New York-based Guadalupe Maravilla left his homeland as a young boy during the height of El Salvador’s civil war. That traumatic past and a more recent bout with cancer have directed the course of his life and work. Maravilla’s “Disease Throwers” are determined by a need to heal himself, to gather strength from and somehow dissolve suffering. Side-stepping the beautiful, these strange and powerful sculptures appear to have grown out of the ground they stand on, drawing on fantasy and faith healing to empower. Exceeding the modern world’s narrow definition of art, Maravilla’s works embrace a ritual significance and purpose. The performative part of his practice publicly activates the “Disease Throwers” and transforms them into tools to operate on the soul. With a human, yet otherworldly quality, they seem to transcend reality, addressing the unknown while offering something that returns us to the real.
Rajesh Punj: Could you explain the origin of your “Disease Throwers” and why you make them? Guadalupe Maravilla: The “Disease Thrower” shrines and sculptures act as my healing instruments. My work is about being one of the first documented children to have come to the United States; I was separated from my family at the age of eight. It is also about being a cancer survivor. It is about empowerment and dealing with my own trauma, displacement, and illness while giving to others. The sculptures have a steel frame or skeleton that you don’t see, made of a material similar to expanding foam, which I invented about 16 or 17 years ago while studying for my BFA. I won’t divulge all of the ingredients, though it involves cotton and is microwave created, which leads to an incredibly flexible substance that is impossible to break. It looks brittle, but is very strong. This serves as the skin of the sculptures, and all of the objects worked into them reflect and retrace my immigration route from El Salvador to the United States.
Part of my healing process is to return to Central America and Mexico, as a U.S. citizen, and collect objects that have an animism or a particular energy that I can bring back and use as part of the sculptures. Many Indigenous cultures see objects as carrying energy. When I visit the street markets, I might see thousands of things, but I leave with maybe two that have a particular energy, and they become part of the layers of the “Disease Throwers.” It could be a rock or crystal, or a plastic toy with the energy that the sculpture needs. The sculptures also have gongs attached to them; their different frequencies align with particular planets as part of a healing process, which essentially explains the works’ appearance and intention.
RP: The “Disease Throwers” take on mythical, even magical, qualities and energies and seem to elicit an almost devotional reverence. Do you intend that kind of religious aspect?
GM: Absolutely. Many of the “Disease Throwers” have anatomical fragments attached to them, which represent illnesses experienced by people close to me. They are intended to honor all those who have suffered and who may not have survived. A sculpture in the collection at MoMA has an artificial breast, which acknowledges someone I know who has overcome breast cancer. I see the work as an homage. I don’t necessarily make them for the public.
RP: How do you decide on the particular objects?
GM: It can be an aesthetic decision, but it can also be something more physical—a plastic toy and a natural object may both have tumors on them. There are definitely visual decisions made when I’m putting the works together, and then there are other, much more deliberate decisions based on my lived experience. When the works come together, they speak to one another. Then, when I have 20 works in a space, it can become something else, and I see a natural relationship between the crystals and the readymades—everything of the energy and appearance of what I attach offers something to the overall work.
RP: How else do you discover materials? There must be an intensity to how you go about looking at ordinary things.
GM: On Easter Sunday in Latin America, they make palm leaf reliefs. Not long ago, I saw a lady in Brooklyn making them outside. Usually saints are pinned to the reliefs, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to buy some without any kind of deity attached. I bought about 40 palm leaves, which will become part of new “Disease Throwers.” I remain in contact with the woman, with the intention of collaborating to make other shapes that I can use in the sculptures.
RP: Do these chance encounters with craftsmanship influence your work?
GM: I could probably make many of these things myself, but a lot of my work is about giving back. When I travel, I look out for people practicing a particular craft. I ask if I can hire them to make something to my designs. I would rather help someone in need and provide work than save money. Building micro-economies is a huge part of my practice, and I always hope that it develops into a beautiful working relationship; if not, at least I have elements that will become integral to the works. I became close friends with a woman in Mexico who made embroideries to my designs. For the “Retablo” paintings, I design everything on my computer and send it to a fourth-generation retablo painter. During the pandemic, we did more than 30 paintings together. This is my way of helping their traditions to survive. It is almost impossible for them to sell their work on the street anymore, and their children don’t want to take up these crafts because they don’t offer financial stability.
RP: Is support of a community, which goes beyond any art object, part of your healing process?
GM: In addition to building micro-economies, I also work with the cancer community because I am a survivor and with the undocumented community, because I am part of that history as well. Being able to offer healing work to them is important. There is a big part of my practice where I am in my studio making work, but most of what I do involves working with people. Healing work in Central and South America is traditionally communal. Shamanism has always worked with groups of people coming together, which is how I see everything I do.
RP: Does such work require courage on your part? You have to confront your own life honestly in order to provide for others.
GM: It took a great deal of courage to talk about these issues through my work, and I can remember being afraid. They were always there, even when I was a student, but I would conceal them behind abstraction. After the cancer, I decided that I wanted to talk about these things. Once I decided to share my experiences with the world, it became easier to start exploring the healing aspect. Courage is a big part of it, but I am past that now, because I have been doing it for so long.
RP: Was that leap also the beginning of your recovery?
GM: I have always been interested in healing, but it wasn’t until I got cancer that I realized I had to heal myself for real. For that, I see my cancer as a blessing. Healers from all over the world contacted me. That was when I learned about ancient ways of healing, including sound as medicine. Cancer is not just cancer—the side effects of the treatments can be equally hard to deal with. It is difficult to heal from the damage of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, so it is also about healing those parts of the body affected by Western medicine.
