In his Brooklyn studio, the El Salvador-born artist Guadalupe Maravilla got ready to activate “Disease Thrower #0,” the latest in his acclaimed series of sculptures that deploy the powers of vibrational sound as a form of healing.
The writer, who is recovering from a rare cancer, took her place on an elevated woven straw platform, her stockinged feet facing a formidable metal gong. She relaxed into the artist’s ritual space — part sculpture, part shrine. It was draped with a mysterious material blackened with ash from healing ceremonies that Maravilla, who is a cancer survivor himself, performed for hundreds of fellow warriors last summer in Queens.
The sounds built slowly, starting with low monk-like tones before morphing into mighty guttural roars that she could feel entering her body from behind her cheekbones. “We want to say ‘thank you’ to those body parts that have struggled,” the artist told me as I lay still on the platform. “Thank them for healing and persevering through difficult times.”
If adversity is a teacher, Maravilla has studied with the master. At only 8 years old he fled the violence of the civil war in El Salvador alone and began a punishing 3,000 mile, 2½ month journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, passed from coyote to coyote before eventually 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 the residual pain from radiation and other procedures, he turned to Indigenous healing practices, some inherited from his Maya ancestors. Chief among them were “sound baths” that harness sonic vibrations from gongs, conch shells, 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 opening April 8 (through Sept. 18). The title refers to a fifth-century volcanic eruption that uprooted the Maya — a shorthand by the artist for three generations of displacement, including his own. The earliest, the cultural appropriation of artifacts, is represented by whistles, conch shells and other Maya objects he selected for display from the museum’s permanent collection. The most current example features the undocumented Central American teens who are in detention in upstate New York, captured in a video with the artist in which they collectively act out details of daily life in confinement.
The notion of healing and rebirth permeates Maravilla’s work and the seemingly wacky array of items in his studio — a plastic mosquito, several toy snakes, a large metal fly, an anatomical model of human lungs, a bunch of dehydrated tortillas (the artist paints them) and a shelf full of bottled Florida water used for blessings, to name a few. A dried manta ray hangs heroically above the entrance — a nod to the sea creature that prevented him from drowning as a boy by leaping through the waves to reveal his location to his parents.
Objects embedded in works like “Disease Thrower #0” — loofah sponges and a woven hammock offering respite for ancestors, for instance — 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 retablos, is loosely inspired by Indigenous Maya culture, especially Honduran rock stelae and ruins of pyramids engulfed with vegetation that were his Salvadorean playgrounds as a child. “It was layer after layer after layer,” he recalled of those ancient forms. “The whole world was there.”
Although frequently autobiographical, the artist’s stalactite-like sculptures and other works speak to the global themes of disease, war, migration and loss. “Migrating birds riding the back of a celestial serpent” (2021), a large wall piece at MoMA, for instance, incorporates a child’s stroller wheel and Crocs into a sinuous ribbon of wings and dried maguey leaves, a reference to children crossing the border.
“Between the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, everyone is feeling psychologically battered and vulnerable and fearful,” said Eugenie Tsai, a senior curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, where the exhibition is part of Mindscapes, an international cultural mental health initiative. “Guadalupe’s practice speaks to all those things.”
His cancer diagnosis, which occurred on his 36th birthday, catalyzed a shift in his approach and prompted him to retrace the migratory route he traveled as a frightened boy. He now undertakes these pilgrimages regularly, picking up objects “with the right energy” for his sculptures along the way.
His birth name is Irvin Morazan. In 1980, his father fled El Salvador after seeing the beheaded body of his brother — the artist’s uncle — hanging from a tree, and identifying him 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”) en route, a Salvadorean children’s line drawing game for two he compares to “a fingerprint between two people.” It has since become a signature element in his exhibitions.
In Tijuana, he spent two weeks in a hotel room taking care of 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 pickup truck along with a fluffy white dog that lay on top of him to conceal him from border agents — much like the white cadejo, a folkloric character that protects travelers from harm. (Irvin gained his citizenship in 2006.)
His birthday, Dec. 12, coincides with the auspicious Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, celebrating the mother of Jesus. His own mother, who died of cancer in 2007, revealed during her illness that she had wanted to name her baby son Guadalupe, but her husband vetoed the name in favor of a more masculine one. In 2016, to commemorate his second chance at life post-cancer, the artist changed his name, choosing Maravilla, which means “marvel” or “wonder” in Spanish, to honor the fake identity purchased by his undocumented father.
Maravilla attributes the cancers and other illnesses in his family to the generational traumas of war, migration, family separation and the stresses of being undocumented. In 1987, his mother was deported to El Salvador for two years after an immigration raid at the New Jersey factory where she worked. It took a huge toll on her health, the artist said.
Nevertheless, he views his own cancer as a blessing, transforming his practice from more performative works to creating spiritually powerful sculptures designed to heal. “I was always invested in learning about 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 retablo painter — he expresses gratitude to the radiation machine that killed his tumor, to the gourds that nourished him, to the plant medicines that, with the help of a shaman, helped him identify that there was an issue in his gut.
The name “Disease Thrower” is meant to evoke the ferocity and power of an Indigenous god (even though it technically is made from glue and fibers cooked in a microwave). Some of these thronelike sculptures refer to cancer with plastic anatomical models of breasts, colons and other body parts. Some are embedded with zodiacal crabs.
Maravilla has largely focused his therapeutic sound baths on people recovering from cancer and the undocumented community, where large numbers of workers 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 goes untreated.’’
He is chagrined that healing has become a commodity and is committed to offering his practices for free.
In “Planeta Abuelx” at Socrates Sculpture Park last summer, he created an outdoor sound bath environment anchored by two Gaudí-scaled metal sculptures crowned by a massive gong. The installation was encircled by a medicinal garden the artist had planted: He also hired a fire keeper to make sure that “whatever people were releasing” — more than 1,500 participated over four months — was consumed by flames. Reviewing for The New York Times, the 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’m not going to 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 performed sound baths for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd 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 wood-plank floors, the vibrations deepened and the floors became “a huge wooden bed,” the pastor said. Some members of the community had not slept well in months. “You could hear a chorus of snoring at the end of the session,” he said.
Aristotoles Joseph Sanchez, a father of three, spent 19 months in a detention center in Georgia, an ordeal that has inspired three Maravilla retablos.
Sanchez has been plagued by various physical ailments, including diabetes, and was a bit mystified at first by the presence of “a bohemian.” But as Maravilla shared his story and explained his purpose, Sanchez said he knew that good things were going to happen.
He emerged more pain-free. “It’s the intention and the intensity,” he said. “You heal as long as you believe.”