Where to visit alebrije and textile artists in Oaxaca
The central valleys of Oaxaca are considered by many to be Mexico’s artistic hub. Many outlying towns throughout the valleys are known for a particular artistic specialty. Anyone visiting the city of Oaxaca will undoubtedly see these endemic crafts sold in countless shops as well as on the streets. However, an easy day-trip to visit these artists in their communities will give you a full appreciation of the work, dedication, and traditions that go into the creation of these stunning artistic expressions. One particular afternoon, we set out into the southern valley of Oaxaca to visit textile weavers in Santo Tomas Jalieza and alebrije carvers in San Martin Tilcajete.
Santo Tomas Jalieza – Traditions in Cloth
Located about 45 minutes south of Oaxaca City, Santo Tomas Jalieza is a small town of a few hundred families. It’s known for the weavings and embroidery that is practiced by many of the community’s women using traditional backstrap looms. The process of weaving using these looms goes back more centuries than people here know and is passed on from one generation to the next.
Upon entering the town you will see women at work weaving in front of the main market. This is certainly an acceptable place to stop, watch the weavers at work, and purchase their creations. However, for a more in-depth look at what goes into this work, I recommend visiting one of the family operations.
Greeting us with a welcoming smile, Inés Navarro Gómez ushers us into her home’s courtyard where three generations of her family sit on straw mats. The leather straps around their backs are connected to a nearby tree by numerous colorful cotton strands. Expert hands methodically move threads in hypnotic ways that to my eyes seem completely at random. However, on closer inspection I see that patterns are displayed in the woven cloth, appearing as if conjured through pure imagination. Flowers, deer, and geometric shapes decorate the long table runner that Inés tells us will take two weeks to weave. Other works will be incorporated into belts, blouses, purses, scarves, and more.
The Gómez family produces more than just textiles though. Stealing us away from the women, Gerardo Gómez waves us into his painting studio. Fanciful dreamlike scenes decorate the walls and easels in the backrooms of the house. Gerardo’s colorful paintings all depict scenes from the short stories he writes. As he explains, sometimes he paints the picture first and sometimes he writes first and then paints the scene. Pulling an old notebook out of a pile of papers, Gerardo reads a story corresponding to one of his paintings in which a man’s ambition for wealth and power turns into an eagle which then devours him whole.
The creativity and dedication to art in the family is truly inspiring to see. The Gómez family home and workshop can be found at No. 42 Benito Juárez in Santo Tomas Jalieza. (044-951-224-46-74; firstname.lastname@example.org). Their art is available for sale at incredibly reasonable prices considering the amount of time and work that goes into their creation.
San Martin Tilcajete – Spirits in the Wood
Just north of Jalieza is the turnoff to San Martin Tilcajete. Upon entering the town it appears that nearly all the storefronts house wood carver workshops. This town is famous for its alebrijes, colorfully painted fanciful woodcarvings. With such a well-established cottage industry of alebrije production, it’s hard to believe that this ubiquitous craft only dates back to the 1930s. However, as we would soon learn, alebrijes are imbued with many sacred and ancient elements of the Oaxacan people.
Down a dusty backstreet and past a herd of goats occupying the road, we come to the workshop of Jacobo and María Ángeles. This is not a simple family-sized project, but an extensive operation that employs over 80 artists.
We are greeted at the door by Zuriel who takes us through the entire process of creating alebrijes. We are told that the mission of this particular workshop is to preserve Zapotec traditions and strengthen the community by training new artists in the craft.
Zuriel explains that copal, the tree that these carvings are made from, is a sacred tree to the Zapotec people. In addition to carving the wood, it is the source of the pigments with which the alebrijes are painted. It is not clear upon harvesting the copal what final form it will take. It is up to the artist to identify the spirit in the wood and use that discovery to reveal its shape. Since the tree is of such value to the community, the workshop goes to great lengths to make sure it is harvested in a sustainable manner
We are shown the whole process, from carving the raw materials to painstakingly applying the paint. It is fascinating to watch the concentration on the artists’ faces as they paint ancient Zapotec symbols on these newly created carvings. We see mystical coyotes, owls, and fantastical creatures painted with ancient motifs emerge out of the copal as the artists concentrate on their tasks with an extreme focus.
In addition to being a workshop, they also function as a school. All students move through the various processes of creating alebrijes, from harvesting the wood, to carving, and painting. They then teach what they have learned to the next class of students who proudly keep this craft alive.
I’ve seen perhaps a thousand alebrijes while in Oaxaca and I feel that I can safely say that these are some of the finest. The workshop of Jacobo and María Ángeles can be found at Calle Olvido #9 in San Martin Tilcajete (01-951-524-90-47)
To get to either Jalieza or San Martin you can take an Ocotlán bound bus or colectivo (aprox 20 pesos) to either turn-off and walk the ¾ mile to Jalieza or 1 mile to San Martin. Alternatively, you can hire a taxi for the day (aprox 500 pesos).