RP: How difficult is it for audiences to open up enough to give themselves over to you?
GM: I don’t believe in healing anyone with a special gong or magic wand. I tell people that everyone is their own healer. We are our own medicine, and when we create the spaces for sound and sculptures, we are opening up a portal to start and continue healing. I offer different tools that we need to heal ourselves—talking about meditation, nutrition, self-care, and self-love—and it is up to the individual to do the work. Sometimes with a serious illness, it is very easy to go to a deep, dark place and not believe that you will heal; at that point, it is difficult for anything to be effective.
RP: How do audiences respond to this alternative way of looking at things?
GM: When people hear my story, they tend to think that I am “for real.” I put myself in a very vulnerable place when I speak about healing; some people can relate to it, while others won’t. I feel that the majority of people come to my exhibitions and spaces with an open mind. What I’m doing right now has been very effective; it feels like I am just getting started, with many possibilities coming.
I do this work in museums, while working with individual communities on the side. That work isn’t documented or discussed, which I prefer—that part of my life is private. I don’t want to bring too much attention to undocumented communities, and cancer communities are also very private. Even at museums, I have ceremonies exclusively for cancer survivors.
RP: So, your sculptures are part of a complete experience that takes art and activates it. For most artists, the work is done when their works are exhibited; for you, it is only the beginning of what you need to do to make art “act.”
GM: My recent shows at MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, the Henie Onstad Art Center, and the MCA Denver were on view at the same time, so I had to fly to all of those places, activating the works and partaking in the ceremonies. I have a team of sound healers who work and travel with me. Before every ceremony, we meditate together and decide on who is coming—it might be the cancer community or, as happened in New York, residents concerned about a recent shooting. We talk about intention. When we are playing, we are meditating, and when we hit the gong, it sends out energy, which is an extension of the energy we are receiving. It is a lot of work, requiring a great deal of effort, but it gives me a great deal back; by the end, I am not tired but rejuvenated.
RP: Your exhibitions offer one kind of experience. Are viewers made aware that they can come back when you and your healers are there to waken the works?
GM: The Henie Onstad exhibition featured a “sun shower” work with a special speaker inside, and visitors could enter and listen to a pre-recorded soundtrack to get a sense of what it might sound like. It is obviously very different with the physical vibrations of the gongs and the range of sound, but this comes very close.
RP: How important is sound to your work?
GM: To me, sound is medicine, which is nothing new. It has been used for thousands of years on every continent—Tibetans use sound vibration; Africans use drums; and the singing of South American shamans is another type of medicine. I primarily use the gong, but I have also used the harmonica and the flute. Having sound in the spaces is becoming quite a thing for me. At the Brooklyn Museum, sound came out from the walls.
RP: How easy is it for you to “take over” a neutral gallery space and transform it into a shrine rather than just a show?
GM: That is a great question. At the Henie Onstad, there was a mural and a children’s game from El Salvador that I play, called “Tripa Chuca” (“Dirty Guts”), where you put pairs of numbers on the wall. I grew up playing it on a piece of paper, and it became part of the installation, with the walls painted and the markers ready. It was important for me to play the game with someone who had experienced a journey similar to mine. In the U.S., I played with someone who was undocumented. In Norway, it was hard to find such a person, but I knew of someone who was in the process of getting a green card and able to fly for the first time. Henie Onstad invited them to Norway to make the mural with me. This is how we began to transform the white cube to change the space entirely; then the sculptures came in, and the sound followed. There were many layers involved in making the exhibition, just as there are in my work. I like that, and I am adding more layers all the time.
RP: Do you see the standing works as sculptures? Clearly they take on a greater significance than what we understand as art.
GM: To me, they are absolutely sculptures. I am inspired by my ancestors and by older generations. I am mixed mestizo, and I have African blood. So, I am inspired by different things from these cultures to which I am connected. I am inspired by Mayan sculpture. In Honduras, there are gigantic carved stelae that are my favorite sculptures. Everything is layered and intertwined with hieroglyphs of plants and animals—these monuments were originally used for healing rituals, but they were also sculptures. I would want my sculptures to have the same intention.
RP: Such works were integral to those societies. They resonate with a significance that art no longer has today. What is art in relation to what you are doing and dealing with?
GM: I am an artist first. The greater idea of everything I am doing right now is trying to expand art, trying to expand the notion of what it is and see how far I can go with it. I don’t think about it very deeply—it is instinctual. I don’t see a separation between art and healing. I am my own person, healing and making art at the same time, but ultimately, at heart, I am an artist, and in the right circumstances, art has the ability to heal.
RP: With all of the layers in your work, how important is it that you are in control of what you are doing? Or is it about letting go and allowing things to happen in the moment?
GM: I believe in not forcing anything. Often I let go, but when it comes down to the details, I want total control.
RP: You mentioned traveling to Central and South America. Have you returned to El Salvador? It must be difficult to confront the experiences you had.
GM: I haven’t been back for almost six years, but I have gone there several times since I first came to America. All of my family escaped during the war, so now I go back as an artist—I’m planning a work there this year. It is terrifying to revisit these places. I haven’t returned to Tijuana, where I spent two and a half weeks when I was eight years old. That is a really loaded place for me. At some point, I intend to do a big project there. I have been to the border many times, but not to the particular point where I crossed when I was a small boy. I am trying to find the courage to go, but I have a lifetime to achieve that. It is all part of the healing process.
Guadalupe Maravilla’s exhibition at the ICA Watershed in Boston, “Mariposa Relámpago,” is on view May 25–September 4, 2023.