Alebrijes, Mexican fantastical folk art
You’ve likely seen them around Playa del Carmen when shopping. Brightly colored papier-mâché creatures on shelves and in store windows. These odd-looking fantastical creatures are an embedded part of Mexico’s heritage and make great souvenirs.
Their proper name is alebrijes and are actually Oaxaca-Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures. They’ve been around since the 1930s when a young artist, Pedro Linares, fell ill. During his illness he often dreamt of strange places that looked like a forest where he saw all sorts of animals, none of which resembled anything he knew.
He would see rocks, animals and clouds that would suddenly turn into something strange such as a donkey with butterfly wings or a lion with an eagle head all shouting the word “alebrijes”. Upon his recovery, Linares began recreating the creatures he saw in cardboard and papier-mâché and called them Alebrijes.
His artistic work caught the attention of a local gallery owner and later, of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. During the 1980s, his work was featured in a Mexican art workshop in the US along with several other well-known artists.
Linares’ fantastical creatures were eventually changed over to be carved from a local wood called copal, a wood deemed to be magical. The popularity of his art quickly spread throughout various parts of Mexico depleting the natural supply of copal. Reforestation efforts of the copal tree had limited success, which is why the alebrijes are once again, made from papier-mâché.
Pedro Linares died in January of 1992, but his legacy continues through the alberije.