What are Alebrijes?

Sounds all good, but what is an Alebrije (pronounced ah-leh-bree-hehs) anyway?

According to Wikipedia, an Alebrije is a brightly colored fantastical creature from Mexico, which enjoys increasing international popularity. 

A short outline of the story:

In the 1930s, Pedro Linares began producing monster-like paper-mâché figures in Mexico City, which he called “Alebrijes.” Legend has it that these strange creatures appeared in his dreams due to a serious illness. Probably, however, it was a delirium due to alcohol withdrawal that caused him to hallucinate so much. The fearsome creatures from Pedro’s dream kept calling out the word “alebrije,” which is why he named them after them. 

Papier-mâché Alebrije in the style of Pedro Linares
In Mexico City, there is an Alebrije Parade every year, where you can admire countless Alebrijes made of paper-mâché in the style of Pedro Linares.
Due to lucky coincidences, the woodcarver Manuel Jimenez from the small village of Arrazola, not far from Oaxaca City, got to know Pedro Linares and his art personally. From then on he began to make his version of the Alebrijes out of wood. This was the birth of the so-called Alebrijes oaxaqueños.
Today, the term Alebrijes is generally used to describe the colorful, detailed and cheerful wooden animals from Oaxaca that spring from the artist’s pure imagination. Many similarities to the uncanny-looking Alebrijes by Pedro Linares made of paper-mâché can no longer be recognized today. 

Do the Alebrijes have a specific meaning? 

The Alebrijes are not based on any particular meaning. They can be seen as an expression of dream and fantasy and stimulate one’s own creativity. 

Manuel Jimenez, the founder of the Alebrijes from Oaxaca, combined his figures with the concept of nahuals (also nagual), a kind of protective spirit. The Aztecs and Mayans assumed that nahuals could be both animal and plant and so closely interwoven with humans that death or injury would always affect both, man and his nahual. 
It is said that Manuel Jimenez believed himself to be a nahual, half human, half animal. 

Nahual: half human, half animal. Made by Isais Jimenez.
Manuel Jimenez carved and painted among others Alebrijes according to Zapotec tradition in the form of “Nahuales,” half man, half animal. This specimen was made by his son Isais Jimenez in the “Museum Taller” in Arrazola.

Also, the so-called “tonás” are often associated with the Alebrijes from Oaxaca. According to the Zapotec tradition, each child is assigned a kind of protective animal, the so-called toná, on the first day of its birth. To identify this animal, the child’s father draws a circle of mezcal and limes in front of the entrance of the house. The next morning the father checks which animal has left traces in the ring. Exactly this animal will accompany and protect the newborn for a lifetime. In some regions of Oaxaca, this tradition is still lived today!

How are Alebrijes made?

Alebrijes are made from various local wood species. Copal wood is considered to be particularly high-quality and easy to work with. 

With a machete and standard kitchen knives, a fantastic animal figure can be carved from an ordinary piece of wood in little time, as long as the wood is still fresh and green.

Armando Jimenez carving Copal wood in his Taller in Arrazola.
With over 30 years of experience in carving, Armando Jimenez conjures up a rabbit from this piece of Copal wood in no time at all.

Depending on its size, the wooden figure is then placed in the sun for a few days to dry. If the sculpture is not completely dry before it is painted, cracks may appear in the wood later.

In the last step, the Alebrijes are painted by hand. In addition to brushes, everyday objects such as nails, sponges or toothpicks are often used. Today most Alebrijes are painted with acrylic paints. Nevertheless, the knowledge about the production of colors from local fruits, minerals, and insects is still present in most artisan families today.