I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Sculptor, performer, and sound healer Guadalupe Maravilla fled the civil war in El Salvador as a child, arriving in the United States after an arduous journey on land. His traumatic experiences as a refugee and formerly undocumented person inform the creation of his immersive sculptural installations and the participatory rituals he hosts to offer tools for self-healing to the immigrant community and beyond.
This past fall, Maravilla spoke with fellow artist Janine Antoni about the development of his unique practice and about their mutual interest in the spiritual aspects of art.
Janine AntoniI met you as Irvin Morazan. Now you’re Guadalupe Maravilla. I think of your name as your autobiography or an encapsulation of your artist statement. How has your art been influenced by your experience as an immigrant?
Guadalupe Maravilla I’ve been making work about my immigrant experience for a long time, but I used to disguise it with abstraction because talking about my personal life was uncomfortable, especially as I only became a US citizen at age twenty-six. I was undocumented growing up, and I was grappling with that. I made work about it for myself, but it took me a while to openly talk about being undocumented.
What really opened my eyes was having cancer; I felt a greater urgency to speak up, especially after seeing the struggle of so many undocumented immigrants and their families. So it’s been brewing for a long time, but only in the last seven or eight years did I feel confident enough to make work directly connected to my experiences as an immigrant.
JASo when did you decide to change your name?
GMI hadn’t seen my dad in about twenty years; he had kind of disappeared. And then he reemerged as a Jehovah’s Witness. He went through a total transformation. The church took him in and helped him overcome alcoholism—he had to rehab through a lot—and also with changing his name. He adopted the name Maravilla and developed a new identity.
For me, it was refreshing to see this person that I didn’t have much history with as someone who could reinvent himself. I thought that was beautiful. And I asked myself, Why am I carrying Morazan as my last name when that’s actually a conquistador’s name I have inherited? (laughter)
GMI was actually Guadalupe when I was born, because my birthday is on December 12, the day we celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was on my birth certificate, but my parents changed it because my father was concerned that Guadalupe was too feminine and I wasn’t going to benefit from that name in our misogynistic culture. So after I overcame cancer in 2013, I adopted my original first name, Guadalupe, and my father’s fake last name, Maravilla, to show solidarity with him because he’s still undocumented. Post-cancer became my rebirth.
JAWhen we met, you were a student of Paul Ramirez Jonas at Hunter College. And you had just been diagnosed with colon cancer. I remember that Paul and I gave you this small object made by Bogyi Banovich, the son of Magda Sawon and Tamas Banovich of Postmasters gallery. When Bogyi was a young boy, he heard about me having cancer and made me this little healing object. It was a cereal box with a paper towel roll, and he had painted it.
GM I think it was a shoebox. It was so magical.
JA On the box, it said De-Cancer Machine. (laughter) It felt apt to pass Bogyi’s De-Cancer Machine on to you when you needed it. You said previously that this object really inspired you. Can you tell me why?
GM I feel now that my cancer was a blessing in disguise. It really opened my eyes and made me question everything. It connected me to my spirituality as far as possible. I had two cancer surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, but I also worked with healers, shamans, brujx, and “witches” from all over the world—from Korea, Tibet, China, Israel, Native American communities, Mexico, Cuba, South America… People emerged out of everywhere, saying, “Oh, I know about this alternative treatment or this ancient medicine.” And all this medicine started coming to me.
The healing machine you let me borrow was part of that. It was very powerful; I felt it was so charged. What helped me get through that time was being optimistic about the whole experience. I was absorbing everything. Everything felt new, because I was fighting for my life. The healing machine became part of the rituals that I had been learning; I understood animism and how everything has energy. My ancestors and many Native American cultures believe in animism—rivers have energy; the rock, the tree, and the little birds have energy. And a plastic chair or a ’90s Bart Simpson shirt have energy just like the toad on the pond.
Receiving this De-Cancer Machine from you felt inherently powerful because you survived cancer. It already had healing energy right there because of its history. It gave me a lot of hope, and having hope during that time was a big part of overcoming cancer. The object was also powerful because it came from a child.
