Alebrijes Unrivalled in Oaxaca: Artisans Jacobo Ángeles & María Mendoza

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 8.54.35 AMBy Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

A starved dog scratching fleas; a bear with its paw in a honey pot; a snake constricting a wincing jaguar; a startled cat; a woman with braided locks and an armadillo’s body. Every hand-carved and painted wooden figure, or alebrije, that the workshop of Jacobo Ángeles and María Mendoza produces is remarkable. The realistic and flowing movement, fanciful stance, or familiar pose, strikes a chord with each figure’s popular characterization.

Jacobo and his wife María live in San Martín Tilcajete, one of three main alebrije producing villages in the central valleys of Oaxaca. Their home is their workshop. They employ upwards of 85 townspeople, largely relatives. However, only a select few are master carvers and painters, entrusted with whittling and decorating the finest work that the family produces, unmatched if not in all Mexico then certainly in Oaxaca. One would be hard-pressed to find other types of Mexican folk art with more pleasing form or symbolism representative of a region’s indigenous ancestry.

Many have written that woodcarving in Oaxaca dates back 50 or 60 years to a few carvers residing in the central valleys near the state capital. They ignore the pre-Hispanic roots of the tradition – from carving weapons, decoys, totems, masks and children’s toys – which has led to the current manifestation of the subculture’s highly developed skill set.

Jacobo began carving with his father at age 12. He was later mentored by village elders, including 88-year-old Isidoro Cruz, a former cart- and carriage-maker and innovator of the modern carving tradition. “Over the past few decades our craft has changed significantly,” Jacobo explains, “with use of store-bought paints, an increase in the range of figures carved and collector demand; but my ancestors were carving before the Spanish Conquest, painting with natural dyes derived from fruits and vegetables, plants and tree bark, soils and even insects.”

Occupation of the area began more than 10,000 years ago with the arrival of bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers. During subsequent millennia, as population increased so did innovation – the domestication of plants, complex social and political systems and large urban settlements developed. The Zapotecs became one of the predominant cultures.

Jacobo continues:

“My Zapotec ancestors used a 20-day calendar. Each day was represented by a different creature. Every person had an animal with whom he had a connection, and each animal had certain characteristics that carried over to the individual as personality traits. For example, the jaguar represents power and ultimate strength, the frog signifies honesty and openness, the coyote connotes watchful observation, the turtle always a troublemaker breaking rules, and the eagle embodies technical and strategic power. Sculpting began as good luck carvings kept in a niche in the home or worn around the neck as an amulet. Eventually [carvers] started making children’s pull toys and spinning tops. For religious rituals they carved masks. Isidoro is probably our oldest living mask-maker.”

After probing, an almost forgotten link emerges between an historic Zapotec survival mechanism – the use of wooden hunting paraphernalia – and the current art-form and the economic success it garners for the Ángeles-Mendoza family and others.

“For killing game, our forebears used blow guns and slingshots with animals carved on the handle or prongs. Hardened clay or small river stones were their bullets. They used decoys, such as a wooden snake placed on the ground where ants had trampled the grasses so they would easily be seen by birds of prey the hunted. [They might use] a rabbit tail attached to one end of a palm leaf hat, and at the other end a painted face, or a wooden almost-generic animal form with real antlers positioned in the tall brush to attract deer.

“But now, anyone who can carve or paint does much better serving the tourist and collector trade than making implements. We’ve transformed simple yet important traditions into something different, yet highly symbolic. We carve many more than those 20 creatures. But more importantly, we make our customs better understood and appreciated. In our workshop, painting depicts designs and representations of our ethnic mores – friezes from the ancient ruin at Mitla; symbols representing waves, mountains and fertility, our totems and other metaphors of our culture.”

The world has indeed taken notice. Jacobo and María’s work is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution, Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art, other museums, educational institutions and galleries. Throughout the year the couple circles the globe exhibiting, teaching and exalting Zapotec heritage.

Men do most of the carving, while women paint, but the tasks are not exclusively gender-based. Woodworkers have artistic license to carve whatever they wish except when an order has been placed. A tree branch “speaks” to the carver, the inspiration for a particular figure. The shape, thickness and twists come alive. An outline is drawn on the wood once the bark is removed, defining the image with greater clarity. Using only hand tools such as machetes, chisels and knives, the sculpting begins.

The preferred wood is copal. “From what we refer to as the female copal tree we can make figures out of one piece of wood, often very large and intricate,” Jacobo says, then explains further that “the wood is soft and easy to work with; the male copal is harder, and its branches tend to be smaller and more delicate, so we use it to make alebrijes that we assemble.”

A large carving may take a month or more to fashion. Figures are left to dry anywhere from a few weeks to up to two years depending on overall size and thickness. Because of the properties of copal and Oaxaca’s climate, the wood is susceptible to powder-post beetle infestation. Accordingly, during the drying process the carvings are immersed in a gasoline-insecticide mixture. In case eggs have evaded extermination, the pieces are later heated in a special oven.

Since figures are fashioned while the wood is green, cracks appear during drying. “We fill the cracks before the painting begins,” Jacobo says. For the remedial work they use wood shims and a sawdust-glue mixture. But even the slivers and sawdust have been cured. “Every buyer receives a lifetime guarantee on our work, whether spending $20 or $8,000,” he avows.

Once a figure leaves the hands of the carver, proprietary rights are released to someone else entrusted with painting. Nephew Magdalen confides that, “occasionally a cousin will ask, ‘what do you think about these colors or these designs for this coyote?’ and I’ll give feedback; it doesn’t happen often, and I’m almost always pleased with the result, but for me form is most important, and for whoever’s painting, the imagery it captures.”

Jacobo demonstrates how he creates natural paints used by his ancestors for dying clothing, painting buildings, and as body decoration for rites of passage, fiestas and prayer. With the aid of a machete, he cuts away the reddish inside bark of the male copal. It’s then dried, toasted and ground into a powder, a base used to create a diversity of colors. Using one hand as a palette, Jacobo squeezes lime juice over the powdered bark in his palm, yielding a brown stain, which he then strokes onto an unpainted wooden owl.

“The owl is also a sacred animal, the great healer, quiet and humble. Now in the sun, over time the color will change as it’s absorbed into the wood. Our ancestors learned to take copal resin and heat it with honey. The syrupy liquid is mixed with the paint, changing the tone to deep orange. The thickened compound acts as a mordant, both fixing the color and giving it a matte finish.”

Jacobo adds ground white limestone, transforming the color into black. After adding baking soda and more lime juice, it becomes deep yellow, then miraculously magenta. Crushed pomegranate seeds begin a new base.

The pulverized pink is magically transformed into green with added limestone. Mixed with the magenta, navy-blue appears. Adding zinc creates grey, and with more zinc, white. Natural indigo from the añil bush is altered with bicarbonate, zinc, lime juice or powdered lime mineral. Corn mold – a black, gooey, culinary delicacy – when fermented and dried produces ochre. The red of the crushed cochineal insect becomes orange with the addition of acidic fruit juice.

The demonstration terminates with Jacobo asking, “What́s your favorite animal?” following which he finger paints a rabbit from the multitude of colors on his hands, as only Alice in Wonderland could have imagined.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca ( Alvin’s spirits aficionado clients can sample mezcal with him at the Ángeles-Mendoza workshop.