Mexican Folk Art 101: Alebrijes
Folk art is rooted in the history and culture of every nation. The appreciation of folk art strengthens the identity of a community and enables it to take pride in its history. In many cases, the appeal of folk art is centered on the many ways it can connect people across cultures, in the sublime appreciation of the different ways in which a community has chosen to express themselves. Folk art comes alive in different ways for different individuals and different reasons. This series will explore the many ways in which that 'magic' happens.
This series will be divided as follows:
Mexican Folk Art 101: Alebrijes
Mexican Folk Art 101: Tree of Life
Mexican Folk Art 101: Skulls and Skeletons
Mexican Folk Art 101: Huichol Art
Mexican Folk Art 101: Talavera Pottery
Mexico is a vibrant country. Colour has been a staple of Mexican culture since before the Spanish conquest. It's importance in folk art is broadly represented in many techniques, from pottery to beadwork. In many cases, pieces of Mexican folk art can be identified with a single look thanks to the use of broad paint palettes. One of the best examples of the use of vibrant pigments in Mexican folk art comes from the hands of Pedro Linares López, a Mexican artist who created something strange and new called the ‘alebrijes’ after a series of life-altering events. His strange creation would prompt a colourful revolution in the field of folk art and its popularity would only increase with time, eventually becoming widespread both nationally and internationally.
Alebrijes is the name for sculptures of creatures created by taking certain aspects from several animals and blending them together. These sculptures were originally made from paper mache, a material that’s made by layering moist paper and sometimes textiles onto a surface using an adhesive generally made with flour. This process can take up to several days depending on the layers used since it is necessary to wait for each layer to dry before adding the next one. They can also be made by carving and sanding wood.
These creatures were conceived in the state of Oaxaca by Pedro Linares López (c.1936), who went through a period of illness that sent him into unconsciousness. He later related that he had ‘dreamed’ of strange and colourful creatures and set out to draw them and later build them out of paper mache. In order to create these creatures, Linares used the knowledge he had gained from his father and grandfather in the field of cardboard and paper art (Secretaria de Educacion Publica, 2015). As he continued to create and sell these creatures, they began to attract the attention of famous artists of the time such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (Serafin, 2017). In 1990, Linares was awarded the Premio Nacional de Artes y Tradiciones Populares, which translates to the National Prize of Art and Popular Traditions, essentially the highest award given by the Mexican government in the field of art (Secretaria de Educacion Publica, 2015).
Given that the making of alebrijes became popular, they were being sold in great quantities in Mexico and abroad. In fact, by 1999 there were various articles published in the Human Organization journal from the Society for Applied Anthropology (based in the USA) stating the importance of alebrijes in the folk art market of Oaxaca. In one of these articles, Michael Chibnik, a critic who has written about Mexican folk art extensively, made the claim that ‘[publications] and exhibitions thus implicitly or explicitly promote certain craft styles and the work of particular artisans and communities’ (Chibnik, 1999). Alebrijes had already entered the international market and were part of exhibitions and featured in Mexican films, fascinating audiences who encountered them for the first time (Chibnik, 1999).
Chibnik’s assertion of promotion of alebrijes proved to be true and continued to be sold in great quantities internationally as well as nationally. Linares taught the art of making alebrijes, along with the art of making other sculptures using cardboard and paper, to his son Felipe Linares before his death in order to preserve the traditional techniques to make these creatures. As these colourful sculptures gained popularity, their place in Mexican popular culture evolved as well.
The Mexican newspaper El Universal conducted an interview with Felipe Linares in 2021, in which there was a discussion of the inclusion of alebrijes in the Mexican festivity of the Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead refers to the holiday traditionally celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November which is in essence a joyful celebration in which people remember those that have died. Of particular importance is to pay respects with offerings at flower altars and invite the deceased to partake in the spirit during the celebrations of the holiday. In many cases, the events take on a humorous turn, which is illustrated in Felipe Linares’ interview, in which he speaks of creating sculptures of skeletons playing guitars (González, 2021). Pertaining to the alebrijes, Felipe Linares explained that they are inherently linked to the Day of the Dead given that his father said that in his dream the creatures he saw yelled at him the word ‘alebrije’, after which he woke up (González, 2021).
