By Lizzy Zarrello

How Juanita Care is exploring the boundaries of western mouth jewelry.

Years ago, in Arequipa, Peru, sculptural artist Adrien Flores (now known professionally as Juanita Care) went to a museum while visiting his family. There, he saw the body of 12-year-old Peruvian Inca girl from the 13th-century ancient empire in South America, who’s remains were found after a volcanic eruption. Preserved through freezing, she was clad in costly fabrics and jewelry and surrounded by extravagant offerings, including pottery, food, and figurines made from gold and silver. Her name was Juanita. “The meeting with this girl was very touching…. Later, when I created my brand/project, I thought about this little girl, who had crossed the ages, and who still today had something to tell us. She was sacrificed, but today she is here, dressed in the most beautiful Inca fabrics, the most beautiful objects that this period could create,” said Care in an interview with Mission

For hundreds of years, dental jewelry has been part of many cultures, while Grillz—a form of removable mouth jewelry embraced by the black American hip-hop community—revolutionized the concept. Care states, “before, dental jewelry consisted of objects fixed to the tooth with glue. This technique requires sanding the teeth to make room for the object. It is the permanent aspect of dental jewelry that scares people. But now that these objects are removable, people take less risk and are more interested.” Popularized in the ’80s by rap artists like Flava Flav and Big Daddy Kane, Grillz gained traction throughout the years and now adorn the mouths of many celebrities

Care is exploring the boundaries of western mouth jewelry. As an artist with a sculptural background and a fascination with mouths, his work goes beyond mainstream Grillz. He states, “[the mouth] is an area of the body that has a lot to say. It is the place where speech is formed, words, but also the place of nutrition, love, sexuality, illness, etc… It is a place of strength and a fragile part of our body since it is an access zone to our interior. To open the mouth is to expose our interior to the other.”

Care’s pieces feature intricate and somewhat unsettling designs, with hardware ranging from sterling silver duct tape to acrylic glass spikes. Care wants his work to be as autonomous as possible, creating his ornate designs as miniature sculptures rather than wearable fashion statements. Care elaborates, “you shouldn’t stop at comfort. Comfort is a quality that we give too much importance to. Unfortunately, a lot of things are said through discomfort. If we remove discomfort, we remove a huge part of the human vocabulary. So I avoid thinking about whether the piece is wearable or not. I’m more interested in what the piece has to say.”

Although Care’s mouthpieces leave models’ voices muffled, they have a potent message. Care describes his works as visually expressing our complicated inner selves, believing that people and their multiple identities aren’t easy to define. “We must embrace the multiple identities that constitute us. Societies try to simplify us. To make us governable. To regain power, we must make ourselves multiple, complex. We are beings in constant mutation. That’s why it is important to work on a small scale.” This perspective stems from Care’s past, “I grew up working in an analysis laboratory. There, doctors look at life through a microscope. Developments and changes are microscopic. You have to look at things closely.”

In a similar vein to our identities, over time, Care’s work develops and changes. Using mouth jewelry and Grillz as a starting point, he is currently creating a series of works that will comprise the Juanita Care project, “I’m starting to be interested in other parts of the body that I want to make speak…On the other hand, I would find it funny to see how it [the widespread wearing of Grillz] could change our mentalities. I have been contacted by big fashion houses that are interested in Grillz. So maybe one day the big houses will have their own Grillz collections. But as it is custom-made jewelry, it slows down the process a lot. You have to be able to offer the service that goes with the object.” Only time will tell if Grillz—as a sculptural art form—will find their place in the high fashion realm.

Image Credit: Juanita Care