Alebrije is a Mexican folk art tradition that was started in the 1930's by now famous artist Pedro Linares, of Mexico City. The paintings and sculptures depict mythical creatures, patterns, and bright colors. His art has won awards, was featured in the movie Coco, and is one of the most recognized forms of art in Mexico.
Today Linares' children and grandchildren carry on the art tradition. There are families creating Alebrijes art all through-out Mexico especially in Mexico City and Oaxaca. Here you can visit the many handicraft shops and purchase your favorite Alebrije sculptures.
Original papercraft Alebrijes by Pedro Linares
Image of an Alebrijes inspired paper mache sculture.
Alebrijes originated in 1936 from Mexico, and the first papercraft called Alebrijes attribute to Pedro Linares, a Mexican artist. Pedro Linares specialized in making carnival masks, "Judas" figures, and pinatas, and he used to sell them in La Merced and other markets.
Linares work as a Papier-mâché artist was excellent. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo collected his creations, before even he created the first Alebrijes.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo with a creation by Pedro Linares.
In 1990, Linares received Mexico's National Arts and Sciences Award, and two weeks later, he died.
Pedro Linares' work inspired many Alebrije artists, and his descendants still carry on with this tradition.
His original designs have already fallen into the domain of the public. However, chapter three of the 1996 Mexican federal copyright law claims that selling Mexican crafts is illegal unless you acknowledge the region and community from which they are crafted.
These laws applied to the public exhibition of the crafts, their commercialization as well as their use.
The good or bad news is that the government rarely enforces this law, and the artists sell their Alebrije-inspired products freely without giving details concerning their origin.
What are / What is the Meaning of Alebrijes?
Ale-br-ije, which would have the meaning as the following; joy, witch and embije, with all this, we can say that Alebrijes is a witch painted or dyed with joy.
It contains a similar root, "Alebrarse", (Get excited) which means to lie down and then fall, the meaning is not directly related to these brightly colored figures, but to the state of health of Pedro Linares.
Alebrijes refers to different varieties of crafts, although Pedro Linares family has a lot of control over this name.
The family continues exporting their craftwork to galleries and showing the world Mexican folk art. With the new emerging styles of Alebrijes from different artisans and artists, this craft has formed part of the folk art repertoire of Mexico.
Fun Fact: Did you know that you will you never find two similar Alebrijes? Well, now you know!
Aside from the Pedro Linares family, another known Alebrije artist is Susana Buyo, who learned the Mexican folk art in one of Pedro Linares family's workshops.
Susana is a native of Argentina and a citizen of Mexico, and the local children referred to her as the "Señora de Los Monstruos." Susana's work is very evident in Mexico City and Europe.
The difference between her work and that of Pedro Linares is that she has included many tender expressions and human contours. Her work also uses non-traditional materials like fantasy stones, modern resins, and feathers for durability and novelty.
Susana Buyo Alebrije Art
Although Alebrijes was first made popular with paper mache, artisans have now turned to painted wood carvings as a more popular (easy to ship) method to sell this art to tourists.
Where To Find Original Pedro Linares Alebrije Art For Sale
Although there are plenty of people who are "keeping the Alebrije art style alive" so to speak, the only way to get your hands on his original art is to buy it at an auction.
Second best would be to see his pieces at a museum.
The Carving Process
A family of Oaxcan artisans carving wood for their Alebrije.
How Long Does It take?
Carving one piece can take you hours or even a month. This depends on the fineness and size of the piece. The wood used for carving must also be wet, and it determines the carving that will come out.
The carving depends on the shape of the branches and the gender of the tree; Female and male trees differ in shape and hardness. If you didn't think of trees in terms of gender, now you better.
Which Tools Are Used?
Carving involves using non-mechanical hand tools like chisels, knives, and machetes. The only sophisticated tool the carvers can need in this process is a chain saw for cutting off branches and leveling the bases for the proposed figures.
The role of the machete is to hack the basic shapes of the creatures while the smaller knives achieve the final shapes. Details like wings, tails, and ears are crafted from separate pieces from the main figure.
Are There Any Precautionary Measures?
After carving, the carvers leave the figure for about ten months to dry.
