This book is subdivided into two sections:
The text section describes the alebrijes´ historic roots, their manufacture and economic relevance in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and the biographies of the most renowned Mexican artists creating alebrijes as works of art.
The image section with about 272 photographs offers an overview over the works art created over the last few years.
The term "Alebrije" describes mostly animal-like mythical creatures fashioned from papier-mâché or wood of Mexican origin. In Mexico they may also be called "animalitos", "monos" or simply "figuras", in Spanish "Imaginare" or "Fantasie".
Pedro Linares López (1906 – 1992) manufactured traditional carnival masks, piñatas and puppets in Mexico City. Legend has it that he suffered from a severe illness 30 years ago and could not afford the medication to alleviate the pain and high fever he suffered. In his feverish delirium he saw himself free of pain, strolling through a beautiful landscape, surrounded by peaceful lions with eagle heads, donkeys with butterfly wings and other mythical creatures. The creatures kept repeating the same word to him: "Alebrijes, Alebrijes, Alebrijes". After some time he developed a headache and fled from the creatures. On a road he met a man and asked him how he could leave this place. The man was obviously surprised because Pedro was not supposed to be here yet and advised him to follow the road until he found an exit. Pedro continued walking until he came to a window he could climb out of. Linares awoke from his dream and told his relatives about the mythical creatures calling themselves "Alebrijes". So great was his fascination with the creatures that after his recovery he began to build papier-mâché models of the animals he had seen in his dream. These complex figurines had bright colors, huge eyes and frequently terrifying fangs. He dubbed them "Alebrijes".
A gallery owner from Cuernavaca was so impressed by the figurines that he sold them very successfully in his gallery as "Alebrijes". Pedro Linares López became a world renowned artist.
In 1980, Don Manuel Jiménez (1912 – 2005) began creating Alebrijes by first hewing the raw from the wood of the copal-tree and then using crude knifes to carve the details. After this, he painted the figurines - mostly animals in their characteristic stance – with themes from the mythology of his Indian ancestors and his own Roman-Catholic faith. Manuel Jiménez López adapted the shapes and color schemes used by his ancestors to modern times. His alebrijes are immensely popular and sought after by museums and collectors. He contributed significantly to the fact that many poor peasants and craftsmen from Oaxaca, particularly from the villages San Antonio Arrazola, San Martín Tilcajete, La Unión Tejalapa, and San Pedro Cajonos, revived the ancient traditions of their forebears and began carving Alebrijes again. Over the last 30 years a number of these carvers have evolved into noted artists whose works are sought after worldwide. The Oaxacan carvers are Zapotec or Mixtec Indians, descendants of pre-Columbian Zapotec or Mixtec cultures. They managed to preserve the varied art forms of their ancestors despite the strong influence of the Spanish conquest during the 16th. century. An increasing number of enthusiasts around the world enjoy the sculptures with their colorful, imaginative and surreal – but rarely obtrusive – design. The artists introduced in this book impress with their imaginativeness and their unerring instinct for colors as well as the precision and detail of their works. In today´s sober and technical society, Alebrijes offer a way into a world of fantasy.
Since all Oaxacan wood carvings and sculptures, regardless of whether they are genuine or mass-produced, are commonly called Alebrijes, we have to differentiate between four different types. Alebrijes can be divided into four categories.
For art collectors, museums or private persons, primarily the first two groups – the ones I call the "genuine" Alebrijes in this book - are significant. Only these are worth collecting. The mythical creatures or lifelike animals with their wonderful colors will delight any connoisseur.
As wooden Alebrijes have only been manufactured for 30 years, potential buyers have no preconceived notions about their design or color. They will not know what perfectly carved and painted Alebrijes are supposed to look like.
The value of an Alebrije depends on the quality of the paint and on the complexity of its carving, especially if it is fashioned from one single piece of wood. Simple animal Alebrijes nailed or glued together from several pieces may appeal to tourists because of their gaudy colors, but can only be sold at modest prices.
Apart from the cutting of the trees and branches for which chainsaws are used, the manufacture of the "real" alebrijes takes place exclusively by hand. Like their ancestors, the carvers use machetes, several differently shaped knives, chisels and mallets, gouges and scrapers for the coarse preliminary work.
The painting process tends to take longer and be more complicated than the actual carving. Even an intricate and extravagant carving may just remain a piece of handicraft until it is elevated to a work of art by a talented painter. Only after painting the sculpture will reveal if it is a simple carving, an individual work of high quality for the discerning buyer or museum grade piece of art.
With "real" alebrijes the carver´s work is merely the "canvas" for the painter. Instead of canvas the alebrije painter uses a wooden sculpture as background to create surrealistic figures of dogs, lions, frogs or dragons. Even the most simple carving can be transformed into a work of art by a gifted painter.
The complex dual calendar system of the Aztecs regulated all ritual and meteorological aspects. The calendar is based on a combination of numbers and symbols.
The ring depicting the 20 day signs has a different "creature", or symbol, for each day (an animal, a plant or a natural phenomenon). The ancestors of today´s indigenous population already fashioned these creatures from stone or wood. Each creature has certain characteristics that people believed could be transferred to an individual. According to Aztec philosophy, each creature symbolizes a particular human characteristic.
According to Don Jacobo Ángeles, the creatures from the holy 20-week-calendar are no longer sufficient to satisfy the demands of tourists and collectors. Therefore, alebrijes are depicting animals outside the 20-week-calendar, such as zebras, elephants or giraffes, are produced.