Unmasking the Power of Lucha Libre

Installation view of “Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas,” October 2022–May 2023, at Arizona State University Art Museum (photo Tim Trumble)

Since the first luchadores put on their masks in the early 1900s, Lucha Libre has challenged and redefined identity for generations of fans. This dialogue is examined in Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas, an exhibition of painting, photography, and mixed media artworks at the Arizona State University (ASU) Art Museum.

The exhibition, co-curated by the museum’s former senior curator Julio Morales, and Mexico City-based independent curator Fernanda Ramos, features internationally recognized Mexican and Chicanx contemporary artists who examine Lucha Libre through the lens of identity and changing social and economic structures. Collectors’ items, film posters, and memorabilia add context and highlight Lucha Libre’s long, storied history.

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Morales, who was born in Tijuana and grew up watching Lucha Libre, is interested in how the wrestling form has long been a reflection of and a catalyst for social justice. “This exhibition is called Beyond the Arenas,” says Morales. “And so we’re talking about beyond the arena of just a wrestling match. It’s beyond the arena of being ‘macho,’ beyond being typecast. These are the different arenas we deal with in our culture.”

Lourdes Grobet, “Blue Demon” (1980), c-print, 20 x 20 inches (photo courtesy Ursula Verea)

Personal identity takes center stage in many of the artworks, such as Lourdes Grobet’s arresting portrait of Blue Demon. “The reality is that for wrestlers of this caliber, you never take your mask off,” explains Morales. For many wrestlers, that means that identity is a clean slate that can be invented, idealized, and exhibited on the wrestler’s terms.

Other artists use Lucha Libre to tackle issues such as colonialism, as in Guillermo Gomez Peña’s “Warrior for Gringostroika” (1992), a reaction to Columbus “discovering” America. The image shows Peña with “Please don’t discover me!” written on his abdomen and wearing a traditional jaguar wrestling mask, a motif, frequently favored by wrestlers, that comes from Mayan and Aztec designs.

The exhibition also reflects how Lucha Libre has remained fresh and even iconoclastic throughout its history, featuring women and gay wrestlers known as exóticos as far back as the 1940s.

“Lucha Libre refers to the underdog in society,” says Morales. “I think that’s why people still gravitate toward it.” Originally geared toward the working class, today Lucha Libre crosses all social and economic boundaries, attracting more fans than ever.

Graciela Iturbide’s “Jano, Ocumichu, Michoacán, México” (1981), features a young indigenous girl wearing two masks. “This image really speaks to the Mexican identity,” says Morales. “One mask is a traditional Indigenous mask for what they call the Old People Dance. The other is the Blue Demon mask. It’s a really interesting combination of traditional and contemporary culture.”

For many, Lucha Libre represents something more personal and intimate. Karla Diaz’s “Las Dos Luchas/The Double Fight” (2022), from a series of new watercolors created for the exhibition, features scenes from the artist’s life punctuated with scenes from lucha. Made after she underwent brain surgery, these paintings illustrate the Diaz’s healing journey as she began to recover her memories.

Other artists remind viewers that it’s not just about the wrestlers. Katayoun Vaziri’s series of gouache paintings pay homage to the workers that perform some of a wrestling match’s less glamorous but no less important work.

Installation view of “Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas,” October 2022–May 2023, at Arizona State University Art Museum (photo Craig Smith)
Guillermo Gomez Peña, “Warrior for Gringostroika” (1992), silver gelatin print, 20 x 16 inches (courtesy Walker Art Center & La Pocha Nostra Archival Project, San Francisco)
Karla Diaz, “Las Dos Luchas/The Double Fight” (2022), watercolor on paper, 30 x 20 inches (photo courtesy the artist and Luz de Jesus)
Graciela Iturbide, “Jano, Ocumichu, Michoacán, México” (1981), silver gelatin print, 10 x 8 inches (photo courtesy the artist)
Katayoun Vaziri, “Lucha Libre Homage to Workers” (2021), gouache paint, 7 x 5 inches (image courtesy the artist and Arizona State University)

Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas continues at the Arizona State University Art Museum (51 E. 10th Street, Tempe, Arizona) through May 7. The exhibition was curated by Julio Morales and Fernanda Ramos.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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