Fantastical creatures often describe the papier-mâché alebrijes created by Pedro Linares. The brightly-colored figures display traditional designs on curious mashups of animals.
But how did Linares dream up the alebrijes?
Join us as we learn how this popular Mexican tradition got started.
Let’s take a look!
What are Alebrijes?
Alebrijes are Mexican folk art sculptures originally created by Pedro Linares in the 1930s in Mexico City. Paintings and sculptures depict mythical creatures, patterns, and bright colors. It’s typical to see multiple body parts of different animals combined into one form.
They’re often associated with joy or excitement. At the same time, others see them as a celebration of life and death.
The word alebrije means “imaginary” or “fantasy,” and the pieces range in size from small display objects to towering exhibitions. Vibrant colors in geometric shapes stripe and dot the exotic animals. No two are alike.
Linares’ first surreal manifestations came to life with papier-mâché. Artists today use wood carvings and even 3D computer animation.
The Story of Pedro Linares
Pedro Linares was a Mexican artist born in 1905. He was a successful and well-known cartonero, like his father. Cartonería are papier-mâché piñatas, Judas, masks, dolls, and more, crafted for special occasions.
Pedro worked closely with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo of the Academia de San Carlos School of Fine Arts in Mexico City. He constructed the standard cartón Judas figures burned during the Catholic Easter season and sold them in La Merced market. Rivera and Kahlo collected Linares’ creations before the first alebrijes.
In 1975, a documentary about Linares’ life brought him fame and buyers from around the world. Pedro traveled the United States and Europe, displaying his art. In 1990, he received the Mexican National Prize in Arts and Sciences for his famous work and traditions.
What Inspired Pedro Linares in Creating Alebrijes?
The story goes that in 1936, Pedro Linares got extremely sick with peritonitis. High fever caused him severe hallucinations, and he saw odd creatures.
They spoke to him, “Alebrije, alebrije, alebrije!”
Another story explains that painter Jose’ Gomez Rosas appointed Linares to decorate an annual masquerade party. Rosa told him to grab a Judas and give it a tail or bat wings. Rosas’ paintings often displayed the strange zoomorphic figures seen in alebrijes.
Alebrijes should contain qualities of animals from three of the four elements – air, water, earth, and fire. The idea that they’re animal spirit guides in the afterlife was originally fiction, though many people embrace this concept. It’s no surprise as supernatural creatures comprise elements from Mexico’s Indigenous and European past.
Today, the alebrijes are an important aspect of Mexican surrealist art. The practice still mainly uses cardboard, paper, or wood.
Honestly, we don’t care which story is true. The results are incredible!
Is Pedro Linares Still Alive?
Linares died in 1992 at age 85, but the art of alebrijes continues to evolve. Papier-mâché artists fashion fierce creatures in their own style around the country.
The Folk Art National Museum organizes The Alebrije’s Night. It includes a giant parade, an artist contest for the three best giant alebrijes, music, tales, and other activities.
This event goes on our bucket list!
The Legacy of Pedro Linares
The filmmaker Bronowski opened a workshop for Linares and his family after the popularity of the documentary. Many of his descendants continue the tradition of making the alebrijes. Branches of the family occupy a row of houses on the same street. They use Pedro’s style of iconic figurines, Judas, and skeletons.
The Linares family exports their work to galleries showing Mexican art worldwide. The Rolling Stones, David Copperfield, and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro are among their customers.
The Evolution of Alebrijes
Pedro started the alebrijes by working on the burning of Judas ritual during Holy Week. Using the papier-mâché art form, he began constructing the strange animals from his hallucinogenic vision.
The popular documentary also led to Oaxaca City woodcarvers adopting Linares’ designs. One such inspired artist is Manuel Jimenez. He pioneered the successful Oaxacan wooden reproductions of fanciful animal figurines. You’ll know if one is originally from a great artisan if the pieces are removable.
Alebrijes’ innovation today involves lighted creations made of metal frames, cloth, or plastic. Who knows what the next generation of alebrijes will be?
Where Can I See Alebrijes?
We mentioned the annual event at the Mexican Folk Art National Museum. If a trip to Mexico is not in your budget, here are a couple of options to see Linares-inspired alebrijes.
Located in Wheaton, IL, Cantigny Park offers a parkwide outdoor art exhibit featuring dozens of imaginary creatures inspired by Mexican folklore. Forty-eight alebrije sculptures, taller and larger than an SUV, are on display.
Cantigny Park has much to offer if you’re up for a road trip to see the alebrijes’ dream world. The park has gardens, two historical museums, and a host of recreational opportunities to fill your weekend.
Folk Art Museum of Central Texas
Located in Austin, TX, The Folk Art Museum of Central Texas has exotic works from around the world. The museum devoted a special gallery to traditional Oaxacan alebrijes.
The museum is building a collection of inspired works by native peoples. The collection comprises objects such as masks, jewelry, figures, and textiles.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can view more folk art in our personal collection on Instagram at Outside Folk Art or in our Artsy gallery. We’re celebrating folk and outsider artists and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans. We’ll also offer pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when.
An Eternal Cultural Impact
The life of Pedro Linares is an excellent example of how one man can influence cultural tradition. The character of his eccentric alebrijes continues to develop across the art world. In fact, we may try to make one ourselves.
Have you collected an alebrije? What does it mean to you?