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Wild Dreams and Rainbow Faces: The Famous Alebrije Artists of Mexico

By Catherine Ryan
Editor, NOVICA.com
Reprinted by permission from NOVICA.com


Imagine you are a paper maché artist in Mexico City in the 1940s, struggling to eek out a living wage to support your growing family. You construct paper maché piñatas, carnival masks, and also life size "Judas" dolls for the Sabado de Gloria festivals. Your sales peak during fiesta times, but between holidays it isn’t easy to peddle your creations; times are hard and dark.

You take to drinking during the slow times, and business doesn’t get any better. As the years pass, you drink more and more, and your health spirals down, down, down. One bitterly cold Mexico City night, drunk and wandering the empty, lonely streets, your body finally can take no more of the abuse. Collapsed, your soul slips away from your dying, twitching body, and begins to make its way down the long, torturous black river to hell. You offer no resistance.

But soon you encounter strange, terrifying creatures, the likes of which you’ve never seen before. They rear up toward you out of the blackness from both sides of the river, snarling and flashing hideously evil eyes and vicious claws at your face. Some are massive, twisted, evil insects. Others appear as animals, snakes, and birds gone very awry. One after the other, they appear out of the darkness before you, each more grotesque than the next. So terrified, you are actually shocked back to life.

Head reeling, rising from the grimy street, you mumble thanks to God for your salvation, over and over. But you’re even more thankful to the horrifyingly grotesque creatures that scared you back alive. You vow to honor and remember them always — and you hear yourself repeating a name you’ve never heard before: "alebrijes," "alebrijes."

That’s one of the many legends you’ll hear on the streets of Mexico about how the late Pedro Linares invented his phantasmagorical alebrijes — strange, elaborate paper maché creatures that skyrocketed him to international fame in the art world and secured his place in history as one of Mexico’s most celebrated artists of all time.

Linares’ son and grandson -- both named Felipe -- chuckled as I recounted what I’ve heard about their family’s notorious late patriarch.

"Well, actually, my father was dying of a stomach illness," Felipe Sr. explained. "His condition was very grave. Eventually he lost recognition of us, his family members. He said he thought he would die very soon."

Eventually, however, his father recovered and related a vision he’d seen during his brush with death. "He told me he saw monsters in the sky," Felipe Sr. explained, "clouds that transformed into very ugly, frightening creatures. When he recovered, he vowed to us that he would recapture the monsters in his art, even though they’d be ‘so ugly that no one would buy them.’ He constructed a figure somewhat human with a head resembling a cow. ‘It is called an alebrije,’ he announced."

That first Linares alebrije caught the eye of a gallery owner in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The gallery soon commissioned additional pieces. Eventually, museums around the world purchased the extraordinary, one-of-a-kind alebrijes, and Linares traveled to participate in exhibitions throughout Latin America, The United States, and Europe.

Meanwhile, Linares’s three sons were following in their father’s footsteps. The eldest son, Felipe, succeeded in taking his father’s art form to still greater heights.

"It occurred to me to turn the bodies into animals, fish, birds, and serpent forms," he said. "I would see a chicken or a snake and get the idea to incorporate those elements into an alebrije. I added chicken feet and claws to the body of a butterfly, for example. The creatures became wilder and wilder."

Connoisseurs and art critics began to buzz about Felipe’s "exceptional creativity." Felipe’s works can now also be found in major museums -- his Leon Mariposa (Lion Butterfly) is on permanent display at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.The family continued to work as a team, preparing substantial orders for exhibitions worldwide.

In 1991, Pedro Linares received Mexico’s National Award for Science and Art, presented to him by then President Salinas de Gortari. One of Mexico’s luchadores (wrestlers) honored the Linares family by naming himself Alebrije. And if imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then the Linares are constantly being flattered by artists throughout Mexico who have been strongly influenced by the family’s work.

Pedro Linares died in 1992, but his three sons and three grandsons continue to fashion one-of-kind alebrijes here in Mexico City. The Linares clan is working hard to produce a major collection of "skeleton fisherman" commissioned for a fast-approaching exhibit in France. The younger Felipe told me that each piece takes weeks to produce. But the project is now just about complete.

"We are very excited," Felipe added. "We really like to travel. It has been very interesting to get to know the world, especially in the context of exhibiting our work. We’ve had the opportunity to meet so many fascinating people."

I asked the father and son if their family is as wild as their creations. They both laughed. "Besides the alebrijes, our family is rather normal, I think," the younger Linares said.

 

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