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Alebrijes are vivid and whimsical wooden figures handmade by artisans in Oaxaca, are one of the most prized of all the Mexican crafts. Alebrijes are typically the most colorful, the most outlandish, imaginary and fantastical of the Oaxacan carvings - the ones painted with the most detailed patterns of stripes, dots, geometric shapes, flowers and flames. Sometimes the creature will have two heads. Sometimes it could have the face of a lion and the feet of a flamingo or some other whimsy. If it lives in an artist's dreams or hallucinations, it's probably an alebrije.
While the Mexican traditions of carving and painting unique figures dates back many hundreds of years with its roots in the indigenous arts of the Zapotec. The art of the alebrijes is far more recent. Alebrijes sprung from the vivid imagination of Pedro Linares in 1936. During an illness, Linares had fever dreams featuring strange creatures which would chant at him with a word he later recalled as "alebrije”. Once recovered from his illness, the artist started crafting strange creatures in papier-maché. It wasn't long before these wild figures were acclaimed by the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Eventually, Linares' work was celebrated throughout Mexico. Before his death in 1992, he was Mexico's National Arts and Sciences Award in Popular Arts and Traditions.
Down in Southern Mexico, in the village of Arrazola, which sits at the foot of the famed Monte Alban archaeological site, a peasant named Manuel Jiménez had been carving wood figures since his boyhood in the 1920s. His early figures were masks and small farm animals in the Zapotec style, which he would often sell outside the gates to Monte Alban. In the 1970s, after having an opportunity to meet Linares, Jimenez started to add the fantastical elements of the alebrijes to his carvings, which he was making out of softwood from a scrub tree called copal. The effect revolutionized the carving craft. Jimenez quickly found a ready market for his figures in the street markets of Oaxaca City. Eventually the carving caught on with farmers and campesinos in other towns. Soon, the wooden creatures became sought-after by collectors throughout North America and beyond. After Smithsonian Magazine did a cover story on alebrijes in 1987, they became widely recognized as traditional Oaxacan folk art creations. Oaxacan wood carvings are the most celebrated and collected of all Mexican Folk Art.
The raw material, copal wood, has uses that date back to ancient times. The sap is used for an array of medical purposes, such as treating scorpion bites, relieving acne and treating cold symptoms. The hardened resin is also burned in churches and cemeteries during religious services with the smoke producing a distinctive fruity fragrance. Burning copal resin is an essential part of both ancient and modern Day of the Dead celebrations.
There is an interesting division of labor within the families making Oaxacan carvings. The gathering, chopping and carving of the wood is done by males, both men and boys. After the initial rough carving, the wood is left to dry, often for several months. Then the sanding, a low-skill and boring part of the job, is done by children. The most creative and painstaking part, the elaborate and delicate painting of the figures, is done by women. In decades past, the carvings were signed only by the male head of the family, in recent years more and more of the carvings bear the names of both the husband and wife.
The purchase of an Alebrije directly benefits the Fairtrade artist cooperatives in the Oaxaca valley. Handmade. Fairtrade. Mexico.