The Imaginative World of Alebrijes
It is said that an alebrije will choose you, rather than you picking it from midst its crowd of companions all carefully displayed; and according to some, they actually represent your spirit guardian.
Alebrijes (al-a-BRE-hays) are brightly coloured and painstakingly detailed painted wooden sculptures primarily made in the communities of San Martín Tilcajete and Arrazola, Oaxaca.
The sculptures represent all kinds of beings – from owls, jaguars, frogs, and grasshoppers, to fantastical creatures like rooster-grasshopper hybrids, and fire-breathing sharp-toothed winged reptile-like creatures with googly eyes.
I guess it could be said that the alebrije that chooses you says something about you, but what does a fire-breathing alien with googly eyes painted in paisley patterns really say?
Pedro Linares dreamed up the fantastical beings and their name in the 1930s, hallucinating whilst sick. In his unconscious state, Linares saw a forest inhabited by strange hybrid creatures.
He saw a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with bull horns, a lion with an eagle head, and all of them were shouting one word, “Alebrijes”. Upon recovery, he began recreating the creatures he saw in cardboard and paper mache and called them Alebrijes. Source
Alebrijes from Oaxaca are made from wood from the copal tree, and are a product of both Linare’s influences and traditional woodcarving techniques handed down from generation to generation in communities outside of Oaxaca.
Recently while friends were visiting me in Oaxaca, we did a tour of the Angeles family alebrije workshop, in San Martin Tilcajete, 30 minutes south of Oaxaca city, and now known as an “alebrije village”. We were lucky enough to be shown the process by Elias Angeles, one of Jacob’s sons, who has grown up surrounded by this family business and these amazingly inventive creatures.
An alebrije is carved from the copal tree, and through years of experience and a pretty good imagination, Elias can already see the creature inside the wood, waiting to be coaxed out. The Angeles family does special orders for people, the entire process taking approx 2 years for delivery from the initial order. Jaguars, owls and coyotes seem to be the most requested animals – carved from one piece of wood. The smaller alebrijes with wings, forked tongues and antennae are carved from several pieces of wood, and each of the smaller appendages is removable – perfect for travel.
Elias explained the natural paints the Angeles family use, made from (among other things) pomegranate seeds, indigo, and cochineal. Adding bicarb soda or lemon changes the colours in probably the best functional example of a chemistry class I have seen.
The Angeles family’s workshop – from its beginning as a mom and pop studio, now employs 60 local people across the various aspects of the alebrije lifecycle.
Painting is done by people sitting at tables, each with their own colours, and in companionable conversation as they effortlessly paint freehand small circles and other traditional Zapotec designs onto their creature. Some people may spend 2 and 3 months painting the same piece, depending on its size and the pattern they want to convey. Facial features are very important, as these will give the sculpture its final attitude, and so this is thought about carefully before work begins.
Today, the alebrijes made in San Martin Tilcajete are displayed all over the world, and the last large piece Elias sold was to a museum in Canada, At the Angeles workshop both the techniques and the resultant creatures are continually refined and expanded upon, What started as one man’s hallucination has become an artform in its own right.