The “non-ugly” Alebrijes

For all there is to admire about Mexican handcraft traditions, it is a relatively closed world, especially on the side of production. The major reason for this is that much of the value of the pieces depend on their cultural derivation, which for Mexico often is tied to questions of ethnicity.

One case that illustrates this point is that of Susana Buyo. She was born in Luján, Argentina and moved permanently to Mexico in 1978 as a young woman, settling with her family in the upper-middle class Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.

In Argentina, Buyo trained as a ceramicist, but in Mexico City fell in love with the alebrijes of Pedro Linares. She set about teaching herself basic cartonería (paper maché) techniques, and then developed her own unique style of mode of working.

Back at that time, becoming a self-taught “cartonero” or indeed becoming one by any means other than apprenticing as a member of a certain family was unheard of. It allowed Buyo to focus on alebrije making, which is her true passion, rather than cartoneria in general.

She strongly shies away from analyzing her style, insisting that her work is “instinctual” rather than “academic,” refusing to entertain idea of what has influenced her work.

But influences are there. The basic form and “function” of her creations is in the work of Pedro Linares, the inventor of alebrijes, as well as the myth of alebrijes being derived from dreams. Buyo’s classic pieces are amalgams of real and imaginary creatures, usually with one dominating, She built on the Linares dream-creature myth, declaring alebrijes to be magical creatures with a kind of psychological reality as a personal or home guardian. One story she tells to this effect was when she was exhibiting an alebrije she made in 2001, a young boy stopped in front of it, became wide-eyed and declared “That’s what I dreamt last night! ”This may be what Buyo means by her work being instinctual.

In her work Women in Mexican Folk Art, Eli Bartra covers Buyo’s work from a feminist perspective. She declares most alebrijes such as those by the Linares family to be generally male. (Pedro Linares himself declared his creatures to be ugly.) Buyo’s works are delicate with more sophisticated lines and have a feel of surrealism about them. Unlike other alebrije makers of her generation, there is attention to color combinations and the effects they have on the piece.

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Buyo’s pieces are also distinct from the Linares’ work in that she has incorporated commercially-made elements, such as glass marbles for eyes and sequins, as decorative elements. Until relatively recently, such additions were almost entirely rejected by Mexico’s cartoneria community, but this is changing. While Buyo’s gender probably influences her choices in color, form and decorative detail, so too may her foreign roots.

It is important to note that neither Buyo, nor her work, was particularly accepted by the cartoneria community of latter 20th century, and many of the present-day are not aware of who she is. Her work has been exhibited in Mexico and Europe but has found its way into permanent collections only in the latter. But that is not to say that Buyo has not had any effect.

Her influence stems mostly from being a teacher. After mastering the making of alebrijes, she established a workshop at the family home. The height of this career in Mexico City extended through the 1990s into the early 2000s, with the workshop taking over the entire living room. Over the years, she taught hundreds of students, including currently prominent cartonero Rodolfo Villena Hernandez among others. Even some more traditional cartoneros such as Alfonso Morales (who has revived the craft in southern Morelos state), cite her as an influence.

Buyo and other cartoneros admit that her work has never been really accepted as part of Mexico’s cartonería tradition. Buyo is philosophical about it stating that, “No one is a prophet in their own land” linking the non-acceptance more to her non-conventional style rather than to discrimination per se. However, this may not be accurate given cartonería’s near-obsession to link current work to something “traditionally Mexican,” be it traditional techniques, themes and/or to whom the artisan is linked and how.  According to former student Villena, Buyo reinvented the alebrije in her own image and sensibility; something that many other cartoneros do not feel is necessary.

Mexico does not have a strong immigrant tradition in the sense that naturalized citizens are immediately considered to be Mexican, such as with the “melting pot” principle. The principle of mestizaje does not apply to immigrants, but rather to their descendents who marry into already-established Mexican families.

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In 2013, Buyo decided to leave Mexico City for the quieter Mazatlan. She left her original workshop to a former student. While the website/blog for this establishment still exists, the workshop, for all intents and purposes, does not.

But that is not the end of Buyo’s story. Despite being well into her 70s, she has reestablished herself as a craftswoman and teacher in Mazatlan and since 2016 has been gaining local and regional media attention for both her and her students’ work. Mazatlan has turned out to be a welcoming environment for the likes of Buyo, with its tourism and fairly large expat community making it more accepting of a “foreign” Mexican artisan.

Buyo is best contacted through the Facebook page of her workshop Taller de Alebrijes.

 

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