Monday, October 12, 2015

Alebrijes in Oaxaca

This article was originally written for El BeiSMan. I've made a few tweaks to it here and added a few pictures that there wasn't room for in the original article. Much of what I write about at Border Radio centers on cultural exchange, and there is little doubt in my mind that meeting Jacobo Ángeles and viewing his wonderful art here in Chicago was a factor in my deciding to travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his workshop is located. The idea of exchange is central to this article as well. Not only did I visit the source of something beautiful and brimming with significance, but likewise that art travels the world, bringing a healthy dose of culture and knowledge with it.

Encountering Alebrijes: Beyond the Beauty
by Don Macica with Carolina Cifuentes
photos by Don Macica

We first met Jacobo Ángeles in Chicago a few years ago at the National Museum of Mexican Art during their annual Folk Art Festival (this year’s fest begins on Friday, October 16). The festival brings together folk artists from several Mexican states to educate visitors about their work and, hopefully, sell some of it. There are sugar skulls, rugs, textiles, ceramics, paper crafts and, directly as you enter the room, Jacobo Ángeles and his alebrijes. When we saw him last October, we told him we were coming to Oaxaca at Christmas and he invited us to visit his workshop.

As you explore the streets of Oaxaca City’s central historic district, you’ll find several shops selling folk art that is mostly local to the southern Mexican state. There is, in fact, an entire mercado devoted to the work of artisans. Generally speaking, the articles for sale would all make a good remembrance of your visit when you view them later back at home, and they are priced so that you don’t have to break the bank to awaken those memories.

Jacobo Ángeles
When you enter Voces de Copal on Calle Macedonio Alcalá, however, you quickly sense that something is different. Immediately to your right is a narrow and brightly lit room outfitted with a polished wooden frame that evokes a tunnel or the hull of a boat. Attached at varying heights on this frame are no more than 12 or 13 shelves, and on each of these is placed a single exquisite example of the painted wood carvings known as alebrijes. This is the gallery of Jacobo Ángeles, a master artisan whose pieces can be found in museums, galleries and private collections around the world.

I have a 10 inch long alebrije of a lizard on my living room wall, but I must confess that it is not one of Jacobo’s. I bought it at a museum shop in Oaxaca.  At a glance, they are similar in appearance, colorful animal figures carved out of the wood of the copal tree and painted in vibrant patterns. Upon closer inspection, though, the detail, quality and symbolic meaning of Jacobo’s work elevate it beyond the artisan and into the realm of art object.

If you take a bus or taxi about 15 miles south of Oaxaca City on Highway 175 you’ll find the village of San Martín Tilcajete. There are several towns surrounding Oaxaca City, and each is celebrated for a particular artisan form. San Martín Tilcajete is the place of the alebrijes. We were fortunate enough to hitch a ride in the truck of a staff member at Voces de Copal. Turning off the highway, we proceeded west about a mile until we reached the village, eventually reaching the very western edge of town where Taller Jacobo y Maria Ángeles can be found.

When I think of a workshop, I picture a sparse room and a few artisans hunched over a workbench, diligently applying their skills to the task as apprentices lend a hand. Imagine my surprise, then, when after several minutes of right and left turns through the streets of the village, we arrived at the ever expanding complex that is both the home and taller of Jacobo and Maria. Entering through a gate, we came upon a lush, plant filled courtyard. All of the work areas, while covered by a roof, were open and airy, owing to the warm and dry Oaxacan climate. Each was filled with several young apprentices, all practicing the craft that has flourished here for generations. 

After greeting us warmly, Jacobo introduced us to Eduardo, who would be our guide to the taller. The story originates, of course, in the surrounding rural area, where the copal is harvested.  (It’s important to note that Jacobo’s taller does not merely take the wood of the copal. For the last five years, they have been reforesting as well.  Two thousand trees were planted just this past year.) The wood then goes through a drying process before carving begins. Working with basic tools like machetes, chisels and knives, woodworkers allow the tree branch to “speak” to them, in essence inspiring the form of the carving. There are stages of carving: rough outline, detail work, polishing. A single piece, depending on its size, can take a month or so to fashion. 

Most of the carving takes place in one work area, while others are devoted to the painting. Once it leaves the carver’s hands, further artistic decisions are made by the painters. Commercial paints are used, but so, too, are natural pigments of the type created by Jocobo’s Zapotec ancestors centuries ago. The entire process is collaborative in the sense that no one piece represents an individual artisan, but a process by which a completed work is dependent on many hands.

