Paper monsters

This weekend, it was surreal to witness a parade of giant papier mache monsters, looking like a spin-off from the psychedelic 1960s, rolling towards us along one of Mexico City's busiest streets.  These wonderful sculptures are known as alebrijes and have been made in Mexico since the 1930s.

When I return home I usually have packed some alebrijes as gifts. These are smaller versions of the paper monsters, but are just as imaginative. Brightly coloured animal figurines, carved out of wood, they are most often found in Oaxaca, which has some of the richest folk-art in Mexico. The tiny village of Arrazola produces many of these animals, made from the soft wood of the copal tree; a few years ago we visited the artisans in their homes and bought from them direct.

The term alebrijes originates from the grand papier mache creations of Pedro Linares, a craftsman from Mexico City. Alebrije translates as “imaginary” or “fantasy” and is a fitting description for these bizarre creatures.

The story goes that Linares used to make traditional papier mache figures and carnival masks, for all the local festivals, including piñatas at Christmas, and life-size Judas dolls at Easter. After falling gravely ill, he encountered weird, grotesque animals in his fevered hallucinations. Upon recovery he decided to paint the animals of his dreams, little realising how popular these ugly monsters would become. As a result of the renewed creativity following his near-death experience, Linares and his family passed over the thin line separating craftsman from artists; a local legend was born and a novel form of art was brought into existence.

Renowned muralist, Rivera Diego bought several huge figures for his studio and European and US enthusiasts started collecting the Linares family creations as artistic treasures. What was one man’s terrifying vision of death has become celebrated art.

In the 1960s, inspired by the success of Linares, a Oaxacan woodcarver, Manuel Jiménez, transferred the style to the miniature figurines he carved. Many followed suit and these brightly-painted wooden animals and monsters remain hugely popular and portable examples of this vernacular art.

The Alebrije procession took place in one of Mexico City’s main boulevards, Paseo Reforma. The giant creations then came to rest overnight on the wide pavements. How apt that they should appear the week before the Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico, reminding us of the skill with which Mexicans circumvent horror and terror. They confont, make fun of and celebrate death. In their hands, the stuff of nightmares becomes colourful, hand-painted toys for the delight of adults and children alike.