The Alebrijes and the Art of Cartoneria “Mexican Paper Sculptures” - Paper Mache Mexican Folk Art
Article presented by Juan Carlos Brito (former owner of Las Manos del Artesano in La Jolla CA) Illustrated with art by Antonio Joel García the Alebrijes master of Mexican Artisans.
The Alebrijes or Paper Monsters are imaginary creatures that have elements from different animals such as dragon bodies, bat wings, wolf teeth and dog eyes. Colorfully painted, they were originally made with papier mache, but with time the word "Alebrije" was also applied to wood carving figures made in Oaxaca.
PAPER HISTORY IN MEXICO
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they found that a type of paper already existed, that the natives called “amatl” because it originates from the amate tree. This paper is obtained from the bark of the amate, which is a wild fig.
The Otomi paid tribute to the Mayans and Aztecs for over 800 years with amate paper. The amate paper was mainly utilized for writing in the codices that are bound in the form of dividers and were written in a pictographic script based on drawings. In addition to writing, the amate paper was used as palace decorations, for the clothing and personal ornamentation of idols, priests and kings, but above all for magic and witchcraft. However, after the Spanish conquest, its production was mostly banned and replaced by European paper.
Tissue Paper (Papel de China):
In the XV and XVI centuries for the Spanish, the discovery of America and the conquest of Mexico were not more than a stopover on the race for the Indies and China. The Europeans of that era were mesmerized by the silk, spices and the products from the East that they took a while to realize the wealth America would generate for Spain.
In 1527 Hernan Cortez sent the first Expedition to the East formed by three Galleons that left from Zihuatanejo. Little is known of this expedition, only one made it to the East after several years of drifting.
The trade route between the Philippines and Mexico was traveled for more than 250 years from 1565 to 1815. This route was known as the "Manila Galleon" or the "Nao de China". Eastern trade came from Manila to Acapulco, crossed in caravans of mules from Acapulco to Veracruz and from Veracruz it was shipped back to Spain. With the enrichment of the Landowners of New Spain, the great lords of Mexico were the first to choose from the merchandise.
Tissue paper, Wrapping Paper or Papel de China as is known in Mexico is known in Europe as “Silk Paper” (Papel de Seda). This type of paper came first wrapping the merchandise that came from the East, but with the rise in demand the paper starts being commercialized in Tiendas de Rayas (Stores that belong to landholders).
The tissue Paper quickly took on a fundamental importance in the culture of New Spain, especially at religious festivals, where entire villages were decorated with papel picado (perforated or punched paper) and other decorative articles made with colored papers. They were even used to dress and decorate religious images of saints and virgins, as did the Ancient Mexicans.
2. THE ART OF “MEXICAN PAPER SCULPTURE”.
Cartoneria in Mexican History:
Subsequently, by the same trade route from the Philippines, the "manila paper" also known as "brown paper" or "kraft paper" arrived in Mexico. This paper with a more robust body appears in the late seventeenth century and is the basis for the flourishing of the Cartoneria (Mexican Paper Sculpture).
- The Artistic Manifestations:
Even though the artisan traditions have disappeared, the Paper Mache Artist covers with his work a production cycle linked to the religious festivities of the year. In January for the Wise Men, toys were made, for the Holy Week on Holy Saturday, the Judas, in September for the national Holidays: horns, horses, and the figurine of Father Hidalgo. For the Day of the Dead: skeletons that danced when pulled by strings, the little tombs and the funerals. For Christmas the nativity sets and mainly the pointed pinatas, that were made only for the posadas in the past.
In the calendar of each town the Papier Mache Artist played an irreplaceable role since the arrangement of the patron Saint, the decoration of the church and the streets of the town, the toys sold at the park, the pinatas, and the fireworks, etc depended on him.
3. THE ALEBRIJES.
The master Pedro Linares (1906-1992):
The master Pedro Linares was born in Mexico City, and grew up as a papier mache crafter, and since he was little he was given to the task of producing toys, pinatas, and mainly the Judas that were burned on Holy Saturday. Traditionally the Judas figurines had the body of a man with a human or devil’s head, but by the end of the Constitution some Judas figurines from Guanajuato with the heads of animals arrived in Mexico City.
