Alebrijes

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Lest you think all I do is eat, I thought I should share a non-food-related activity that made a big impression on me. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Alebrije is a word of Arabic origin that isn’t even in my Spanish-English dictionary. According to one guidebook, it means something of indefinite form. In Mexico, at least in this part of the country, an alebrije is a wooden, brightly painted animal that’s become the signature craft of the Oaxacan valley town, San Martin Tilcajete.

“A wooden, brightly painted animal” doesn’t sound that exciting, and frankly, most of the ones hawked all over Oaxaca City aren’t. They’re trinkets, cheap toys to pass out to your friends and family when you get home. It’s not an ancient craft, and often, the bright colors seem to fit into a decorative scheme that screams, “MEXICO,” in a way that’s more crude than authentic. Not quite the same effect as when you see a hippie gringo wearing a garish blouse a Mexican wouldn’t be caught dead in, but close.

But on Saturday, I saw alebrijes that were the work of an artist, or more accurately, the work of an artist and his family. Jacobo Angeles and his wife, Maria, along with their children and various nephews and nieces, create alebrijes that are full of movement, carved almost completely from one piece of copal wood. They look at a big branch and think about the animal that might be found within, whether an iguana with a curling tail or a lion turning its head to grab an antelope by the neck. It’s almost Aristotelian—what does the wood want to be?

And then when they paint them, the Angeles family is famous for using paints made from natural sources on their best pieces, rather than the harsher acrylics, and they will show you right on their palms how they can crush pomegranate seeds with a little ground limestone to make a surprising color: green. Or graduate shades of one plant from red to purple to black. They do also use acrylics on their more commercial pieces, or sometimes in combination with the natural paints, but the wholly natural pieces differ obviously in quality.

The family also tends to concentrate on animals and symbols that are important to the Zapotecs, an indigenous group that make up about one third of Oaxaca’s native population. The most intricately painted pieces have symbols found at the temple at Mitla, signifying animals with certain powers and stages of life. For example, an iguana is a symbol of intelligence, a hummingbird one of happiness.

So an Arabic word, borrowed by the Spanish during the Middle Ages, has come to describe a native craft in Mexico, that really began only a generation or two ago. It’s truly mind-boggling.

Their larger pieces are priced like art, a mid-sized one being a couple hundred dollars and the truly large ones a couple hundred more. A large one can take 8 months to complete. They register every major piece and record the name the collector like any proper gallery.

Partly, it’s the care and intense detail that’s impressive. You can’t help but be wowed in the face of great skill. But what moved me most was the combination of choice on the part of the artists, in the colors and patterns, and of fate, in the animals the wood was going to be. An alebrije is a specific form, but each art piece was unique, each piece of wood a specific animal in a specific posture with elements that will never be combined in exactly the same way on any other piece. Isn’t that what we all want to believe, that we can become what we were meant to be?

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