I had the honor to visit the taller (workshop) of Jacobo and María Ángeles, from San Martin Tilcajete a pueblo near the city of Oaxaca, Mexico.
They are artists who carve and paint alebrijes, magical wooden creatures. To the artists, who spend so much time creating the pieces, the creatures have a spirit inside them.
The taller of Jacobo and María Ángeles is dedicated to keeping their Zapotec culture alive. The designs reflect the artists’ spiritual connection to their Zapotec roots. Zapotec culture dates back 2500 years. Zapotecs were warriors, farmers, builders of pyramids and artists. In the early 1500’s, the Zapotecs were conquered by Mexica or Aztec. Shortly there after, the Spanish invaded to further the oppression of the Zapotec people. However, the resilience and beauty of the Zapotec culture is visible today throughout the Valle de Oaxaca.
According to Zapotec legends, some of their ancestors emerged from caves, and others came from trees or jaguars. Still others are believed to be descended from supernatural beings who lived in the clouds. That is why they are called “Be’ena’Za’a” – “The cloud people.”
Jacobo and María employ over a hundred artists and administrators. In addition, they have a school where they train interns that live in the community.
The Zapotec symbol for the caracol or snail represents the value of contributing to the community. This symbol is used in Alebrije designs and it is the emblem for Jacobo and Mária’s workshop. Other animals honored in Alebrije designs are:
Ants (hardworking) and fish (respect).
Many of the carved creatures are based upon the sacred Zapotec calendar. This is the artist’s way of keeping their culture alive and honoring nature. Jacobo says, “Our identity is deep from our origins.”
Most of the Alebrijes are carved from the sacred Copal tree. Before starting to work, they burn the resin of the Copal to help cleanse their energy and connect to their ancestors. Mária Ángeles is the woman on the right. The woman on the left has caracol designs on her arm.
“Carvers need to study the woodblocks to find the hidden “nahual” or spirit, using their imagination and skill at using a machete. The “nahuals” are waiting patiently inside the trees for the artist to discover them by using their senses.”
Our guide, Elias, has been painting alebrijes for over 25 years. He and other artists only use natural pigments: copal bark (black), cochineal bugs (red), the skin of the pomegranate (yellow), flowers and other materials.
Elias and other artists paint the designs without following a pattern, using their innate creativity. Elias said that painting the Zapotec symbols all day long can be a meditative experience.
Unfortunately, the Copal tree has been over-harvested. To honor this sacred tree, and ensure its survival, Jacobo and María’s community began a reforestation project over 15 years ago. They grow the plants in a nursery for two years and then plant 2,500 Copal seedlings in the mountains annually.
The trees will be harvested after 40 years. At that time the trunk will be a meter in diameter.