Alebrijes are whimsical carvings depicting animals, people, objects, and imaginary creatures painted with intense colors and intricate patterns. Although these distinctive cultural artifacts are often assumed to represent a long established, tradition of Mexican folk art, they only began to appear in the 1940s.
Click here to jump to the list of alebrije galleries. Click here to download a brochure about the exhibition of alebrijes in William T. Young Library at the University of Kentucky. Click here to listen to a podcast in which Dr. Francie Chassen-Lopéz and Dara Vance from the University of Kentucky Department of History talk about alebrijes.
After the Mexican Revolution, intellectuals and politicians began to reinvent a national identity that would unify a population that had suffered ten years of violent civil war. Rejecting European aesthetic ideals that had been dominant before the Revolution, they began to recognize the value of Mexican arts and crafts. They sponsored various exhibitions of arts and crafts from all over Mexico as part of a new Mexican aesthetic. The state of Oaxaca had long been an area of accomplished wood carvers who produced masks and utilitarian objects. One such wood carver was Manuel Jiménez of the town of Arrazola. In the 1940s, Jimenez saw the opportunity to capitalize on the demand for local crafts. He began to carve animals and figurines to sell in the street markets. Until the mid-1960s, Jiménez basically maintained a monopoly on alebrije carving in his village. However, the alebrije vendors he supplied found him unreliable. Craft marketers looked elsewhere for a source of alebrijes and encouraged men in neighboring villages to carve them.
In 1967, Martín Santiago, of the village La Unión Tejalapan, signed a contract with Enrique de la Lanza (one of Jiménez’ patrons) to produce alebrijes. Santiago taught the craft to his brothers and developed a successful family business. In 1968, the production of alebrijes spread to the community of San Martín Tilcajete. By this time, alebrijes were becoming very popular among tourists as an indigenous artifact, despite the fact that they were actually commodities of recent origin. The director of Mexico’s National Tourist Council learned of Isidoro Cruz’ work in San Martín Tilcajete and arranged for his alebrijes to be viewed in an exposition in Mexico City and Los Angeles.
Much of the success of the sale of alebrijes can be attributed to improved infrastructure and communication within Mexico. Ease of communication via telephone, cell phone, and the Internet enhanced the ability of both marketers and crafters to obtain materials as well as to accept and complete orders. However, the alebrije trade is dependent upon the demand for indigenous craft by the middle and upper class in the United States, Canada, and Europe (Chibnik, 19-35).
Copaleros collect the wood, which is then dried, and pieces are selected for carving. The shape of the branch often dictates the figure to be carved. Intricate, twisting shapes are desirable for carving lizards, cats, and dragons with interwoven tails. The figures are sanded and painted with a base coat of paint. The final painting is done meticulously with intricate patterns and vibrant colors. Originally, alebrijes were painted with water-based paint that faded or rubbed off, but now producers have switched to latex based house paint. The pieces are rarely sealed or treated for insects. According to Michael Chibnik, it is not uncommon to find a pile of sawdust around an alebrije, resulting from a wood-boring insect eating the alebrije from the inside. Chibnik recommends freezing the alebrije for a couple weeks to kill any unwelcome critters (Chibnik, 94-111).
Gender and Signatures
There is gendered division of labor in the production of alebrijes. Males, both men and boys, gather and carve wood, since wood gathering and carving is a long established tradition in rural Oaxaca. The sanding of the alebrijes is a monotonous job that is usually relegated to children or unskilled labor. Women typically paint the alebrijes, with the most talented painters creating the most intricate and complex patterns (Chibnik, 94-111). One way of telling which is a superior alebrije is by looking at how the eyes are painted.
Some alebrijes are signed. Because tourists highly value the signed pieces, this has been incorporated into the ‘tradition’. However, the alebrije may have had many hands contribute to its making, but only one person signs it. Often the person who signs the alebrije is the person who is the most well known in the family or the workshop. For instance, a son may carve an alebrije in his father’s workshop. A grandson may sand it and a daughter may paint it. But if the father is the most well known carver, it is signed with his name (Chibnik, 94-111).
Alebrijes are carved from the copal wood. The tree referred to as copal is native to Mexico and has many uses beyond alebrije carving. The sap or resin can be used for a variety of medicinal purposes including treating scorpion bites, relieving cold symptoms, headache, and acne. The fruit and foliage of three produces aromatic linaloe oil used in making lotions, essential oils, and soaps. The resin of the tree is also burned in churches during religious services and produces a fruity, earthy fragrance (Peters et al., 431-441). Interestingly:
Wood carvers in La Unión Tejalapan refer to two types of copal: male and female. The female (hembras) are better for carving because they are softer and have fewer knots, while the male (machos) are lighter in color, and contain more hardened knots. Botanists agree the distinction is not based on the sex of the tree, but are two different types of copal: Bursera bipinnata (hembra) and Bursera glabrifolia (macho). (Chibnik, 94-95)
Chibnik, Michael. Crafting Tradition: The Making and Marketing of Oaxacan Wood Carvings. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Peters, Charles M., Silvia E. Purata, Michael Chibnik, Berry J. Brosi, Ana M. Lopez, and Myrna Ambrosio, “The Life and Time of Bursera glabrifolia (H.B.K.) Engl. in Mexico A Parable for Ethnobotany,” Economic Botany Vol. 57, No. 4 (Winter 2003): 431-441.
Exhibits assembled by Dr. Francie Chassen-Lopéz. Text by Dara Vance. Both from the Department of History at the University of Kentucky