Alebrijes are brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures. The first alebrijes began with an artist who lived in Mexico City, Mexico. Pedro Linares (1906-1992), a renowned indigenous Mexican artist, first created vividly colorful paper mâché sculptures called alebrijes. The inspiration for Linares' sculptures has an origin as outlandish and fanciful as the figures themselves. As the story goes, Linares became very ill when he was 30 years old. Not having access to medical attention, he laid in bed and lost consciousness. Linares dreamt of a strange, peaceful place that resembled a forest. He recounted seeing giant rocks, tall trees, and an expansive sky. The artist felt remarkably healthy again. His physical pain was gone, and he felt happy as he walked along trails through the dense foliage of his dream world.
Suddenly, the clouds, rocks, and trees began to transform. The land features around him shaped themselves into familiar animals, yet like nothing Linares had ever seen before. There were mules with dragonfly wings, roosters with antlers, creatures that resembled griffins, and dragons, just to name a few. They had bright colors and patterns swirling over their bodies. These creatures began repeatedly chanting a single word: alebrije...alebrije...alebrije! Linares became fearful of these strange, powerful creatures chanting this nonsense word. He couldn't tell if they were warning or threatening him. However, it was enough to startle him awake, and his fever subsided.
After this experience, Linares became fascinated with his alebrijes dream and began using cardboard and paper mache to craft large, vivid, ethereal creatures that no one had ever seen before. His surrealist animals caught the attention of a prominent gallery owner who marketed the pieces. This garnered so much recognition for Linares' work that Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo, two of Mexico’s most famous painters, began commissioning alebrijes by Linares. Alebrjies became celebrated throughout Mexico and abroad. Linares shared his designs with fellow artisans in Oaxaca, where the tradition of making alebrijes out of paper mache or wood continues today.
Alebrije is a word that Linares invented in his dream; it has no other meaning in the Spanish language. Although alebrijes are primarily a form of Mexican folk art, they have become associated with Dia de los Muertos celebrations for their vibrant colors and patterns. The animated movie Coco, most recently, depicted alebrijes as spirit animals that accompany the dead into the afterlife.