Saturday, December 6, 2008

Alebrije Love

When I was 18 I remember wandering around a large department with a $50 christmas gift certificate from grandma. I wandered around for a long time not seeing anything that even remotely interested me until I hit the bargain table where I saw four chunky, wonderfully imperfect, cobalt blue bottles made of blown glass. It was love at first sight and I bought all four.

Maybe I identified with their rough, but solid presence. Maybe I was drawn to how real they felt compared to my overly processed middle-class Canadian world. I'm sure grandma hoped I would buy something more practical like towels or sheets, but I was 18 and I couldn't see beyond these beautiful crudely crafted blue bottles. When I got them home and studied them closer I saw a sticker that would change my life forever "Hecho en Mexico".

My next serious Mexican love was alebrijes and alebrije love eventually takes you to Arrazola, Oaxaca. In Arrazola, some 50 years or so ago, a man named Manuel Jimenez who had started out making masks for Dia de los Muertos decided to use his wood carving talents a little less traditionally and started carving and painting fantastical creatures. These creatures quickly became widely acclaimed throughout Mexico and the world of museums and collectors. Today the town devotes itself to the making of alebrijes.

Green copal wood from female trees is favoured for its softness and lack of knots. It is roughly carved first with machete and then the finer details are worked in with smaller knives. Limbs and tails are often added after the wood has had time to dry and harden in the sun. After the sculpture is sanded, women customarily add the finest details by painstakingly painting these critters with electrifying patterns and impossible colour schemes.

The only problem with visiting Arrazola as a bike tourist is the difficulty in transporting alebrijes of any consequence by bicycle.

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