The period, however, depends on the overall thickness and size of the figure. Since semi-tropical woods can easily become victims of insect infestation, the carvers usually soak the drying pieces in gasoline or bake them to destroy the insect eggs.
While drying, the figure can also be a victim to cracking, and therefore, the carvers fill the cracks with a sawdust resin mixture and small copal wood pieces before painting.
Manuel Jimenez Alebrijes Wood Carving and Painting
Initially, the carvers used aniline paints on the Oaxaca woodcarvings. Their natural ingredients included baking soda, pomegranate seeds, the bark of the copal tree, cochineal, indigo, zinc, lime juice, and huitlacoche.
Other roles of these colorings included dying ceremonial paints and clothing among others.
Most carvers have switched to acrylics since 1985. The acrylics withstand constant cleanings, and they also resist fading. However, some carvers still use aniline paints because they have a rustic look that customers want.
Either way, painting involves two layers: a superimposed multicolored design and a solid undercoat.
Who Does The Carving?
Woodcarving was initially a solitary activity, and only one person did all the aspects, especially a male. However, in the 1980s, when the sales started to hike, family members began sharing the work.
The children and women mostly helped with painting and sanding while the men did the remaining part of the work to make the figures. Despite all this, pieces are still being referred to as a single man's work. However, there are some exceptions.
In San Pedro Taviche community, some men are better painters than carvers, and therefore, women take the part of collecting and carving wood as often as men do.
In most cases, families would also hire strangers or other relatives in case they have large orders. The most established carving family usually prefers permanent outside assistance, while others refuse to involve outsiders.
Almost all Oaxaca Alebrijes carvers use wood from genus Bursera (Family Burseraceae), preferably species B. glabrifolia (copalillo or copal). Copal trees are typically from dry tropical forests within Oaxaca and its neighborhood.
However, the Manuel Jiminez family crafts using topical cedar, while Isidro Cruz of Tilcajete uses "tzompantli."
Initially, the carvers got wood on their own from the local forests. Copal trees do not produce very much wood, and they are very squat and short. Despite the success in woodcarving, there has been a drain on the wild copal, and many trees near Arrazola and Tilcajete have disappeared. The depletion of the local trees in Oaxaca led to the rise of a copal wood market. It is a complex exercise to obtain the wood because it requires economic, legal, and social norms to negotiate with the municipalities. The environmental authorities in several areas are also trying to preserve the copal trees, and some areas have also refused to sell their wood. As a result of these difficulties, copal wood black markets are emerging, and the vendors selling the supplies to the carvers are known as "cocaleros."
Harvesting copalilo does not require a lot. The softness of the wood and the small size of the trees make it very easy to work with. The harvesters fell the trees using chainsaws or axes and then cut the branches with machetes.
Most of the harvesting takes place on communal lands. Whether legal or not, they are purchasing copal wood from other Oaxaca parts has put a lot of unsustainable pressure on the wild populations. This has forced the cocaleros to obtain wood with the police and angry locals on their way. These two parties either enforce the law or seek bribes, and eventually, only six copaleros are in control of most of the sales.
Alebrijes Carving Towns
San Martin Tilcajete
Among the three towns dealing in this Mexican folk art, San Martin Tilcajete has been the most successful town. The main reason behind the success is Isidro Cruz. He sold his work locally, and with time, Tonatiúh Gutierrez, the director of expositions for the Mexican
National Tourist Council, noticed his work. Later on, a government agency that promotes crafts also saw Isidro Cruz's work. Gutierrez encouraged Cruz's work and advised him to carve masks, later on appointing him to manage a statecraft buying center. Working in the craft buying center for around four years, Cruz learned more about selling crafts and others from Tilcajete. Unlike other Alebrije carvers, Cruz opened up about his techniques which encouraged about ten carvers to carve and sell their products in Tilcajete. Not only did Cruz teach others about his techniques, but he also bought some of the works from his neighbors. His efforts encouraged new carving styles like Alebrijes as well as their sales in Oaxaca.
By 1980, four families were devoted to full-time carving while others involved themselves in both agriculture and carving. Between 1960 and 1980, Tilcajete's well-received crafts were embroidered dresses, blouses, and shirts until the late 1980s, when most families shifted to carving Alebrijes.