JA I think that we lose hope as we get older. Bogyi was nine years old at the time. He put his intention into the object and he believed it had power. When someone you know has cancer, it can make you feel helpless.
GM But he knew what to do. (laughter)
JA I have adult friends who said things like, I didn’t want to bother you, or I didn’t know what to do.
GM I didn’t want to be in your way and all this. But we need each other—
JA —to give each other positive energy. I remember that you have an amazing story about how you found out you had cancer. Do you want to talk about that?
GM Sure. So I had my birthday, and you know, I’m very blessed to be born on the twelfth of December, because it’s the day that I share with the Guadalupe. I’m not a religious person, but I am a highly spiritual person. The Guadalupe is a symbol of hope. For the longest time, since I was a kid, I had been looking at calendars, saying, I’ll have a birthday on the twelfth day of the twelfth month of 2012. And on top of that, I’m turning thirty-six on that day—12 plus 12 plus 12 equals 36. I was wondering what was going to happen to me that day.
I decided to do a beautiful ceremony with a curandero in the Lower East Side, and it was a magical experience. After the ceremony I asked the curandero, “What was this specific detail I experienced during the ceremony?” And he said to me, “The plant was trying to cleanse something; there’s something wrong with your stomach. It was focusing much energy on that.” I was a student at Hunter, about to start my thesis, and I didn’t have health insurance. I immediately got myself health insurance. A month later, I was diagnosed with stage-three, almost stage-four, colon cancer. I had no symptoms whatsoever.
If it hadn’t been for this ceremony on December 12, I would not have found out, and the cancer would’ve gone to stage four. It would have been very hard to overcome it, almost impossible. Of course, I went through that whole phase of, Why is this happening to me? But as with everything difficult, I also asked, What’s the positive in it? And how can I learn from this experience? Later I realized that if I hadn’t gone through that experience, I wouldn’t be the person I am now.
JA My best friend, Brian Pinkney, always says to me when I complain about something, “Find the gift. There is a gift there for you.” When I experienced cancer, it was a really big perspective shift. It changed my personality. I’ve been moved and inspired by how unabashedly your work has embraced spirituality and healing since you got cancer. I got to see your Portals at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami last year. Can you talk about how you got into sound healing?
GM When I was doing radiation, about thirty sessions in, I couldn’t even walk anymore. A friend of mine told me that there was a sound bath happening. I didn’t know much about sound baths, but I went to one after one of my radiation treatments at the hospital. And there was an older man with these instruments—his name is Don Conreaux and he’s one of the founders of this kind of sound therapy. Gongs go back to China thousands of years, but the gongs he uses are actually manufactured in the US and in Europe. They have different frequencies. And they’re calibrated to the sounds of planets or the elements.
JA What happens to you when you’re playing your Portals, and what happens for the audience?
GM Basically, our bodies are over sixty percent water. And in the water, we carry anxieties, we carry stress, we carry trauma. In some cases, we carry certain types of illnesses. Or sometimes, these untreated traumas can manifest in an illness. Stress might be the foundation for an illness that comes later. The sound vibration shakes up the water in your body and releases the toxins. It’s literally cleansing and washing away these toxins with vibration.
When I went for the first sound therapy, Don played in front of me while I was laying on the ground. When I arrived, I could barely walk because I was in so much pain. After the sound bath, I was able to get up on my own and get on the subway and go home. So that day I knew, if I were to overcome cancer, I would want to learn to play these instruments. Because of my experience I know they work.
Many years later, Don Conreaux was giving these two-month classes in New York, and I knew I had found my teacher. He’s an elder and an amazing human being. One of the most beautiful things he told me is, “Look, I invented this kind of therapy, and it’s now your turn to go with it and build on it.”
GM He had envisioned masks or headdresses being worn during gong ceremonies. And that connects to what I’m doing. I’ve been making sculptures around these vibrational instruments. As a sculptor and sound healer, I’m just going with it right now, exploring, playing, and trying different things.
