Alebrijes – Masterpieces by Mexican Sculptors and Painters – A Book About Mexican Folkart

Alebrijes – Masterpieces by Mexican Sculptors and Painters – A Book About Mexican Folkart

Like other dedicated collectors Hartmut Zantke became an author because he wished to find out more about a certain subject, in his case the history and manufacture of Mexican alebrijes. Attending an exhibition of Mexican art in 1991 he first saw painted wooden sculptures by indigenous artists: a jaguar with human features, a cat painted with blue, red and yellow Zapotec ornaments on black background, a plump, extremely elongated pig painted with colorful flowers and white doves. He was fascinated by the combinations of vibrant colors in novel patterns on the eccentric sculptures. The seller called the sculptures “alebrijes”. Since that day the author has developed an interest in these imaginative, mostly animal-like Mexican sculptures made from paper-mache or wood. He has read all available literature on the subject of Mexican art and its history, browsed internet-galleries for artistically demanding alebrijes and purchased the most interesting pieces they offered, objects he refers to as “genuine” alebrijes. He discovered that all woodcarvings from the Mexican state Oaxaca are called “alebrijes” for commercial reasons, even though most of them are cheap mass-produced souvenirs that only share their name with the true works of art called “alebrijes”. Excellent woodcarvings may be found all over the world, mainly from china but also from Germany.

The “genuine” alebrijes by Mexican artists however are not only carvings of the highest quality but also represent a symbiosis between sculptures and fantastic paintings; the wooden sculpture, instead of canvas, is the background for three-dimensional paintings. Only the artist´s creative energy can bring a lifeless lump of wood to life, utilizing vibrant colors, indigenous ornaments, symbols and images to create a unique piece of art. The artists mostly employ the same shapes, color combinations, ornaments and symbols as their ancestors from a thousand-year-old civilization. The sculptures´ shape and ornamental painting represent a fascinating mixture of different elements of the artists´ cultural, physical and religious background and of their traditions; the myths and legends of their indigenous forebears, especially the Olmeks, Maya, Aztecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs as preserved in the sculptures and frescoes in the ruins of Monte Albàn or Mitla and displayed in the prehistoric archeological collections of museums of as well as the works of the Christian Spanish conquerors all contribute to making alebrijes a creative and unique art form.

The philosophy of the indigenous people of Middle-America is closely associated with nature and animals. Mesoamerican philosophy holds that every person has a creature from its environment as its spiritual counterpart. Every day in Aztec calendar is represented by a specific plant, animal or natural phenomenon. This explains why the Mexican artists who draw their inspiration from the spiritual and religious beliefs of their ancestors mainly depict the creatures of the Aztec calendar.

After Mexico´s occupation by the Spanish conquerors in the 16. century and the following destruction of nearly its entire indigenous culture the manufacture of carved and painted likenesses of the creatures of the calendar was all but forgotten. Around 1936 Pedro Lineares Lópes was the first to revive the age-old traditions of his indigenous ancestors. He began to fashion mythical creatures from painted papier-mâché which he dubbed “alebrijes”. In 1980 Don Manuel Jimenez began creating alebrijes by first hewing the raw form from the wood of the copal-tree with a machete, then using a knife to carve the details and finally painting the sculptures with patterns and colors inherited from his forefathers. His mercantile talent enabled him as one of the first to sell his works in the USA and later to museums all over the world and to collectors of Mexican art.

Painted wooden alebrijes as an art form are a fairly recent development (about 30 years), far too young for the international art community to have become generally aware of them. The international art market has not yet recognized the historic importance, beauty and artistic quality of the alebrijes created by the Mexican carvers and painters. Millions of vacationers in Mexico have probably come across the painted woodcarvings generously called “alebrijes” and may even have purchased some cheap object as a souvenir without ever having known about its history or the “genuine” alebrijes created by renowned Mexican carvers and painters. This book is intended as a contribution to closing this knowledge gap and bringing the art form of alebrijes to world-wide attention.

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 book has approximately 428 pages with a dimension of 27 by 31 cm (10,6 by 12,2 in). It may be purchased from Sozialkartei-Verlag in Leonberg/Stuttgart. The book will be published in January 2011.