We stopped to talk with a young artisan who was diligently painting an intricate pattern on a fantastical animal figure. She explained that at first, painters are only allowed to do dots, and only with time do they progress to more complex patterns. She herself was in her third year of training, and her detailing was intricate and beautiful.


The patterns are not merely decoration, nor are the figures being carved random choices. While it is commonly accepted that alebrijes as the world knows them originated in Mexico City a mere 80 years ago, Jacobo makes it very clear that the Oaxacan practice has roots that are pre-Hispanic. In fact, alebrijes are referred to here as either tonas, representing the animals of the Zapotec calendar, or nahuales, where they become one with the human, sometime referred to as a spirit animal. Collectively, they are "obras espirituales", spiritual works.

We began to realize that two things were taking place. First, the taller is the studio of master artisan Jacobo Ángeles and his wife Maria, who craft alebrijes so exceptional that they are collected and displayed around the globe. Second, and equally important, is the teaching of an art form to the young people of San Martín Tilcajete, and in the process doing two things:  instilling knowledge and pride of their Zapotec heritage and passing on a skill that will allow them to make a very honorable living. 

The state of Oaxaca, though extraordinarily rich in culture, lacks employment opportunities. It is quite likely, then, that the creation and sale of alebrijes is San Martín Tilcajete’s major source of income. Thus, the artist’s studio doubles as a job training center, where the ancient Oaxacan sense of shared communal duty is visibly apparent.  That point is further driven home when we are told that all of the employees of Voces de Copal and Azucena Zapoteca, a restaurant across Alcalá from the gallery in Oaxaca City that sells Jacobo’s alebrijes and other crafts, live in San Martín, and are thus also supported by the taller.

After our tour, Jacobo sat with us for a half an hour to discuss his art and the work of the taller. "My Zapotec ancestors used a 20-day calendar. Each day was represented by a different creature. Every person had an animal with which he had a connection, and each animal had certain characteristics that carried over to the individual as personality traits. For example, the jaguar represents power and ultimate strength, the frog signifies honesty and openness, the coyote connotes watchful observation, the turtle always a troublemaker breaking rules, and the eagle embodies technical and strategic power.“

Jacobo began carving with his father at age 12. He was later mentored by village elders, including Isidoro Cruz, an innovator of the modern carving tradition. "Over the past few decades our craft has changed significantly," Jacobo explains, "with use of store-bought paints, an increase in the range of figures carved and collector demand; but my ancestors were carving before the Spanish Conquest, painting with natural dyes derived from fruits and vegetables, plants and tree bark, soils and even insects."

The taller now accepts commissions from buyers, and with that the subjects carved has grown beyond the Zapotec calendar to include other animals and, in some cases, even non-animate forms. The patterns painted on them, though, continue to be imbued with Zapotec symbolism, thus contributing to an ongoing education for those who want to look beyond the pretty colors and into the heart of the culture from which they came.

“We've transformed simple yet important traditions into something different, yet highly symbolic.” Explains Jacobo, “In our workshop, painting depicts designs and representations of our ethnic mores - friezes from the ancient ruin at Mitla, symbols representing waves, mountains and fertility, our totems and other metaphors of our culture."

With that, Jacobo excuses himself. A collector is waiting, another commission is being planned. We end our visit at Milagros de Sabina, a small shop that sells crafts created at the taller. There are alebrijes, to be sure, but also jewelry and other decorative items derived from the same Zapotec cultural symbols. You don’t need the deep pockets of an international art collector to shop there, just a sincere appreciation of beauty and culture and a desire to contribute to the success of the taller. When Jacobo arrives at the National Museum of Mexican Art later this month, he’ll not only bring several of his personal works, but also dozens of these less expensive creations by the artisans of Taller Jacobo y Maria Ángeles.

Our day is not quite over. We get a ride back to the highway where we'll take a bus back to Oaxaca City. First, though, we have lunch at the San Martín Tilcajete location of Azucena Zapoteca, a sprawling restaurant and gallery alongside the road that must employ at least 100 people. After a complimentary mezcal, we enjoy one of the best meals of our entire Oaxaca trip. Yes, the food was delicious, but in a culinary capital like Oaxaca, that hardly needs to be said. As we savored this particular meal, our lives were newly enriched by what we had just learned, and knowing that we were playing a small part in the sustainability of Zapotec traditions enhanced this meal into the realm of cultural preservation. For that we’ll always be grateful.



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