Alebrije Book Review: Oaxacan Woodcarving: The Magic in the Trees

Oaxacan Woodcarving: The Magic in the Trees by Shepard Barbash and Vicki Ragan (this link will take you to the Amazon page for the book)

This book is considered one of the authoritative guides to the woodcarving communities and the stories of their artisans. It is an interesting and engaging look into the lives of the carvers, introducing many memorable characters – some of whom brought me to the verge of tears reading their stories. Vicki Ragan’s photographs are very well executed but it is really Shepard Barbash’s writing that makes the book so wonderful. His writing brings the carving communities to life and he recounts so many endearing anecdotes that I was truly sad to come to the last page.

I have read a few complaints about the book and in the end I think it comes down to one point that must be highlighted for any potential buyers/readers: the book was published in April 1993. It has not been updated since publication. The stories reflect a different time in the history of Oaxacan woodcarving, before the boom in alebrije sales in the mid- to late 1990s that have since declined. But most of all, the photographs showcase a very different type of alebrije carving than what we are used to seeing today. The alebrijes in this book are not the refined, perfected carvings with incredible painted detail that look more like fine art rather than folk art.  The alebrijes in the photographs look like the toys that have traditionally been carved in Oaxaca for hundreds of years. In fact, the alebrijes of La Union still look like this today. There are no photographs of dragons or aliens, nor of animals that could not be found in the wild or on a farm in Oaxaca today. The alebrijes featured in the book are not the high art form of, for example, Jacobo and Maria Angeles or Mario Castellanos. The photographs are from 1993, the carvings reflect that period of time in the history of the alebrije trade. One must be prepared for that.

In sum, the book is a fantastic read and you will not regret sharing a few hours with Barbash and the artisans featured in this book. The writing is top notch and the stories are very touching and memorable. If you only want to look at the photographs, you must keep in mind that they date from 1993 and do not reflect the current norm in carving and painting styles.

In addition, I would like to note that there is a follow up book to The Magic in the Trees called Changing Dreams: A Generation of Oaxaca’s Woodcarvers by the same two authors that was published in October 2007. I have not read it yet but I can’t wait to get a hold of it!

I invite anyone out there who has read the book to leave their thoughts in the comments section! And if anyone has read Changing Dreams, please do let me know your thoughts on that as well!

Whitney

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?
http://www.threedreamingrabbits.com

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