By Kellen McKillop
Before the soft lavender of a San Francisco apartment, a woman dressed in a 1970s vintage, feminine dress holds a power stance with a strong fist in the air. Over her face, she wears a corresponding purple, one-of-a-kind Lucha Libre mask.
To passersby this may look like a strange scene, but after one minute speaking with the artist, you’ll be clambering to get your hands on a mask of your own. We took a moment to chat with Janice Suhji, the woman behind this Lucha Libre movement, to find out the meaning behind these Mexican wrestling digs. Her answers leave us feeling inspired, powerful, and ready to sport our own Lucha Libre look.
Why Lucha Libre masks? Where did the idea for this project come from?
Janice, a photographer, wanted to create art pieces that would empower all women—mothers, daughters, everyone.
She’d seen Lucha Libre masks in the movie Nacho Libre, but it wasn’t until she traveled to Mexico with her family that she really realized how crucial they were for her project. All lined up against the walls of different shops, she saw their colors and patterns and suddenly it clicked.
She thought of the role masks have played in women’s history. They have been both protective and oppressive. The two-sided nature of these objects, objects that work so closely with the concept of identity, was the perfect angle for her artistic vision.
In Mexico, these Lucha Libre masks are tools of intimidation; they’re symbols of strength. There is even a type of Lucha Libre fight called Máscara Contra Máscara or Mask Against Mask. The winner of these matches gets to de-mask the loser — take away his right to wear the colorful cover. Janice decided she would use these masks to create a symbol of strength for women.
What is her process like?
At first, Janice thought she would just buy a set of masks and set up a photoshoot showcasing them. But, after she discovered that each one was unique to the wrestler who wore it, she realized that she had to take things a step further.
She decided that she would make a mask specifically for each of her models. It would be unique to that woman, and the creation of the mask itself would become an integral part of her art. To make the masks, Janice bought her first sewing machine and learned how to sew. Both this and the decorating of the masks, put her in a very traditional, female role. Creating these masculine, aggressive pieces out of this type of work was a statement unto itself.
What is her process for creating, setting, and shooting her masks and models?
The project has changed as her work has progressed. At first, Janice would head to a thrift store to find one of the vintage dresses she uses in her shoots. Janice dresses her models in vintage dresses that reflect a very traditional type of woman. She pairs these with combat boots or sneakers. She loves the contrast of the feminine dress with the tough, masculinity of the boots, mask, and modeling stances.
In the past, she would recruit the model and sew the mask after finding the dress. Then she would pick the setting for the photoshoot. Now, she often finds a model first and works to create a look customized to fit her.
As for the location, she’s constantly updating a list on her phone of interesting and beautiful places she sees while on the bus or just in transit. The goal of the final photograph — the setting, dress, mask, and model, is to have everything blend together. This expresses a subtle and hidden strength that can often be overlooked. A lot of the time people are only identified as powerful if they’re really out there and in your face, but a quiet power can be just as forceful.
What are her favorite parts of this project?
Janice loves the actual photoshoot. Many of her models are normally pretty shy, but in the masks they become very brave. They pose and act and aren’t afraid of the camera or the people walking by.
That’s another part about shooting that is fun. When taking her pictures in the city, people will honk or stop and ask about the project. They’re interested and positive about her art and its message.
What are the challenges?
Now that she has a full-time job, it’s a little more difficult to keep that fire and passion for the project alive. When she started, she was unemployed and identified greatly with a feeling of powerlessness. With a more stable life, she can sometimes forget what that burning need for strength can feel like.
She was once asked, “why are you talking about other women? Have you, yourself, ever gone through hardship? Why isn’t your art about yourself?”
At first, this was a tough question for Janice to answer. But, after meditating on it overnight, she realized that her art is about her. It’s about all women. You don’t necessarily have to have faced extreme hardships in your life to understand it. Her art reflects a beautiful, powerful force that comes from everyday life. Being who you are and recognizing that you have a fierce light inside, then learning how to embrace that inner strength.
What was it like having her own show in Korea?
Janice’s eyes light up when she talks about her show in a small part of Seoul. She’d had her work shown in New York City as a part of a group, but this was the first time she was having a solo show, and the first time she’d presented in Korea.
In a small industrial part of the city, made up of metal workers and artists, she showed her collection of masks and photographs. Two art students walked through the gallery wearing the dresses and masks from the collection, and silently interacting with viewers. Though Janice remembers the pressure she felt having her own show, she is thrilled with how it turned out and loved the experience.
What is the future of this project?
Janice is determined to capture as many types of women as possible. So far, all of her models have been women around her own age, but she can’t wait to expand her model list in the future. She has a couple of shoots coming up and will continue to create these amazing, empowering masks and photographs.
Want to learn more? Check out more of Janice’s work on her site.
Kellen McKillop is the associate editor at Dot & Bo, a guided shopping experience to help you get great style for your home. Based in San Francisco, the company helps individuals discover creative decorating ideas and unique items through curated furniture collections, personalized suggestions, and a daily guide to stylish living. They also publish the popular lifestyle blog Design District, where this story originally appeared.