Lourdes Grobet, iconic Mexican photographer of Lucha Libre, dies at 81

Lourdes Grobet, “La Venus” from the series La double lucha (The double fight) (1981–1982), black and white photograph, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; acquired through the Board of Advisors Acquisition Fund (© Lourdes Grobet, photo courtesy of the Hammer Museum)

Lourdes Grobet, the Mexican artist whose photographs celebrated the world lucha free with dignity and openness, died July 15 at her home in Mexico City. She was 81 years old. Though best known for her portraits of legendary luchadores like El Santo and Blue Demon, which she documented both in and out of the ring, Grobet had a wide-ranging career encompassing painting, video, installation, and performance.

Grobet was born in Mexico City in 1940 to a Mexican-Swiss family. She studied art at the Universidad Iberoamericana with photographer Kati Horna, painter Gilberto Aceves Navarro and artist Mathias Goeritz, the German émigré whose playful approach to sculpture and installation had a major influence on her practice and pushed her to explore new media to explore.

Lourdes Grobet, “Hora y media (Hour and a half)” (1975), photo performance: three black and white photographs, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Acquired through the Advisory Board Acquisition Fund (© Lourdes Grobet, photo courtesy of the Hammer Museum)

In 1968 Grobet traveled to France where she encountered kinetic art, an experience that spurred her on departure from painting. “I’ve been working with photography and multimedia ever since because I realized there was no reason for me to continue painting in the mid-20th century,” she explained in the press release for her first solo show in New York at Bruce Silverman Gallery of the year 2005. “It was the age of mass media and that had to be the language I used.”

After returning to Mexico, Grobet burned all of her previous work. She also staged installative performances such as “Serendípiti”. (1970) at the Galería Misrachi in Mexico City, in which the audience had to navigate a disorienting maze of mirrors and lights. In 1975 she collaborated with Marcos Kurtycz on Hora y Media at the Casa del Lago, a performance in which Grobet tore aluminum foil covering a wooden frame. “After transforming the exhibition space into a kind of darkroom, she enlarged and developed photographs without using a fixative,” according to a description of the work on the Hammer Museum’s website. “When the lights were turned on, the photos disappeared in the presence of the audience.”

Grobet left Mexico again in 1977 to study photography at the Cardiff School of Art and Design in Wales. She complicated the separate categories of photography and painting, covered local landscapes in house paint and photographed the results – much to the dismay of her teacher, who abandoned her, and her neighbors, who alerted the police. She brought the process home when she returned to Mexico and painted cacti and other elements of the landscape in Morelos, Michoacán and Oaxaca.

Lourdes Grobet, Untitled (Cactus Painted Red/Yellow) (ca. 1986), photograph with bleached silver (Cibachrome), Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Marcuse Pfeifer, 1990.119.12 (© Maria de Lourdes Grobet, photo courtesy Brooklyn Museum )

She soon joined Proceso Pentagono, one of the experimental, politically oriented Mexican art collectives known as Grupos. “And that was a good fit because I had an innate inclination towards politics,” she said in an interview for the Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions (AWARE) last year. “It’s been in me since I was a young woman. But not in the sense of “working for a political party”. My political leanings were working for the needs of the people and working on the streets.”

Lourdes Grobet, “Pista Arena Revolucion, Ciudad de Mexico” (1983), chromogenic print; 14 × 11 in. (35.56 × 27.94 cm) (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Larry and Jane Reed © Lourdes Grobet; Photo by Don Ross, courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

In the 1980s, Grobet began photographing the colorful world of the Lucha libre and documents what she calls “real Mexican culture.” She focused her lens on all facets of the phenomenon, both the in-ring spectacle and intimate depictions of family life, featuring both male and female wrestlers with their protections lowered but never without their masks, giving these domestic scenes a surreal quality awarded. For Grobet, the masked luchadores were not simply contemporary entertainers, but had deep resonances in Mexican culture, from indigenous mask-making traditions to the masked zapatistas of Chiapas. “In contrast to the fashionable folkloric portraits, she photographed urban Indians with their new masks performing modern rituals,” Gabriel Rodríguez Álvarez wrote in the 2005 book Lucha Libre: Masked Superstars of Mexican Wrestling, a collection of her luchador photographs. Grobet’s decades-long dedication to the world of lucha libre is all the more remarkable given that her father banned her from attending wrestling matches as a child, considering it an inappropriate pastime for women.

Lourdes Grobet, “La Briosa” (1981) from the series La double lucha (The double fight) (1981–2005), black and white photograph, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, acquired through the Board of Advisors Acquisition Fund (© Lourdes Grobet, photo courtesy Hammer Museum)

In addition to her images of wrestlers, she photographed the regional folk theater group Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena, which she saw as a rural equivalent to the urban theatrics of lucha libre. Most recently she directed a documentary about the Bering Strait, “Equilibrio y Resistencia” (2021), the explores issues of migration, colonization, and borders.

Grobet was included in the Hammer Museum exhibition in 2017 Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, which traveled to the Brooklyn Museum the following year. Her work is in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museé Quai-Branly in Paris, the Fundación Cultural Televisa and the Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City, among others.

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