What do you get if you combine a tradition that dates back centuries with a fanciful sense of form and colour that is unique to Mexico? Alebrijes! That’s what you get. These vibrant and stunning animal wooden carvings and papier mache figurines originate from Mexico City and were popularized by the artisans in Oaxaca. Stunning examples can nowadays be found in museums and galleries all across Mexico and the USA, with many foreign collections featuring these prized animal wood carvings and papier mache animals as examples of Mexican folk art. In fact, Alebrijes are generally considered the supreme expression of Mexican folk art.
The History Behind Animal Wooden Carvings
While the wooden version of alebrijes is often attributed to artisans in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the origin of the brightly painted animal figurines that you will find in Mexican folk art galleries and museums can be traced to a man in Mexico City, Pedro Linares. The story goes that Linares had visions of brightly colored animals while he was suffering from a debilitating fever. The animals he saw were not like normal creatures, but wild composite animals that made strange sounds and said things he couldn’t understand. However, one word he did manage to catch and remember after his fever had passed was “alebrije.” And so, this is how these figurines supposedly got their name.
From Papier Mache to Wooden Carvings
In honor of his dream, Pedro Linares, who was already a papier mache artist, began dedicating his craft to recreate his visions. He mimicked the bright colors of the animals he saw, inspiring artisans from Oaxaca, who had a rich history of wooden carvings. Villagers in the state of Oaxaca thus began recreating animal wooden carvings, using bright colors too, taking the name alebrije.
Animal Wooden Carvings in Oaxaca
For many artisans in Oaxaca, the creation of these animal wooden carvings is seen as a family business, with each member of the family responsible for part of their creation. The men will carve the figurines using knives or a machete, no fancy power tools, and they will then be painted by the women using a variety of brushes and some off the shelf enamel (and finally, loved by the children). These methods are so simple and unpretentious, yet they create the most wonderful results and give these precious works of art their true value. The animal wooden carvings can be appear to be very realistic or entirely fanciful, ranging from deer, rabbits and armadillo to mermaids, devils and dragon!
Join us at Folklore Bazaar and find an alebrije to inspire your imagination, taking a little piece of Mexico’s soul back home with you.