaguely humanoid figure, the painting style shows influence from urban art. Purists are skeptical about this, even if the artisan avoids more modern ways of applying paint such as spray cans. More controversial is the use of other recyled materials and items that can be bought in craft stores, such as glitter, seguins, beads and the like. The last issue is the appearance of skeletal images on or near the participating alebrijes. Linares did not tie alebrijes to a particular season, and their predecesor Judases were associated with Holy Week. The appearance of Day of the Dead motifs comes from the timing of the Alebrije Parade itself and may be the reason why the movie Coco made alebrijes a kind of guardian of the dead. In the case of the dog above, it could be argued that it is not an alebrije both because of the color scheme and that it appears to be a single animal.

 

DSC_0096The desire for more elegant and aesthetic lines has led some artisans to emphasize one animal or even ditch the idea of having more than one animal part in their alebrije altogether. This is particularly contentious for many Mexico City cartoneros because there is an ongoing dispute among those who make similar pieces in wood in Oaxaca, which are also called alebrijes. (both types of alebrijes appear in Coco) The Oaxaca version is a reinterpretation of Linares’s work. In fact, one of the entries this year was a monumental wood  alebrije which mimics the work done in San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca (right). However, for the animal with the toy the jaguar warrior and the very realistic quetzal bird, we are moving far enough from the original definition of alebrije to question these pieces’ status.

The use of other materials for decorative purposes has become somewhat accepted among Alebrije Parade entries and have included cloth, yarn, ixtle fiber, rope and various plastics.

 

In 2019, one entry used absolutely no paper mache at all. Its frame was made of various waste metals, which was then covered in plastic sheets, then spray painted. The exposure of the metal gives this work a robotic look, rather than a representation of a “living” fantasy creature. However, it is an interesting study in the use of available urban products.

 

In a similar vein, this alebrije, also goes with a very angular, almost kite-like design. It also loses the look of a “living” being.

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The process being played out here is the uncomfortable struggle between tradition and innovation, in which neither extreme can win in one fell swoop. Too much tradition risks being stuck in the past and even stereotyping. Too much innovation and the object needs an entirely new name. How much and when to innovate is being decided one creation at a time by many different people. How and how much alebrijes evolve will always remain to be seen.

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