In a small dusty road in the back of a tiny village 15km out side of Oaxaca city Mexico is a small artist workshop of Jacobo and Maria Angeles.
While attending the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca city we visited this remarkable art workshop.
They are producers of Zapotec figures carved in wood called “tonas” and “nahuales” known as alebrijes. They use Mixtec-Zapotec iconography on their pieces in a unique style that we have been developed over years. The “tonas” are the animals of the Zapoteco calendar. The “nahual” is the animal fused with the human being. In 2014, Jacobo was invited to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis and set alebrije nativity scenes and Christmas tree ornaments.
Jacobo and Maria now teaches others to follow the same craft and techniques. They generates jobs to more than 100 collaborators who work in different areas: carving, resanado, painted, administration, kitchen and sales.
Like other Oaxacan alebrije makers, the wood is soft copal, in his case collected from the nearby Sierra de Cuicatlán, and worked only with hand tools such as machetes, chisels and knives.
The carved pieces range from centimeters to meters in length or height. The animals are generally recognizable can include jaguars, dogs, bears, owls and more, often doing something such as flying, scratching itself or fighting.
One distinguishing elements in much of Angeles’ work is the appearance of human faces in otherwise animal figures, such as an armadillo with a woman’s head with braids. This reflects a Mesoamerican belief in nahuals, humans who convert into some kind of animal at night, as well as Jacobo’s own personal belief that everyone resembles an animal in some way.
The entire process of making one alebrije, including carving, drying, submersion in gasoline and other chemical to kill insect eggs in the wood and painting averages about a month.
Most of the production of alebrijes is now done by younger people from San Martín Tilcajete, mostly relatives of the Angeles family.
Their pieces do not command the prices as those done by the master, but they are in a similar style and are similar in quality.
Carvers and painters in the workshop sometimes collaborate but generally the painters have license to decorate the figure however they like, much as the carver has license to create using only the branch or trunk as a guide.
Alebrijes were born with Pedro Linares in Mexico City in the first half of the 20th century. After turning 30, Pedro is arrested for a disease that causes hallucinations. In his delirium he can see a species of beings that inhabited a forest. These beings were like chimeras to the Mexican: donkeys with wings of butterfly, roosters with horns of bull, lions with eagle head … they all shouted a single word: alebrijes, compound word that could mean “far away witch”. Pedro Linares’ first alebrijes were papier maché.
Years later, in Oaxaca began to carve figures in copal wood and to paint them with Anilinas, and the people began to call them “alebrijes of Oaxaca”. It was so much success that they had, that entire families began to dedicate themselves to the production of these creatures. Manuel Jiménez Ramírez, Native of the town of San Antonio Arrazola, Oaxaca, is considered the creator of the Oaxacan alebrijes. What he introduced in his pieces was the concept of nahual.