JA So you have the gong, but then you have all these other objects connected to that shape. I heard you say somewhere that you’d been collecting objects along the route that you traveled from El Salvador to the United States. We both have our love of milagros— (sound of mariachi band from the street)
GM Do you hear that?
JA (laughter) It’s perfect timing!
GM Yeah. (horn blaring)
JA I’ve seen milagros made by people who are too poor to buy them. And I’m so inspired by these objects, because they have a vulnerability to them and a kind of awkwardness where I sense the intention in the making coming through in the way it’s made. Can you talk about how your objects accrue power beyond their symbolic meanings? We know the sound enters our bodies—is it entering the objects, too? Is the energy of the objects entering the sound?
GM That’s an interesting question that, again, goes back to animism and to retracing my own migration route from El Salvador when I was a kid, returning to the towns and villages in all these countries through which I traveled by land alone. In my mind, confronting trauma is part of the healing process. So physically going back to these places that were very difficult for me and picking up objects from them was cathartic.
I have a collection of these objects and I incorporate them into a sculpture, or healing instrument, and it feels like they’re protecting whoever is playing, or whoever is in front of them. Almost like a crystal or a crucifix would protect the space.
These sculptures with all the individual parts have a collective energy. I’m putting them together intuitively; sometimes objects fit better on sculpture A than on sculpture B. And sometimes objects just sit in the studio for years before I use them, waiting for the right sculpture. When my ancestors (Maya) built their temples and shrines, every part had a meaning and connected to histories and experiences. I have the same approach.
JA I’m fascinated to know that your objects are protectors. And if the sound is a kind of doorway, or threshold, it makes sense to me that it would need to be surrounded by protection.
GM I felt the same about the De-Cancer Machine. I had that over
my bed while I was doing chemo, and I felt it was really protecting me the whole time. The sculptures now have the same presence.
JA Like gargoyles at the top of a church or a building.
JA Your objects feel very connected to the subconscious. Also to how animals, or in other cases even organs, become animate.
GM The first Disease Thrower sculpture I made had a plastic anatomical model of a colon. I thought, What happens if I use a plastic anatomical model of lungs to represent someone in my family who had cancer or of my own colon, to elevate these traumatizing experiences?
Now my sculptures have taken so many shapes and layers. They don’t even look like headdresses anymore, although most can still be worn. But it can take a team of performers to wear one sculpture.
JA There’s something very healing about taking what is inside and bringing it to the outside. All forms of art and ritual can do that. It gives us an opportunity to see, to know, and to be in relationship with what is inside, whether it be our organs, our intentions, or our feelings. The process of finding form is healing in and of itself.
You know, I regret that I never asked to see my cancer after it was removed from my body. My road to full embodiment has been so much about knowing when and how to take what is inside and bring it out, and also when to let what is outside in. I think both things are happening in your work.
GM I also didn’t get to see my tumor. I didn’t think of it while it was happening, but a week later, I thought, Oh, man, I wish I could have seen it.
JA It’s a body part that is lost. It needs to be said goodbye to; it needs a funeral.
I’m drawn to the ritual aspect of your work. I, too, began to use ritual during my year of chemo and radiation and have continued to use it ever since. It has been the most reliable source of getting through hard times. I see it as a form of intention setting, or a process that provides the condition for transformation. What are the benefits of ritual? And how does it intersect with your performance?
GM Ritual can be so many things, right? It can be something we do in the morning just to ground ourselves. Get up, make a cup of coffee, exercise, brush our teeth—that in itself is a ritual. I’ve always had ritual in my life. In my early twenties, I was already meditating, and I was fasting once a week. As a performer, I fasted over 100 hours before every performance.
GM So I already had this practice, and when I got cancer I knew I had to up my game. It was important for me to have a routine, especially when I wasn’t working. I meditated, and still meditate every day. I was working on healing myself. And making art became a ritual as well. Going to the studio, laying out my tools and materials—that itself feels ritualistic. I think of my sculptures as shrines. And obviously, ritual connects to performance as well.
