When researching how to educate Whit while traveling abroad I came across the term “Worldschooling”. The idea is pretty simple: parents design a curriculum that’s age appropriate based on where they happen to be and the resources they’ll have at hand, not necessarily a structured schedule. One family I read about used the example of creating a study for their 10-year-old on architecture while in India, where he could spend some one-on-one time with an expert on the Taj Mahal. I loved that idea. It became a goal of mine to use the local resources to teach Whit as much as possible. In Mexico, that means learning about art.
The birthplace of one of the most important modern art movements, Mexico City artists blossoms in the 20th century. Leon Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera, as an example, have become household names and are all from this area.
In an effort to fully take advantage of the art scene here, we opted to take a guided Mexico City art class by a local art expert. We chose this experience via AirBnB, which has recently started pushing such tours guided by locals all over the world. We chose the class “Painting Mexico” with Maria because it was in a nearby neighborhood to where we were staying, was inexpensive, was offered in English, could accommodate a child as young as Whit, and included your choice of Mexican hot chocolate or coffee and a wooden alebrije to be painted during the lesson.
I was just excited to have an official Mexico City art class and hot chocolate. I had no idea what an alebrije was.
For the record, I now understand that alebrijes are the gorgeous, colorful, imaginative, hand-painted figurines I’ve seen in select markets in Central America over the years.
Alebrije Mexico City Art Class
Maria is a local art enthusiast and business owner who has spent years working with the underprivileged indigenous groups of Oaxaca. They are maintaining beautiful cultural crafting traditions, but have trouble earning a decent wage because their location is hard to navigate. For a long time Maria’s job as a social worker was to travel to Oaxaca to council and help the indigenous people, which included bringing their creations to Mexico City for sale. She now has an amazing relationship with them, and, if Oaxaca weren’t 5 hours away from where we’re staying I would have insisted on some names to visit, ourselves.
Using a power point presentation, Maria gave us a simple, comprehensive explanation of the indigenous Oaxaca tribe and how they came to make alebrijes and other tokens. Alebrijes were created by artist Pedro Linares after an experience losing consciousness. In that state he had vivid dreams of unusual animal hybrids in bright colors and patterns, and created the first alebrijes out of paper mache to show his visions to family and friends. Linares later showed his creations to the people of Oaxaca, who began making the animal figurines out of wood and clay.
The detail and artistry involved in each figurine is amazing. Each alebrije is special and unique. They can take anywhere from 2 days (mostly waiting for the base coat of paint to dry) to 2 or even 6 months to complete, based on the size, how many pieces of wood it’s made out of, and the details painted on. Some artisans even use fruits to produce natural paint colors for their alebrijes!
Each piece is not only a valuable, one of a kind piece of artwork, it also represents the passing down of this beautiful knowledge and culture. Traditionally men carve the animals and women paint the details, each teaching their technique to the next generation of sons and daughters. The work is done in groups, giving them an opportunity to grow, learn, support, and share together.
Pedro Linares, the father of alebrijes, was a friend of fellow artist, Diego Rivera. Diego Rivera had a tumultuous love affair with Frida Kahlo. Today we made alebrijes in the same neighborhood where Diego and Pedro originally worked. By default, I guess you could say we’re basically famous artists now.
Mexico City Art Class Details
Where to go:
- “Painting Mexico” art class in San Angel, Mexico City. By appointment only. Check Maria’s tour listing here!
What to bring:
- Good attitude
- Bag to carry your alebrijes out