So where did alebrijes come from? Who dreamed them up? Many websites present one easy answer – and in many cases their “answer” is completely bogus, which annoys me to no end. There is no easy answer to the questions I posed. So I am going to explain as simply and succinctly as possible the complex influences that have coalesced to create these beautiful objects.
Carving, woodcarving in particular, is a tradition in the state of Oaxaca that can be traced back to the Zapotecs, a pre-Columbian civilization that dates back at least 2,500 years to 400BC. The Zapotecs carved and molded figures and masks out of wood, jade, and clay to use in all types of ceremonies, religious festivals, and burial rituals. Animals were a popular carving subject since they were highly respected by and significant to the Zapotec people. Each day in their 20-day calendar was assigned a different animal thus each person was associated with one of these animals depending on the day of their birth. The animal became a sort of “good luck charm” for the person, consequently they would have a carving of the animal to display in their home or to wear on their person.
Furthermore, two main occupations for males were hunting and watching their herd. For hunting, they would carve animals to trick and lure in their pray. While watching their herd in the fields, the men would see animal shapes in the curves of the branches and carve toys for their children.
Despite the arrival of Christianity in Oaxaca, woodcarving for indigenous religious ceremonies and festivals endured as did toy carving. Dominican monks, realizing the woodcarving skill of the local population, put the people to use carving church altars and other wood decorations for churches. In particular, the monks favored the use of copal wood over other kinds of local wood, which is the type of wood associated with Oaxacan alebrijes today.
Keeping in mind this tradition of woodcarving in the Oaxaca valley, we now fast forward to the 1930’s: a man named Pedro Linares living in Mexico City fell ill at the age of 30. He was a Mixe Indian from Arrazola, Oaxaca who was working in Mexico City making items out of paper mache. During his illness, he had feverish dreams and visions of frightening creatures that yelled out “alebrije! alebrije!”. When he recovered, he started recreating these terrifying creatures out of paper mache and called them alebrijes.
Linares would visit his family in Arrazola and he would discuss and demonstrate the creation of his paper mache alebrijes. Seeing these alebrijes, a man named Manuel Jiménez decided to make similar creatures out of wood, uniting the paper mache alebrijes with the Oaxacan woodcarving tradition. Jiménez moved beyond traditional toy carving and started creating larger animals with more precision. He experimented with many types of wood until he settled on copal. His commercial success was due to an American living in Oaxaca named Arthur Train who discovered his carvings in 1957 – and this success is directly responsible for the spread of this new craft throughout the village of Arrazola and to the other towns of San Martin Tilcajete and La Union Tejalapan. But this new craft lacked a name, hence “alebrije” was also applied to the new type of woodcarving. So in fact, there are two types of alebrijes that are made to this very day: Oaxacan wood alebrijes; and paper mache alebrijes that are still made by the descendants of Linares and others who follow in this tradition.
Since the 1950’s, the carving and painting style of alebrijes has significantly developed due to market forces. As carvings were exported and an international market emerged for the pieces, the refinement of the carving and painting evolved significantly. But more on the development of alebrije design and execution in another post.
In sum, there is not an easy or simple answer to the origins of modern day Oaxacan alebrijes. Many influences coalesced to allow for the creation of Oaxacan alebrijes – the carving of modern alebrijes was begun by Jiménez in the 1950’s but it has roots in a tradition that dates back to the Zapotec civilization. Like Mexican culture, alebrijes are the result of a mixture of indigenous, European, and modern global influences. And it has allowed for the creation of completely charming, enchanting, and beautiful works of art!
Three Dreaming Rabbits is a Mexico City based project devoted to alebrijes, hand carved and hand painted wooden animals created by artisans in small towns outside the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Three Dreaming Rabbits features an online gallery and unique bespoke services so everyone can search for and obtain their perfect alebrije.
Three Dreaming Rabbits… what do you dream of?