I noticed that during really intense times—and tomorrow is the presidential election—I depend on ritual even more, just to help me cope. Whether it’s a spiritual ritual or one that involves art. But ritual is also spending time with my partner or my cats, or cooking. If I’m having a bad day, I get my ingredients and start chopping things. Preparing food becomes a ritual. (sound of mariachi band from the street)
JA And you have a ritual happening right outside your window. (laughter)
GM Yes, today is the last day of the Day of the Dead celebrations and they’re having mariachi Mass. It’s very small, only twelve people, because of COVID.
JA You talked a little bit about how you prepare for a performance or healing ritual. But do you feel you’re being guided in your performances?
GM You need to be in a particular mental state to pull off a performance. In my early performative work, fasting for 100 hours helped me to ground myself. But now I have to choreograph performers and manage a team, so I need to be present for creating the installation, designing costumes, and working on the sound. My preparations start months before the audience comes in. Every day is of impact, until the day the performance opens.
The curanderos, shamans, brujx, and witches that I work with all use sound. It’s a major component in ancient rituals. So I decided to take the same approach with my performances. As layered, colorful, and elaborate as the costumes are, it is all about sound. And with the sound baths, I now go even further, where the sound can just take over the space. Even though the sculptures themselves are visually charged with so much information, it’s the sound that carries the work.
JA Because sound is temporal, it can also guide the ritual in a very precise way. As you say, the vibration shakes loose the emotion. It’s a direct way to uncover and transform our blocked emotions. Can you talk about the Disease Throwers?
GM Absolutely. I stopped making sculpture for a couple years, and once I started doing sound therapy, I realized that these instruments needed their own shrines. So that’s how the Disease Throwers got started. Then, in 2019, I got commissioned for a couple museum shows and that was a great opportunity to explore shrine-making for these healing instruments. I was able to make nine shrines that year.
The sound bath that you went to during Portals, my solo exhibition at the ICA in Miami, was the first time I actually played the gongs in a museum setting. Before that, we only played with gongs in community spaces. I was doing these holistic healing workshops for the undocumented community at a Lower East Side location. The sound baths were intended to show the community the tools for self-healing. I’m not into the idea of healing anyone; I’m interested in presenting the tools and letting them do all the work themselves.
First it felt strange to use an institutional space as a healing space. But afterward, I realized the many possibilities. The next one was at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond, Virginia. We did an all-night sound bath in the gallery space. This was before COVID, so we had 100 to 150 people that showed up for the sound bath. We played from 8:00 PM to 6:00 AM. We had four gongs, four Disease Throwers, and eight players alternating throughout the night with short naps. So, I’m sitting there playing at five in the morning, and I counted seventy-five people who spent the whole night with us, sleeping and snoring. (laughter) It was beautiful being together in the darkness in the museum. It was my favorite experience in an institutional space.
JA What are you working on right now?
GM Currently, I’m working on a new project with Creative Time. They commissioned two new Disease Throwers, and I am combining sculpture with mutual aid. I’ve been doing a lot of mutual aid work during the pandemic, and I’m at a point where I’m bringing together three elements: sculpture, healing, and mutual aid. I feel like healing also means providing food to those in need. For someone who’s struggling economically because of COVID, it’s not just about, Okay, come here, I’m gonna teach you meditation. I say, Let’s eat first, then we’ll meditate.
I’ve performed sound baths for the undocumented communities every Saturday for the last five months at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd here in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Obviously, we practice COVID protocols. I hire someone from the community to cook for us before every sound bath.
JA There’s a precedence in ritual work to bring people together around food.
GM The Disease Throwers themselves have evolved a lot; I can’t call them headdresses anymore because they are now shrines and healing instruments. These new ones are part steel tables that are covered with medicinal flowers. The tables are connected to the gongs so when the gongs are played, their vibrations travel through the person lying on the table. Someone with a hearing disability can experience a sound bath now. I’m also working on a solo exhibition at Socrates Sculpture Park that will open in the summer of 2021. I have the entire park and will debut the outdoor version of my Disease Throwers.
JA Your performances are starting to be huge. They have the grandeur of operas. Some of them have up to forty performers. How do you develop the characters in the performances, and what are your relationships with the participants like?
