Alebrijes: when dreams become art
Some dreams come true, that materialize here in the world we know. And apparently that is what happened with alebrijes, unusual and colorful figures that are probably one of the most distinctive symbols of Mexican crafts. And we are so familiar with them that they seem to have been always among us that its origin dates back to indigenous times, but not so. There are several stories about this invention, although it is highlighted in the collective imagination which brings us to the year 1936 in Mexico City.
Pedro Linares Lopez was a well known craftsman using recycled materials in the area of La Merced. His extensive experience in the manufacture of Judas (cardboard figures burned with fireworks in the religious festivities of Easter), and he was always taking orders, such as those for the drugstore Bustillos on Calle de Tacuba, which ordered 20 Judas every year, or even famous personalities such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who said that no one but he could make the strange figures. But one day, at the age of 30, Peter became ill from a stomach ulcer and he laid in bed delirious … and dreaming a fantasy world.
Immersed in a deep sleep, Peter saw himself in a peaceful place covered with clouds, surrounded by trees, rocks, and animals that he could not distinguish. He felt no pain, but was calm. He walked there happily, when suddenly the clouds became strange animals, unrelated to any known species such as a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with horns of a bull, a lion with an eagle’s head and many more , all shouting a word increasingly louder : Wood Carvings! Alebrijes. Peter ran down a path of stones to find a man who walked peacefully and who asked for help. You must not still be here – said the man, who pointed the way for Peter to follow. He came to a narrow window through which he could slip away, then waking up at his own wake, where family prayed before what they believed was an inevitable fate. Nobody could get medical treatment, but to the astonishment of all the artisans he fully recovered. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since then Pedro Linares was dedicated to molding and painting the creatures he saw in his dream and to make them known to the world. There soon arose artisans that began to develop their own figures, although at the time there could be imitations, ultimately it served to entrench a new craft tradition which meant for Linares the greatest of compliments: all would know these curious figures as alebrijes.
What about alebrijes from Oaxaca? Let’s go to the region of the Central Valley , where two villages with a strong craft tradition dating back to the times Zapotec and Aztec : San Antonio Arrazola, 10 kilometers from the highway to Zaachila in the municipality of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán and San Martin Tilcajete in the town of Ocotlan, 23 kilometers from the city of Oaxaca. It is said in Arrazola that Pedro Linares, a little more than 30 years ago, was visiting with relatives and showed some of his creations to Manuel Jimenez, a craftsman carving wood masks out of zempantle, who decided to create his own alebrijes using his own techniques: iguanas transformed into armadillos or as the rainbow colored dragons. However, in Tilcajete they give a different explanation: a village craftsman simply found that the alebrijes sold well, so he began to develop them but with wood, a material of great artisan tradition in the area which also gives makes the parts durable unlike paper or cardboard which can easily deteriorate.
No matter how they came about, the truth is that the reception of the alebrijes among Oaxacan artisans opened new waves of inspiration to work with these fantastic creatures as well as animals from the indigenous worldview that forged the identity of Oaxaca for many generations. The artistic process is what gives a unique look to each piece being made with copal wood: trees or shrubs that produce fragrant oils and resins used for making incense, perfumes, or remedies.
After cutting down the tree, the carvers must work with the wood within 8 days, after which the wood hardens. They remove the bark with machetes and begin to shape the piece they imagine and then soak the pieces in a bath of gasoline and a special solution to protect wood from moths or termites. Each bath may last several days and drying the pieces can take several weeks. After this process the pieces are checked. If cracks are found incense powder is used until they are ready to be painted. Many artisans use latex paint because it is easy to apply and dries quickly, allowing them great precision for consistency and the ability to use very fine brushes. Yet others who are jealous of Oaxacan traditions and continue to use paintings whose development is part of a vast experience : the very name of the Tilcajete town derives from the Aztec word Tlixcacitl which means place where painted or place of ink, allowing us to imagine how long this practice of the craft has been here.
Once the copal bark is completely dried, roasted, and grounded to produce a powder, the resin is mixed with equal parts to obtain a natural yellow paint for durability. Jacobo Angeles, renowned creator Oaxacan teacher of alebrijes, explains: If we mix the copal lime bark we get black paint. If instead we put in baking soda the paint is brown. These three colors: yellow, black, and brown were used to paint the codices in Mitla and Monte Alban, and to decorate the churches of Santo Domingo de Guzman and Tlacochahuaya.