Alebrijes are carved wood figures, generally of animals or monsters, painted in vivid colors. They originate mainly from Oaxaca. They also come in papier mâché but are rarer.
If the word ¨alebrije¨ is recent, woodcarving in Oaxaca has a very ancient origin. The alebrijes first had a religious connotation as they were made to adorn private altars. They consisted of sceneries, such as the Birth of Christ, and could easily include several dozen pieces, carved in a light wood (copal) or simply out of the corn cañuela, for humble homes. They were known as ¨Cristos¨ (Christ), their generic term. What characterized them was their crude carving, almost naïve in their form and rendition, which is a common aspect of traditional handcraft. To the day, most have kept this particularity although the office is becoming more professional, and there is a tendency to refine their appearance and quality of carving and decoration. Those ¨Cristos¨ have now become such a rarity that the few surviving pieces can only be found in museums and some (fortunate) private collections. Most have not survived the passage of time.
By the 1950s the alebrijes had almost disappeared, but a handful of isolated craftsmen continued the tradition. Tourism is probably the most important catalyst of their rebirth. However, from that period came a great change. The alebrijes that were produced were no longer religious. The artisans started carving animals, monsters and more creative and inspirational pieces, often of great merit and originality. To the mere carving comes, and this is a novelty, the refinement of hand painted decoration, often taking inspiration from the architectural designs and frescoes of pre Columbian temples. It is not unusual that the husband carves and his wife decorates: 4 hands in these creations. And here we have one of the quintessential conditions of the making of alebrijes: entire families / communities dedicate their lives to their making and in some cases, up to half a village is involved.
The rebirth of the alebrijes also introduced competition between artisans, which resulted in improving the quality of the work and making the alebrije, in some cases, not a handcraft product but an artistic sculpture. If the alebrije has, by and large, a static appearance, there is a new tendency in making the pieces more realistic, in which movement has been introduced. These are the most difficult pieces to find since there are less than a handful of workshops dedicated to this style.
The State of Oaxaca organizes a yearly contest of the best artesanías (handcraft) produced in that state by young people. Among others, there is a prize for the best wood carving (generally an alebrije) and a prize for the best decoration. Its importance speaks volumes as handcraft tends to disappear. This concourse encourages the continuity of traditions that have survived for centuries.
It is also worth mentioning that the State of Oaxaca, in its endeavor to protect the artisans, has prohibited the sale of alebrijes not produced by hand in that state, thereby ensuring that Chinese pirated copies won´t compete with the original handcraft.
François Valcke, Galería Tataya
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