By Marianne Carlson
It was over 80 years ago when he awoke from a dream that changed his life and the lives of his family forever. Don Pedro Linares was suffering from a deadly illness when he dreamed there were trees, rocks, clouds, rare animals changing shapes with horns, claws and wings, and he heard a word he had never heard before over and over, "alebrije, alebrije, alebrije." He was not afraid because he knew these creatures were good.
Finding himself at home again, his infirmity cured, Don Pedro felt an overwhelming need to recreate the figures he saw in his dream. He began working with paper, clay, wood, reeds, paper, etc. and the creatures he created are now part of Mexico’s folk art history. Alebrijes have made this family famous both in Mexico and internationally.
So what is an alebrije –exactly? In the most basic sense, an alebrije is a brightly colored sculpture of fantastical creatures with elements from different animals or people – dragon bodies with human heads, bat wings, dogs that fly – whatever comes from the imagination of the creator.
Originally created in papier maché by Don Pedro, the Oaxaca valley area had a history of carving animal and other types of figures from wood. The Linares’ designs were adapted to the carving of a local wood called copal. Many rural households in the Mexican state of Oaxaca have prospered through the sale of these brightly painted, whimsical wood carvings. The alebrije in Oaxaca is a marriage of native woodcarving traditions and influence from the work of Don Pedro Linares.
The technique Don Pedro used for his alebrijes is called cartoneria (similar to papier maché but heavier). Now in its fourth generation, extraordinary quality, vision, capturing traditional themes and shaping them in paper sculpture is what this family is known for.
This year, at Feria Maestros del Arte, Leonardo Linares, grandson of Don Pedro, will be exhibiting his alebrije art. He has mastered the technique and has improved the art form by giving it his own special imaginative twists. Themes for an alebrije may be dark, yet playful; seductive yet repulsive; fruit of the imagination.
The ancestral goddess of Lake Chapala, Michicihualli, has been depicted in murals, paintings and in legends handed down since pre-Columbian times and now on the cover of this month’s Ojo del Lago. Her legend lives on through her portrayal as a giant alebrije created for last year’s Desfile Alebrijes Monumentales (Giant Alebrije Parade) in Mexico City.
When the Feria decided to participate in the annual parade in Mexico City, the committee assigned to oversee the project wanted a design that represented Lake Chapala. Diana Ayala, the Feria’s promotional liaison, came up with the idea of Michicihualli.
The Feria tasked alebrije artist, Alejandro Camacho Barrero, a true “maestro” from Xochimilco, Mexico, to bring Michi to life. She holds treasures from the lake in her hands and rides on two giant fish. His entire family participated in her creation.
Michi is now at Lakeside and will be an integral part of this year’s Feria Maestros del Arte. The goddess represents the fertility of the lake in the form of a young princess. Artifacts have been found that were thrown in the lake to honor Michicihualli and give thanks for abundant water, fish, birds, and to maintain the good climate and our rainy season. Some were small clay pots and others are small idols.
Legend speaks of Michi sending the winds from the four different directions to keep the waters circulating and in harmony. But the princess was not always benevolent. At times she became furious, especially when the moon was full, punishing the lakeside inhabitants by taking water from the lake through a water spout, creating a big dark long cloud known as a “water snake.” This phenomenon would hit the mountains causing a huge thunder storm with lightening. In its path, this water spout could destroy the nearby villages.