In his Brooklyn studio, Salvadoran artist Guadalupe Maravilla prepared to activate “Disease Thrower #0”, the latest in his celebrated series of sculptures that unfold the powers of vibrational sound as a form of healing.
The writer, who is recovering from a rare cancer, took her place on a raised woven straw platform, her shod feet facing a fearsome metal gong. She relaxed in the ritual space of the artist – half-sculpture, half-sanctuary. He was draped in a mysterious material blackened with ash from healing ceremonies that Maravilla, who is himself a cancer survivor, performed for hundreds of fellow warriors last summer in Queens.
The sounds were building slowly, starting with low monk sounds before building into powerful guttural roars that she could feel entering her body from behind her cheekbones. “We want to say ‘thank you’ to those body parts that struggled,” the artist told me as I stood motionless on the platform. “Thank them for healing and persevering through difficult times.”
If adversity is a master, Maravilla studied with the master. At just 8 years old, he fled the violence of the Civil War in El Salvador alone and began a harrowing 3,000 mile and 2.5 month journey to the US-Mexico border, passing from coyote to coyote before finally crossing the border as an undocumented immigrant. Twenty-eight years later, while a graduate student at Hunter College, Maravilla was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. To reduce residual pain from radiation and other procedures, he turned to indigenous healing practices, some inherited from his Mayan ancestors. Chief among these were ‘sound baths’ which harness the sound vibrations of gongs, conches, tuning forks and other instruments to restore calm and balance and release toxins in the body.
“Disease Thrower #0” (2022) is one of 10 works in “Guadalupe Maravilla: Tierra Blanca Joven,” a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that opens April 8 (through September 18). The title refers to a 5th-century volcanic eruption that uprooted the Maya – the artist’s shorthand for three generations of displacement, including his own. The oldest, the cultural appropriation of artifacts, is represented by whistles, conches and other Mayan objects that he selected for display in the museum’s permanent collection. The most current example features undocumented Central American teenagers who are in detention in upstate New York, captured in a video with the artist in which they collectively act out details of life daily in confinement.
The artist’s pieces are also on display until October 30 in “Guadalupe Maravilla: Luz y Fuerza” at the Museum of Modern Art – the Spanish title translates to “hope and strength”. Healing sound baths for visitors are offered here until June. An exhibition titled “Sound Botánica” recently opened in Norway at the Henie Onstad Art Center.
The notion of healing and rebirth permeates Maravilla’s work and her studio’s range of seemingly wacky objects – a plastic mosquito, several toy snakes, a large metal fly, an anatomical model of human lungs, a pile of tortillas dehydrated (the artist paints them) and a shelf full of Florida bottled water used for blessings, to name a few. A dried manta ray hangs heroically above the entrance – a nod to the sea creature that saved him from drowning as a child by leaping through the waves to reveal his location to his parents .
The objects embedded in works like “Disease Thrower #0” – loofah sponges and a woven hammock offering respite to ancestors, for example – are pages in a complex narrative in which past traumas, if properly treated, can lead to spiritual and creative renewal.
Maravilla’s otherworldly aesthetic, which also informs a series of Latin American devotional paintings known as altarpieces, is loosely inspired by indigenous Maya culture, particularly Honduran rock stelae and pyramid ruins. swallowed up by the vegetation that were his Salvadoran playgrounds when he was a child. “It was layer after layer after layer,” he recalls of those ancient forms. “The whole world was there.”
Although often autobiographical, the artist’s stalactite-like sculptures and other works address global themes of disease, war, migration and loss. “Migratory Birds Riding the Back of a Celestial Serpent” (2021), a large MoMA mural, for example, incorporates a child’s stroller wheel and Crocs into a winding ribbon of wings and dried maguey leaves, a reference to children crossing the border. .
“Between the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, everyone feels psychologically battered, vulnerable and fearful,” said Eugenie Tsai, senior curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, where the exhibit is part of Mindscapes, an initiative international culture of mental health. . “The practice of Guadalupe speaks to all of these things.”
His cancer diagnosis, which came on his 36th birthday, catalyzed a change in his approach and prompted him to retrace the migratory route he traveled as a scared boy. He now undertakes these pilgrimages regularly, picking up objects “with the right energy” for his sculptures.
