Inside the Museum of Latin America Art right now, images of wrestlers dominate the walls. They are large, imposing figure, both male and female, whose mere presence suggests complete command of the ring. Most of the professional fighters are masked, their true identities concealed from the public eye. The wrestler-- known here as the luchador (male) or luchadora (female) -- is presented as an icon. They are real people who took on fictional identities that subsequently influenced decades of entertainment.
"Katharsis" is a traveling exhibit, produced by Fundación Televisa, that hit a few other cities before landing in Long Beach, where it will remain until September. While the greats of lucha libre are represented, the exhibition goes far beyond the famously masked faces. The exhibition also includes stories from non-wrestlers who work inside the arenas, such as a mask vendor and a photographer. The show delves not only into the world of the wrestlers, but into the lives of the people who surround them. It's an interesting look at characters who have taken on fabled roles in pop culture.
"Katharsis," which opened at the museum last weekend, is a look at the history of lucha libre, well over half a century of professional wrestling, as it evolved in Mexico and became a pop culture juggernaut that caught global attention. Lucha libre has gained popularity in the United States in recent years, as there's even a Lucha Libre USA, complete with its own line of toys. "Katharsis" goes back to the the entertainment phenomenon's roots. You'll catch a glimpse of the the sport from its early years in the 1930s, to its mid-20th century heyday, when guys like Santo and Blue Demon ruled the ring, to its modern incarnation.
A lot has changed -- costumes have grown more spectacular. The fighting styles, too, have developed significantly.
"Today, it is more theatrical," says Idurre Alonso, MOLAA's curator, who worked on the exhibition. "They use fire and neon lights and they break chairs. Before, all those things didn't happen. It was more formal, more technical in some ways."
Alonso adds, "Some people say that lucha libre today is not real lucha libre. There are people who are more traditional."
Of course, there are similarities between lucha libre and U.S.-style professional wrestling. In both worlds, the moves go far beyond what's considered legit in the Olympic sport. It's wrestling as entertainment, complete with characters who are categorized as good and bad. Both have morphed from live spectacles into multi-media franchises. During the age of Santo, the luchadores also had a chance to become the stars of films and comic books. You can see similar parallels during the peaks of professional wrestling's popularity in the U.S. Take, for example, Sgt. Slaughter, the WWF star who became the basis of a G.I. Joe character.
There are, however, differences between the two. The biggest of those, the show's curators explain, are tied to the lucha libre masks.