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Step into the ring with luchadores at Arizona State University Art Museum

By Medicine Man Gallery on

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Installation view of “Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas,” October 2022–May 2023, Arizona State University Art Museum. Photo by Tim Trumble

Installation view of “Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas,” October 2022–May 2023, Arizona State University Art Museum. Photo by Tim Trumble

Performance, photography, paintings, prints, fashion, costume design, video. An exhibition at the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe has everything you’d expect from a thoughtfully researched, multi-media art exhibition with this unique differentiator: the backdrop is lucha libre, professional wrestling in Mexico.

“Lucha Libra: Beyond the Arenas,” the first exhibition of its kind, goes beyond the performance sport’s popularity in contemporary culture to reveal its ancient roots, explore its influence on socio-political movements and link its relationships to the visual culture of Mexico and beyond.

As a baseline, visitors should understand the enormity of lucha libre’s popularity in Mexico and its connection to social justice movements.

“It's embedded in Mexican culture as a social norm – to see wrestling,” exhibition co-curator and ASU Art Museum Senior Curator Julio Cesar Morales, who grew up watching lucha libre in Tijuana, said.

As far back as the 1950s, top luchadores like El Santo (the Saint) and Blue Demon were starring in movies. El Santo starred in more than 50. Akin to American “B Movies,” on-screen the wrestlers would battle mummies and Nazis, but also social injustices. This ethic is embedded in lucha libre.

“The luchadores represent and are a symbol for the underclass, taking aspects of what a hero is and connecting to their own circumstances regarding socioeconomic disparities, dictatorships and colonialism,” Morales said. “The luchador brings glimpses of hope and represents the aspirations of ordinary people.”

Luchador Super Barrio was a community activist working against poverty and for housing rights. He ran for president in Mexico in 1988. He loaned one of his suits to the exhibition along with historical images from the 80s of him speaking at street rallies.

“Beyond the Arena” makes clear that the phenomenon of lucha libre transcends the glitz and glamor of the theatrical stage, elevating into a vehicle for investigating themes of the underdog and the hero, identity and collective resistance to authority. The show provides an opportunity to view and understand lucha libre through the lenses of popular culture, poetics and politics, offering a greater appreciation and understanding of Mexican and Mexican-American culture in the process.

Installation view of “Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas,” October 2022–May 2023, Arizona State University Art Museum. Photo by Tim Trumble

Installation view of “Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas,” October 2022–May 2023, Arizona State University Art Museum. Photo by Tim Trumble

The Mask

While lucha libre bears many similarities to American professional wrestling – good guys (técnicos) vs. bad guys (rudos), predetermined outcomes, mostly choreographed, wild, athletic, in-ring action, male and female performers – the greatest and most noticeable difference is the mask. A handful of American wrestlers have always worn masks; in Mexico, it’s the rule, not the exception.

“The majority of masks are influenced by Mayan décor, Aztec décor, they’re all special; (luchadores) choose a persona that is amplified by their beliefs,” Morales explains.

Luchadores choose whether they’ll wear a mask, what the design is, and once that decision is made, it sticks. Masked wrestlers in Mexico are never seen without their mask, even away from the arena.

El Santo (1917 – 1984) – who’s Wikipedia entry describes him as “luchador, actor and folk hero” – famously removed his mask only one time, following his retirement after 40 years in the ring. He died the next week and was buried in the mask.

The mask serves a purpose beyond aesthetics and entertainment. “Beyond the Arena” highlights how luchadores adopt them as a form of empowerment. Wrestlers from Mexico City – the sport’s epicenter – attended the exhibition’s opening reception; Morales asked them why they chose to wear the mask?

“It makes me feel empowered to be anonymous. It makes me feel different. I can be somebody else that normally I would not be if people could see my face,” he remembers them saying. “I think that whole idea of anonymity is really prominent for the wrestlers and the idea that you can be outside of yourself is very powerful for a lot of people.”

Who, exactly, was the first professional wrestler to wear a mask and when remains murky. Professional wrestlers throughout Europe, America, Canada and Mexico in the early 20th century were tantamount to barnstorming carnival performers. If a “gimmick” caught on somewhere and started drawing money, word spread and the act was copied by other performers working different regional circuits. Since media then was local and people didn’t travel as frequently or widely, different wrestlers could incorporate the same “gimmick” and keep it fresh without audiences catching on.

By the end of the 1930s, however, the tradition had been established in Mexico.

Once a luchador chooses a mask, he or she rarely changes the design, with one notable exception – Morales’ favorite luchador – Mil Mascaras. Translated into English as “1000 Masks,” the spectacularly popular Mascaras would wear a new mask every time in the ring.

Morales recalls seeing Mascaras perform in a highly anticipated mask vs. mask match with another luchador. These stipulation matches were a rarity, reserved only for the culmination of heated feuds, for once a luchador is unmasked, not only is that a great embarrassment, but he or she will rarely ever wear a mask again.

“I saw (Mascaras) as a kid doing mask against mask; one of the other wrestlers pulled his mask off and he had another mask under his mask,” Morales recalls, chuckling, at one of the great lucha libre “spots.”

In addition to their popular appeal, masks allow top luchadores to perform much later in life than their American counterparts, the mask literally masking their age. It’s not uncommon for top masked Mexican wrestlers to work into their 60s and later.

“Beyond the Arena” features ring-worn masks from top performers along with souvenir masks the kind of which are for sale outside the venues.

Morales also included an audio component to the exhibition, making a field recording at a lucha libre event the last time he was in Mexico City. Visitors hear merchandise vendors and the alternately cheering and jeering crowd as the sounds of lucha libre transport guests to the arena.

The popularity and intrigue of lucha libre has captivated the Tempe community, bringing new audiences into the museum.

“(We) have people who usually do not go to the museum, people of Mexican descent or Latin American descent, and they come to see the show because they have lived with lucha libre their whole life,” Morales said. “Then you have the art people, and the art people are interested because there's been a lot of artists who have appropriated the mask and performance – performance art – based off wrestling, and so part of the exhibition is also contemporary artists that use Lucha Libre in various projects of their career.”

“Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas” will be on view through May 7, 2023.

Installation view of “Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas,” October 2022–May 2023, Arizona State University Art Museum. Photo by Tim Trumble

Installation view of “Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas,” October 2022–May 2023, Arizona State University Art Museum. Photo by Tim Trumble

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