Given the seriousness of Linares’ sickness, everyone in his household had begun preparing for his death and vigil, meaning that funeral arrangements had been made already and his family had resigned themselves to his death. Linares’ avoidance of death seemed to be linked to the alebrijes and it became natural for these creatures to be used in celebrations of the Day of the Dead. Later, as the alebrijes became increasingly popular, Linares expanded his work to include sculptures of skeletons and other figures (González, 2021).
The alebrijes in modern Mexican popular culture took on a major role with the Monumental Alebrijes Parade of Mexico City, an event which is covered by Mexican newspapers and magazines every year since 2007. This event has been covered so widely that it even features on the website of International Relations of the Mexican government and the Ministry of Culture, which describes it as an explosion of fantastic and colourful creatures and it features yearly more than two hundred alebrijes (SRE & SC, 2016). The parade is organised by the Museum of Popular Art (Museo de Arte Popular, MAP) and it is accompanied by a contest open to members of the public in which entries have reached more than one thousand five hundred alebrijes per year (SRE, 2016).
After the parade is over, the massive alebrijes remain in exhibitions on the streets of Mexico City for a short period of time for the enjoyment of passersby (SRE, 2016). The parade is part of the celebration of the Day of the Dead but the creation and exhibition of them continue all year round across the country. It is a testament to the imagination of the artists as well as the mastery of their craft that alebrijes continue to surprise and intrigue audiences throughout time. The bold colours of the creatures pay homage to ancestral dyeing techniques and act as a reminder of the importance of colour in Mexican art as a whole.
Alebrijes can be of any size, feature any combination of animal attributes, and can be painted with any colour. There is quite literally no limit to the variations these creatures can have. In the alebrijes, it is possible to appreciate not only the elegance of their craftsmanship but also the importance of imagination in everyday life. Ultimately, alebrijes appear to be creatures of wonder that offer a colourful, whimsical way in which to approach the world in all its confusing magnificence.
Chibnik, M. (1999). Popular Journalism and Artistic Styles in Three Oaxacan Wood-Carving Communities. Human Organization, 58 (2), 182–189. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44126653
González, A. (2021, November 25). Alebrijes: la pesadilla que se coló en el arte popular mexicano. El Universal. https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/cultura/alebrijes-la-pesadilla-que-se-colo-en-el-arte-popular-mexicano
Secretaria de Cultura. (2016, October 22). Explosión de formas fantásticas y coloridas en el Décimo Desfile y Concurso de Alebrijes Monumentales. Secretaria de Cultura. https://www.gob.mx/cultura/prensa/explosion-de-formas-fantasticas-y-coloridas-en-el-decimo-desfile-y-concurso-de-alebrijes-monumentales?idiom=es
Secretaria de Educacion Publica. (2015, January). Pedro Linares López: Premio Nacional de Artes y Tradiciones Populares. Secretaria de Educacion Publica.
Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores. (n.d.). Alebrijes Monumentales. Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores. https://embamex.sre.gob.mx/nicaragua/index.php/asuntosvarios/asuntos-cultura/cultura/24-asuntos-culturales/cultura/181-alebrijes-monumentales#:~:text=Desde%20su%20primera%20edici%C3%B3n%20en,alrededor%20de%20mil%20500%20alebrijes.
Serafin, M. (2017, November). Los Alebrijes: Fantástico Arte Escultórico de México. UNAM. http://www.floresdenieve.cepe.unam.mx/articulo.php?id_art=921
Alebrije [Sculpture]. (2017). Fundacion Alfredo Harp Helu. Oaxaca, Mexico. https://fahho.mx/alebrijes/
Alebrijes [Sculpture]. (2016). Cultura Ciudad Mx, El Universal. Mexico City, Mexico. https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/destinos/esta-sera-la-ruta-del-desfile-de-alebrijes-2021-en-cdmx
Chupacabra Alebrijes [Sculpture]. (20th Century). Viva Oaxaca Folk Art. Oaxaca, Mexico. https://vivaoaxacafolkart.com/product/chupacabra-alebrije-mexican-folklore-creature-by-blas-family/
Dragon Alebrije [Sculpture]. (20th Century). Carapan. Monterrey, Mexico. https://carapan.com.mx/collections/alebrijes/products/big-alebrije-mexican-dragon-for-wall-hanging-amazing