Los Sueños Fantásticos:At the age of 30, The master Linares fell unconscious with a very severe illness, in his delirium he dreamt with fantastic and monstrous figures that shouted in a loud voice: “Alebrijes, Alebrijes, Alebrijes.” Upon his return from his trip, as he himself referred to the recovery of his illness, he gave himself the task of reproducing those characters in his dreams which he called "Alebrijes".
His cardboard Alebrijes (Papier Mache) highly sought after by artists of the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, where he met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera commissioned him with several figures. In a gallery of Cuernavaca, British film director Judith Bronowski, found the work of Linares and after meeting him in 1975, he made a documentary about The master Linares that made him famous. In 1980, takes him on a trip to art shows for several museums of the United States along with the wood carver Manuel Jimenez and textile artist Maria Sabina, both from Oaxaca.
In 1990 Pedro Linares receives the National Prize of Arts and Sciences, the highest honor given by the Mexican Government. His art is found in various museums and collectors like the “Rolling Stones’ and David Copperfield.
4. THE DAY OF THE DEATH MOTIVES.
José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913):
Born in the city of Aguascalientes, in his youth he devoted himself to illustration and caricature. His sharp criticism to politicians of the time, the church hierarchy and the high society, caused his work to be censored and that the publisher or newspaper who dared to publish his artwork to be sanctioned, so he was forced to move to another city in various occasions.
For his concern for inequality and social injustice he is considered the artist of the people. Takes the issue of death with a great sense of humor, the skulls, the dandy and the Lady (now known as La Catrina), the skeletons of people and animals are the main themes of his prints. The reasons are the daily life of elegant parties and the lives of poor neighborhoods.
Posada influenced artists like Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Francisco Diaz de Leon, etc. Today the the reasons of the Day of the Dead have flourished in all disciplines of Mexican crafts, especially in Papier Mache (Cartoneria).
5. THE MASTER ANTONIO JOEL GARCIA VENTURA.
The First Steps:
Antonio Joel Garcia was born in Mexico City in 1955. Since he was 10 years old, he works in the workshop of Maestro Pedro Linares, who teaches him all the techniques of Mexican Paper Sculpture, but above all, he learns the love of detail and perfection in his works.
Each Alebrije art piece of the master Joel Garcia is worked with an immeasurable patience, never makes a drawing, he says he doesn’t have that gift, in his imagination he conceives the idea and gradually he gives it shape
- First with newspaper the volume of the figure in the project is made, and it’s covered with small pieces of adhesive tape for masking.
- Subsequently various layers of newspaper dipped with paste are added and is left to dry. (The paste is natural glue made with flour and water, gets heated and is left to cool so it can be applied.)
- Once the figure is dried, various layers of little pieces of manila papers previously dipped in the paste are added and left to dry.
- If the figure needs a wired frame, this is the moment to add said frame, twisting the wire to the desired size for legs, arms, neck, paws, tail, etc. it gets inserted to the dried body covered with Manila paper. The wire added pieces, are given volume by covering them with Manila paper dipped with paste.
- The following process is the more slowly and delicate processes, the moment to give expression to the project, give it life. This is accomplished by forming small dough with the Manila paper and the paste, while giving volume to the muscles of the face and body.
- After allowing it to perfectly dry, you add color with acrylic paints, first the background color and gradually apply the other colors. Finally a coat of varnish is applied.
For the master Joel Garcia, each piece has its time, it could be between 8 to 15 days of work, and each day is about 10 to 12 hours. That’s why each piece is unique and a work of art.
In a course taught by the master Joel Garcia in the United States, an audience member asked him about his studies and academic qualifications. The master Joel admitted with regret not having been able to go beyond sixth grade, having difficulty reading and writing, but his passion and love for his work had opened doors he had never dreamed.
The Museo de Arte Popular (MAP) in Mexico City presented the Train of History in the festivities of the celebration of the Bicentennial celebration of the Independence of Mexico. Each wagon was assigned to the best artisans of the various disciplines of Mexican crafts. Among all of the Artisans of Papier Mache, the master Joel Garcia was assigned a wagon to represent the signing of the Constitution in that Train.
The master Joel Garcia has pieces in different museums in Mexico, United States and Europe. Without speaking English, has taught courses in the University of Pasadena in California, in the University of Liberal Arts in Boston and has given courses presenting his work in galleries and schools in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Philadelphia, and New York.