27 May 2024
Photo of alebrije sculpture in the library

On January 29, 2024 Northern Illinois University Libraries opened a new exhibit displaying large Mexican sculpture pieces known as alebrijes. The exhibit, which will remain open until November 8, presents a collection of 23 pieces created by six artists from Mexico City. The DuPage Mexican Cultural Center in West Chicago selected the pieces and provided them to the library. Several of the pieces are quite large, over twelve feet in height. Others are smaller, about the size of a library table. The majority of the pieces on display can be found on the library’s first floor, with single items on the second and fourth floors.

Alebrijes are brightly colored folk depictions of magical beings. Many people believe alebrijes represent a long Mexican folk art tradition, but in fact they only began to appear in the 1940s. The well-known Mexican artist Pedro Linares (1906-1992) invented the form, and its name. He often told a story about how he came to create alebrijes. While in bed with a fever, Linares dreamed of incredible creatures combining the features of different animals. The creatures began chanting a single nonsense word: alebrije… alebrije… alebrije! This frightening scene awakened Linares and when his fever subsided, he began constructing what he had seen in his dream. He called these sculptures alebrijes.

Linares had already built a career working in paper mache, creating pinatas, masks, and Judas figures used in Easter celebrations. He built his first alebrijes with this material. Observers found his original pieces disturbing and they attracted no buyers. After a time, a prominent art gallery owner noticed Linares’ creations, and went on to market them successfully. Linares’ alebrijes then became very well-known, and the celebrated Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo commissioned pieces for their private collections.  

Linares and his successors developed alebrijes in the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Before the revolution, many Mexican artists identified with and tried to emulate European aesthetic ideals. With Mexican independence, artists, intellectuals, and politicians often sought to break away from these traditions and unify a population that had experienced a decade of civil war. They often turned to the tradition of indigenous arts and crafts and alebrijes emerged as a distinctively Mexican art form.

Today, alebrijes created in many regions of Mexico can be found in private and museum collections around the world. Alebrijes also appeared in the 2017 Disney film Coco.

As the alebrijes tradition has developed, Mexican artists have continued to construct them in a variety of media, including paper mache and wood. The collection on display in Founders Memorial Library consists of materials developed from the tradition of paper mache, which produces pieces at a larger scale than woodcarving. Many artists working in this medium now incorporate additional materials, such as acrylic, in order to enhance the pieces’ durability.

Center for Latino and Latin American Studies Director Dr. Christina Abreu reported that her organization had worked with the University Libraries to co-host the Alebrijes exhibit. “These beautiful art pieces are a celebration of Latinx art and culture, and we’re honored to have these on display on campus for students, faculty, and community members to enjoy,” she remarked. “We’re also looking forward to developing some programming in the fall so that students can learn more about the history and significance of this art form.”

Dean of NIU Libraries Fred Barnhart reflected on the library’s hopes for the exhibit: “Bringing the alebrijes exhibit to NIU is our way of celebrating and educating about the amazing contributions of the LatinX community. Our university has a large Latinx population, reflecting the region as a whole, and we want to provide the opportunity for everyone to enjoy this unique cultural tradition. The exhibit is especially timely in light of the fact that the university is on track to becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution. Moreover, academic libraries can sometimes be intimidating, and our hope for this, and similar exhibits, is to be a gateway to learning and knowledge for all curious minds, regardless of age or background.”

“We are proud to display these beautiful sculptures at NIU,” said Laurie Elish-Piper, interim executive vice president and provost. “NIU currently has its largest undergraduate population of Latinx students in university history, and we are glad to be able to celebrate the cultural contributions of the Latinx community in this way.”

Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman emphasized the alebrijes’ significance for the university and the surrounding community: "I am delighted that the NIU Libraries has the opportunity to exhibit the alebrijes works. We are a campus community that deeply values the important role art has as a form of expression and the celebration of diversity. This exhibit brings to campus, and the DeKalb community, a number of Mexican folk-art pieces that brilliantly capture the imagination. We are grateful for this opportunity to celebrate Mexican culture, and to educate and connect Huskies from diverse backgrounds."

You can see more photos in our digital exhibit at https://digitalexhibits.lib.niu.edu/s/alebrijes/page/welcome

Today's blog post is from Gwen Gregory, Associate Dean, Collections Management, Northern Illinois University, Founders Memorial Library