Lucha libre is the term used for a style of wrestling in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries that literally means “free wrestling”. Before its evolution into the present-day highly ritualized professional sport, lucha libre was free-style amateur wrestling without restrictions – literally no rules. The wrestlers are known as luchadores and the sport has a long and rich history of flamboyance and hyperbolic performance.
Mexican wrestling is notably characterized by the wearing of highly distinctive, colourful masks, which have taken on an iconic, hyper-ritualized significance all their own. The mask becomes the identity of the wrestler who wears it. It IS their identity. Matches are sometimes contested in which the loser must permanently remove his mask in a highly symbolic metaphor for ritual death in the ring – once the mask is stripped away, the vanquished character ceases to exist.
Modern fashion is always on the look-out for new and fresh designers whose creations break all the old rules, flout convention, and push the envelope between haute couture (“high dress-making”) and Pret-a-Porter (“ready to wear”). Are the creations clothes, or art? Are they beautiful or ugly? Fashion models on the runway become the designers’ muses and are styled, painted and made-up until they are literally unrecognizable fashion luchadores. Fashion weeks are cultural carnivals where outrageousness is rewarded, extravagance applauded, and originality worshipped, where the greatest curse of all is to be mundane or, worse yet, deemed to be so “last year”.
Having made numerous trips to Mexico over the past three decades, I have always been fascinated by the lucha libre masks sold by street vendors and could rarely resist buying one or two per trip. Soon I had dozens.
As a writer, filmmaker and photographer, identity has always fascinated me. Perhaps it is no accident that in addition to the lucha libre disguises, I have collected numerous masks from many of the countries I have travelled to, each mask representing a unique aspect of the culture it represents.
Whether male or female, masculine or feminine, we all wear masks of identity. We choose educations, careers, friends and lovers, husbands and wives, neighborhoods, cars, tattoos, brands of Scotch, the shows we watch on television, and the sports teams we support; we choose between beer and wine, between vintage clothing and the latest designers, we choose hair cuts and make-up – all at a cost of thousands of dollars per year in our endless quest to define to the world who we are.
And the rest of us? We ruthlessly judge you by your mask in an instant. Is that mask real or phoney? Is it subtle or are you just trying too hard? Are you authentic or a fake? If I rip off your mask, who is underneath it? If it is the nature of the human condition that the first question we ask of ourselves is “Who am I?”. The second question is always “Who are you?”.
And my Luchadoras? I dare you to try to take off their masks.