His birth name is Irvin Morazan. In 1980, his father fled El Salvador after seeing the decapitated body of his brother – the artist’s uncle – hanging from a tree and identified it by a shirt he had borrowed. Two years later, young Irvin’s mother followed, leaving him with relatives.
Several years later, Irvin began his own perilous journey north. He carried a small notebook, often playing “tripa chuca” (“dirty guts”) along the way, a Salvadoran children’s line drawing game for two that he likens to “a fingerprint between two people”. It has since become a signature feature of his exhibits.
In Tijuana, he spent two weeks in a hotel room caring for dozens of even younger children before being woken up at 3 a.m. by a coyote reeking of alcohol. The man put him in the back of a van with a fluffy white dog lying on top of him to hide him from border agents – much like the white cadejo, a folk character that protects travelers from harm. (Irvin obtained his citizenship in 2006.)
Her birthday, December 12, coincides with the auspicious day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, celebrating the mother of Jesus. Her own mother, who died of cancer in 2007, revealed during her illness that she had wanted to name her baby Guadalupe, but her husband vetoed the name in favor of a more masculine name. In 2016, to commemorate his second chance at a post-cancer life, the artist changed his name, choosing Maravilla, which means “marvel” or “wonder” in Spanish, to honor the false identity purchased by his undocumented father.
Maravilla attributes her family’s cancers and other illnesses to generational trauma from war, migration, family separation and the stress of being undocumented. In 1987, her mother was deported to El Salvador for two years after an immigration raid at the New Jersey factory where she worked. It had a huge impact on his health, the artist said.
Nonetheless, he considers his own cancer a blessing, turning his practice from more performative works to creating spiritually powerful sculptures designed to heal. “I’ve always been invested in learning the ancient ways of healing,” Maravilla said. “But before the illness, I didn’t know how to do it.” In his retablos—a collaboration with Daniel Vilchis, a fourth-generation Mexico City altarpiece painter—he expresses his gratitude to the radiation machine that killed his tumor, to the gourds that fed him, to the medicinal plants that, along with the help from a shaman, helped him identify that there was a problem in his gut.
The name “Disease Thrower” is meant to evoke the ferocity and might of a native god (even though it’s technically made from glue and microwaved fibers). Some of these throne-like sculptures refer to cancer with plastic anatomical models of breasts, colon and other body parts. Some are encrusted with zodiacal crabs.
Maravilla has largely focused its therapeutic sound baths on people recovering from cancer and the undocumented community, where large numbers of workers have lost their jobs during the pandemic. “I have 35 years of experience ahead of them,” he said of crossing the border. “I know what can happen when trauma is left untreated.”
He is grieved that healing has become a commodity and pledges to offer his practices for free.
In “Planeta Abuelx” at Socrates Sculpture Park last summer, he created an outdoor sound bath environment anchored by two Gaudí-scale metal sculptures crowned by a massive gong. The installation was surrounded by a medicinal garden that the artist had planted: he also hired a fire keeper to ensure that “whatever people released” – more than 1,500 people participated over four months – was consumed by flames. Reviewing for The New York Times, critic Martha Schwendener wrote that “the project is one of the best Socrates has presented in recent years”.
The artist’s goal is to create a permanent healing center in Brooklyn staffed by artists, sound therapists and other practitioners. “I won’t heal anyone with a magic wand,” he said of his approach. “I believe we are our own medicine.”
On Saturdays, at the height of the pandemic, he gave sound baths to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where the pastor, Juan Carlos Ruiz, had been undocumented his first eight years in the United States. At first, the rituals took place on the hard stone floors of the sanctuary.
But when the event moved to the fellowship hall next door, with its wooden plank floors, the vibrations intensified and the floors became “one huge wooden bed”, the pastor said. Some members of the community had not slept well for months. “You could hear a chorus of snoring at the end of the session,” he said.
Aristotle Joseph Sanchez, a father of three, spent 19 months in a detention center in Georgia, an ordeal that inspired three altarpieces by Maravilla.
Sanchez has been plagued with various physical ailments, including diabetes, and was initially a little mystified by the presence of a “gypsy”. But as Maravilla shared his story and explained his goal, Sanchez said he knew good things were going to happen.
It came out more painless. “It’s the intention and the intensity,” he said. “You heal as long as you believe.”