GM For many years, I used DACA recipients as performers because they’re protected. I don’t want anyone in my work to be at risk.
I have former students who took my performance classes at VCU’s sculpture department, and I often hire them for bigger projects. They bring excitement and energy into the space. The characters in my works emerge from my biography. When I went through all these ceremonies and healing rituals during my cancer, I had a recurring vision of a purple, pixelated goat jumping around me. It’s pretty crazy, but I always felt positive energy entering me in my darkest moments, especially during rituals, like a sign of hope. So eventually I made the goat into a character—a performer jumping around in a pixelated goat costume really did happen.
JA Some of these characters reappear from performance to performance and we start to have a relationship with them ourselves.
GM Yes, like the coyote, which to me is the human trafficker. That’s how I got to this country. But I combined the human with the actual animal, a mischievous creature that sneaks around and can go unnoticed. Central American Indigenous cultures use the coyote to transcend spiritually. There are all kinds of parallels with the coyote. In one performance, the coyote character dressed in a mask and cape and had a Dyson vacuum to cleanse the space. For me, those are the futuristic border crossers, and that’s how my characters get developed.
JA I think we should talk about COVID and the fact that most of us have been hiding inside our houses while you’ve been really busy. Talk about what you’ve been doing.
GM Basically, I was doing these biweekly holistic healing workshops on the Lower East Side until March 2020. Then we stopped because of COVID. We had a group of twelve to twenty participants who came to learn about the various healing practices. Most of the people who came were undocumented. So when COVID hit, they lost work and weren’t able to find new jobs. They immediately started contacting me, asking if I had any work because they needed to pay rent and buy food. The minute I got my stimulus check, I split it into four and gave it to four families. It was only 300-something dollars, not a lot of money, right? I put that on my Instagram and all of a sudden people asked if they could donate. From late March to October, I raised over $80,000.
GM I was literally handing envelopes of cash to people. There’s so much need. But I could only do this for so long. After the first month and a half, I met Juan Carlos Ruiz, an amazing pastor at the progressive Lutheran church that I mentioned earlier. Juan Carlos used to be undocumented himself. He’s feeding over 3,000 families every week; the church turned into a warehouse for food and also became a sanctuary for the undocumented community. It’s a very special place. I started going there by volunteering and delivering meals. Next thing you know, I’m filling my car with 2,700 pounds of grain per week. When Juan Carlos heard that I was doing sound baths, he asked me to do them every Saturday in the church. We have a lot of trauma from our experiences of crossing the border. During COVID, the undocumented community doesn’t have the privilege to hide like most
of us. I need to be here with them. We’re wearing masks and are taking all precautions. So far, we haven’t had any cases at the church.
JA That’s great.
GM I don’t know what shape my work is going to take from here. All I know is I can’t say, “Okay, I’m done. I’m going back to my studio.” (laughter) I can’t walk away from the community now.
JAHow is the undocumented community responding to your healing practice?
GMThey are very welcoming. Our connection to our Indigenous healing practices has been taken from us because we were colonized. We’ve lost a lot. In Latin America, there aren’t many spiritual options today other than religion. But once people see different practices, they become curious and want to look into them. Overall, the community has been open to the healing practices I offer, mainly because we all need to heal.
JAMaybe this is a good time to talk about Joseph Beuys? I feel like there’s this lingering critical view in the US, which stems from Benjamin Buchloh’s disdain for the use of symbolism, myth, and utopian visions. I don’t know about you, but my North American art education reflected that and taught us a mistrust of spirituality.
GM When I was a student at SVA, I would hear about Beuys and think, His work sounds amazing. But he was really dismissed by my colleagues and professors—like it wasn’t legit. But the more I looked into his work, the more real it felt.
JA Many artists, like yourself, have tried to bring these things back into the work, albeit in a different context and historical situation.
Your work, like Beuys’s, engages with healing through socio-politics. Like Beuys, you’re a teacher, an activist, and your practice is not limited to art making, or the art world alone. How does your background and life experience allow you to draw on Beuys’s voice differently?
