Alebrijes: Surreal Oaxacan Folk Art
As an urban park that commemorates a peace treaty between the United States and Mexico, Chamizal National Memorial is not famous for its thriving animal habitat. But did you know that Chamizal is, in fact, home to a pack of creatures that put the wild in wildlife? Native to the Valley of Oaxaca in Mexico, alebrijes are animals that escaped the nightmares of an artist and appear as a variety of different species - both real and fantastic.
A Rare Breed
Have you ever encountered the elusive alebrije before? These whimsical animals are rare and unique. Alebrijes have horns, antlers, wings, fins, and some have them all at once! Though no two are exactly alike, all alebrijes have startlingly vibrant color markings. They feature detailed patterns of stripes, dots, geometric shapes, flowers, and flames. Many have bodies with exaggerated, twisted contortions. Their faces exhibit expressions ranging from peaceful and playful, to suspicious and sinister.
Fantasy Creatures Born of Fevered Dreams
Pedro Linares (1906-1992), a renowned indigenous Mexican artist, first created vividly colorful papier mâché sculptures called alebrijes. The inspiration for Linares' sculptures has an origin as outlandish and fanciful as the figures themselves. As the story goes, Linares became very ill when he was 30 years old. Not having access to medical attention, he laid in bed and lost consciousness. Linares dreamt of a bizarre, peaceful place that resembled a forest. He recounted seeing giant rocks, tall trees, and an expansive sky. The artist felt remarkably healthy again. His physical pain was gone and he felt happy as he walked along trails through the dense foliage of his dreamworld.
Suddenly, the clouds, rocks, and trees began to transform. The land features around him shaped themselves into animals that were familiar and yet like nothing Linares had ever seen before. There were mules with dragonfly wings, roosters with antlers, creatures that resembled gryphons and dragons, just to name a few. They had unnatural colors and patterns swirling over their bodies. These creatures began repeatedly chanting a single word: alebrije...alebrije...alebrije! Linares became fearful of these strange, powerful creatures chanting this nonsense word. He couldn't tell if they were warning or threatening him. However, it was enough to startle him awake in time for his fever to subside.
A Beautiful Nightmare Come True
During the 1930s, Pedro Linares made piñatas, carnival masks, and religious figures from papier mâché that were sold in mercados throughout Mexico City. When he began using paper and cardboard to craft large, vivid, ethereal creatures that no one had ever seen before, he caught the attention of a prominent gallery owner who marketed the pieces. This garnered so much recognition for Linares' work, that Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo began commissioning alebrijes by Linares. Alebrjies became celebrated throughout Mexico and abroad. Thus, Linares was equipped to take a folk art tradition in a new direction.
Linares returned home to his native Arrazola in Oaxaca. He shared his designs with artisans in his village. A man named Manuel Jimenez was the first to create the brightly colored creatures out of copal wood instead of papier mâché. Jimenez incorporated Linares' visions into the pre-Hispanic woodcarving tradition that already existed among the indigenous Zapotec culture of that area. Descendants of Pedro Linares as well as Manuel Jimenez's family continue to carve and paint various alebrijes to this day. Other artists have also taken the craft upon themselves to create their own versions of the stylized animal figures. Entire families and villages have dedicated themselves to honing their woodcarving skills. They elevated the craft to a fine art that is prized around the world and built a unique economy based on artistic supply and demand.
Chamizal National Memorial carries these fantastic creatures in the visitor center bookstore. Imported from Oaxaca, Mexico, this colorful Zapotec folk art tradition is still a popular art and gift item.