It is correct that some Oaxacan Woodcarvings are also known as ‘Alebrijes’ as it would be also correct to say that some woodcarvings are ‘Nahuales’. But it is a mistake to call all Oaxacan woodcarvings ‘Alebrijes’. Alebrijes refer to the fantastic animal figures made by Pedro Linares that were inspired by images seen in fever dreams during an illness. Working in Mexico City, Linares already made large figures for festivals using lightweight papier–maché. (Rather than paper Linares used cardboard) The figures would be carried throughout a procession and were often burnt as part of the ceremony. To these figures Linares now added his Alebrijes. Importantly, these works were also sold as much as used for celebrations. Alebrijes are not of Oaxacan origin rather they have been adopted. Linares was championed by Diego and Frida Kahlo and so his work became more widely known.
Manuel Jimenez lived in San Martin Tilcajete a village far south of Mexico City. He is accredited for catalysing a new energy into woodcarving and this is in part because of the 'success' of LInares. Manuel Jimenez saw in the work of Linares, the opportunity to expand on the limited way wood carving in his village was understood. But he did not require a new sense of the ‘fantastic’ as had Linares. Manuel simply returned to the established folklore in which people and animals had always possessed magical traits. The belief that man has spirit or physical links to animals is an ancient one and not exclusively Mesoamerican or Pre-Columbian. The Nahual (pronounced na'wall) is that spiritual or physical attribute in the person, which might be represented in stone carving, painting or woodcarving. A person’s birth date (in Zapotec tradition) signifies the animal whose spirit they possess – dog, donkey or a jaguar. A person becomes these – they transform (shapeshift) and can exercise their powers. Once, in the everyday practice of such beliefs, a Oaxacan farmer would carve a wooden animal for their children as much as a toy as in the belief that the child would possess its spirit or powers. They were good luck charms. Perhaps, Manuel Jimenez thought he was linked to old magic like others isolated in their villages and with the weight of past culture on their shoulders. The Nahual remains a subject for today’s woodcarvers but it out of tradition rather than belief. But it would be wrong to rule magic out of today's woodcarving. There is an element of magic that sustains the best work. Oaxacan woodcarving could not exist without it.
If the fantastic visions of Pedro Linares and the equally fantastic world of the Nahual are subject matter for the Oaxacan woodcarver, then further resources lie in the remains of the cites of Monte Alban, Mitla and Atzompa. They lie in the carving that incises the stone architecture to form a continuous relief over the facades. The repetitive patterns are hieroglyphs and enabled the Zapotecs to imbue their buildings with a wider picture of themselves. It is with these hieroglyphs that the painter of the woodcarvings applies an additional layer of meaning to the carving. At present few painters faithfully apply the language of the ancient hieroglyphs. In many cases, the hieroglyphs have become a basis upon which to develop a personal pattern making language without hieroglyphic value - this can become the means for pattern making to flourish in some hands or wear thin in others.
Another source of subject matter is the Catholicism that has overlain previous religious beliefs. The Church carvings of Jesus, the Madonna, Saints, Angels and Nativity are an inspiration for many of the wood carvers. Finally, it is the everyday life of the carver and his community that are subject matter of the works - the mundane and extraordinary. Each might be sufficient cause to create a work - a cart pulled by oxen or a Madonna of Solitude, a Jaguar painted with Zapotec hieroglyphs or a coyote with a human head, an old man with a walking stick and a woman grinding mole negro. But often many of the threads are worked together and result in a complex altered reality – surreal, mythical or simply charmed. These worlds are not always distinct from mundane life. Sometimes they exist together, so that in villages of Oaxaca you can never be sure what will greet you around the next corner.
Carnival, St Martin, Tilcajete: Photo © Oaxacaoriginal 2015