Today, Tilcajete's economic base is Alebrijes carving, and every Friday, they hold the weekly market selling of wooden figures or "tianguis del alebrije". This even allows the direct purchase of items from the local craftsmen by visitors.
The municipality also holds its annual Alebrije Festival (Feria del Alebrije), featuring the exhibition and sales of alebrije, theatre, music, and dance. This event also involves regional cuisine and local offerings. Over 100 vendors attend this event to sell alebrijes, local dishes, textiles, alcoholic beverages, and Mexican folk art sponsored by Grupo de Maestros Talladoes de Tilcajete.
Initially, Manuel Jimenez was the artisan who established Alebrijes carving in Oaxaca. He has had a passion for carving wooden animal figures since he was a kid back in the 1920s. By around 1950s and 1960s, Jimenez started selling his work in Oaxaca city, after which the Mexican folk art collectors also came to notice his work. In the late 1960s, he started carrying out exhibitions in the Mexican museums and the US, after which tourists started visiting his workstation. He strictly ensured that his carving techniques lay within his family, and because of this, only six families used to carve alebrijes in Arrazola up to the late 1980s.
Many carving communities and carvers involve themselves in specialties to have positions in this competitive market for Oaxacan wood carvings. One of Arrazola's specialties is carving complex animal bodies. The community also competes through an annual festival known as 'Cradle of the Alebrijes' (Cuna de Los Alebrijes), and it also uses this festival to promote its figures. The cosponsor of this festival is the Secretary of Tourism for the state of Oaxaca, and it takes place in the mid of December during the Christmas season. Over sixty artisans attend the festival. They intended to draw tourists to Arrazola town and connect with museums, galleries, and stories.
Arrazola also has several known artisans. Marcelo Hernandez Vasquez and the sisters have also been crafting alebrijes for about eighteen years. Antonio Aragon crafts small and finely carved realistic dogs, deer, cats, and lions; Sergio Aragon specializes in miniatures while Carlos Santiago specializes in penguins.
Another well-known artisan is Miguel Santiago, with an annual sale of forty pieces. These sales include both multiple sets and individual pieces.
Another best-known Arrazola artisan is Olga Santiago, who hires other individuals to do the carving and painting for her as she administrates. Most of her painters and carvers are youths who form their workshops quickly after leaving. Despite this manner of operation, her crafts are the newest and also the most successful.
La Unión Tejalapan
La Union Tejalapan has not succeeded as much as Tilcajeta and Arrazola because they have been unable to tract many tourists and dealers. However, La Union still specializes in pre-alebrije (simple rustic pieces) and pieces with traditional aniline painting, and it has a significant market for the same. These pieces are very popular with individuals who seek non-alebrije pieces like angels, saints, skeletons, motifs, and devils, which relate to "Day of the Dead". La Union artisans make and paint alebrije pieces with either one or two colors and add few decorations. They also make multiple fiestas, nativity scenes, and rodeos, and another aspect of these pieces is that you can nail them onto the torsos.
Martin Santiago was the first La Union alebrije carver, and between the 1950s and 1960s, he worked in the US's Bracero Program for some time as an agricultural laborer. After the end of the program, he started selling Oaxacan wood carvings to a shop owner, but an unfortunate ending met this arrangement following a complex dispute. He and his brothers then decided to carve and sell their products year after year, and his family was the only carver in the La Union community.
Other than these three major centers of the Mexican folk art, you can also find alebrijes in other parts of Mexico.
Outside Oaxaca and Mexico City, alebrijes are more of hobbies than sources of work. Most of them are made with cardboard, wire, papier-mâché, and other materials like cloth. Cancún has held alebrijes exhibitions and workshops. Cuautla, Morelos also held workshops for the purpose of selling the alebrijes with some others in Campeche, Playa del Carmen, Nuevo Laredo, Querétaro and Chetuma.
One craftsman in Cuautla, Marcos Zenteno, also taught his daughter about the craft, and he also organizes workshops to train others on how to make the crafts.
* This article has been edited for accuracy, photography, and new content on 05/06/22.
Greg Rutkowski, President
Greg is a lover of agave spirits, handicrafts, and barware. In 2020 he married all of his loves and created a business bringing amazing pieces from all over Mexico to the United States. Learn more here.