GM That’s a big question. I studied at SVA in 2000 and got my BFA in 2003. When I tried to talk about spirituality in my work, it was not well received by anyone. That’s when I felt I had to go more abstract with it. And I would hide it. Also, nobody wanted to have that conversation about being undocumented. But I’m very stubborn, and that has helped me. (laughter)
My connection to healing, shamanism, and ritual is in my DNA; it’s part of my indigenous ancestry. So for me, not having that conversation is impossible. Why can’t I have that show up in my work? My SVA professors would say, “Oh, that’s not accepted around here.” Completely dismissing whatever I was trying to do. But the world has changed now. You’re starting to see people of color in the art schools and they bring their communal histories and beliefs. POC are interested in healing work in many ways—our ancestors are always with us. And now, with the pandemic, everyone wants to give back. (sound of singer’s voice from the street)
I like thinking about helping the community and supporting and elevating each other. I’ve seen many artists doing mutual aid work and talking about ritual and healing during COVID. I mean, you were one of the frontrunners with this a long time ago.
JA I think we need to grieve, and grief is a place where art can be very useful. We have to reflect on that, because as a culture, we have a lot of grieving to do. When I worked with the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake in the ’90s, I was struck by their connection to their ancestors, who aren’t even their real bloodline but their chosen family. They would talk about the elders who had passed as if they were still around them. They would make these things called gift drawings and gift songs. They are direct messages from one specific member of the community to another. I might receive a message for you and I’m just the conduit of that message. They would call the makers “instruments” rather than “artists.”
Do you have a relationship with your ancestors and spirits, and what do they think of what you’re doing?
GM In terms of my ancient ancestors, I feel I’ve been protected by them. I sense that many are looking out for me—when I was crossing the border, when I had cancer, and so many other times. There’s energy out there that, if I put in the good intentions (mariachi music swells from the street), is always somehow sent back to me. I don’t really know who is doing that or where it’s coming from. I keep getting tested. Getting cancer was a test to me—I need to overcome it and if I do it right, I get to go to the next level. Then the next level is a bigger challenge. (laughter) So when COVID hit, I felt
like I needed to be out here doing the work every day, and it has not been easy. But I’ve met so many beautiful people along the way. And they’re my family now.
JA You and I have had this unique gift to be able to understand our fragility and our mortality by having cancer. I think with COVID we’re experiencing that together as a culture. Having had cancer at thirty-three, I remember going to a restaurant, looking around and being like, None of these people know they’re fragile. (laughter) I even started wearing my seatbelt.
GM I feel that during the pandemic a lot of people have woken up and accessed their spiritual side and their desire to help others. But then we also have white supremacy on the rise. It’s a strange parallel that’s happening. I guess we’ll have to wait until the election tomorrow. (laughter)
JA What amazing timing we have.
GM Based on all my experiences and everything I’m doing here at the church and as a professor and as an artist, my job is to be on the front lines and share whatever knowledge I’ve picked up along the way. I don’t have a lot of elders in the undocumented community here. I wish I knew of some; they are more likely grounded out west. New York City is relatively new to the Central American diaspora. I crossed the border in the ’80s and then came here. Now some in my community have taken that journey in 2020. When new people are just getting here, I feel a responsibility to help them.
JA I just finished a ritual where I stepped into my role as an elder.
GM Oh, wow.
JA Come on over. (laughter)
Janine Antoni is a visual artist who was born in Freeport, Bahamas, in 1964. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award, Creative Capital Grant, and Anonymous Was A Woman Award, among others. She currently resides in New York City and is represented by Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York, and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco.
Originally published in
Our winter issue includes interviews with Tashi Dorji, Danielle Evans, Walton Ford, Guadalupe Maravilla, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, the Ross Brothers, and Aaron Turner; DIY cookbooklets from Dindga McCannon; poetry by Rae Armantrout, Imani Elizabeth Jackson, and Allison Parrish; prose by Langston Cotman, GennaRose Nethercott, and Brontez Purnell; a comic by Michael DeForge; protest drawings by Steve Mumford; and more.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee