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Woodcarving in Oaxaca

                                                   by Guillermo Marín

            The history of humanity is intimately linked to wood and its carving.  Wood has been fundamental to the human being since prehistoric times and was indispensable in the development of the planet's great civilizations, not only to satisfy basic subsistence needs, but also to express the sacred need to spiritually transcend.

            In fact, in the most important temples and museums of the world we find true works of art in wood, where the divine and the sacred have found a form of expression through wood's plasticity and grace.

            Woodcarving in ancient Mexico was not the exception.  The millennial Toltecs "made the wood lie" and created true works of art.  The problem was that the Mesoamerican cultures had developed, generally, in climates in which the preservation of these works was not propitiated and much was lost due to the climate and the colonizers' ignorance, who never understood the spiritual meaning of these creations, and associated them with pagan cults.  Nevertheless, we can find a reduced, but splendid number of woodcarvings of the Olmec, Toltec, Maya, Zapoteca, and Mexican cultures, in several of Mexico's museums and in the world.

            In Oaxaca, woodcarving has existed since the ancestral times of the Mixteca-Zapoteca civilizations, as a form of recreating the artists' legendary sensibility and creativity.  Examples of this are the amazing woodcarvings which we can admire in the temples from the colonial period, such as the Temple of Yanhuitlan and of Teposcolula in the Mixteca region or in the Temple of Saint Thomas in Ixtlan, in the Northern Sierra, where the altar pieces, altars, crucifixes, and saints show us the portent of indigenous talent which very skillfully adapted to the new religion, not only by interpreting European ideas, but also by leaving a very particular seal of its cultural inheritance.

            Beginning in the 19th Century, Oaxaca's indigenous and peasant communities reinitiated woodcarving in an open manner to create masks for festivals, dances, and carnivals, figures for popular consumption and toys.  In the 1960s, when tourism and the popular art market were incipient in Oaxaca, Mr. Manuel Jiménez, a native of a small town which was on the southern slope of Monte Alban, who had dedicated himself to taking care of his goats by the countryside, began to carve wooden images for masks. In time, he got to know the works of Mr. Pedro Linares, an artisan from Mexico City, who stopped being the traditional "Judas" in order to make fantastic images that he dreamt of and which he called "alebrijes."  In this manner, alebrijes wood carvings emerge in Oaxaca made of copal wood, thanks to Manuel Jiménez’s creativity and  generality.  At first they were painted with aniline and natural dyes, but in time, the pieces would lose their original color, which is why today they are painted with acrylic paint.

            Master Jiménez’s creations transcended the borderlands, and little by little the town of Arrazola began to make the alebrijes and today it is the principal source of work for many families.  Because of increasing demands, alebrijes began to be made in other towns, such as San Martin Tilcajete and La Union, Tejalapa.


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