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'Celestial beings': Indigenous themes embedded in Austin art timed to the solar eclipse

On April 8, the sun and the moon will align for the first total eclipse over the Austin area in more than 600 years.

Before then, starting on the morning of April 2, two works of art by acclaimed El Salvador-born, New York City-based Guadalupe Maravilla will align in Austin public spaces for a series of viewings and ceremonies.

As with many of Maravilla's works, these combine sound, performance and three-dimensional creations enriched by Indigenous themes, images and subject matter.

One, "Serpent of the Sun and the Moon," explicitly incorporates Indigenous perspectives on the eclipse. In addition to the sculpture, Maravilla — who identifies as mestizo with some Mayan in the mix — will stage "sound ceremonies" for its world premiere in Waterloo Park.

Those two ceremonies will take place on April 2. The one at 10 a.m. is technically sold out. The one at 7 p.m. is not.

"The Serpent" will also be on view during the Fusebox Festival, which commissioned the art, April 7-14 and will remain in the park through May 31.

While not explicitly about the eclipse, Maravilla's other work, "Mariposa Relámpago (Lightning Butterfly)," mounted on a disassembled school bus at The Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria, picks up on Maravilla's repeated themes of migration, illness and healing.  

It will be unveiled from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on April 4. Other public events, held on April 5 and 7, will include sound ceremonies.

"I see the Waterloo Park art as sunlight," says Ron Berry, co-artistic director of Fusebox, "and the Laguna Gloria art as moonlight — celestial beings talking to each other.".

What Indigenous peoples knew about eclipses

The last total eclipse over Austin happened in 1397. Only Indigenous peoples witnessed it here.

While the Tonkawa, who lived in Central Texas and had not developed higher mathematics, were most likely surprised by the 1397 event, the Mayans most likely would not have been. The Mayan number and astronomical systems, which developed more than 1,000 years ago, were completely separate from the ancient Egyptian, European and Asian traditions. Notably, the Mayans conceived of "zero" as an idea long before other civilizations, including the Greeks, did so.

According to several sources, the Mayans could predict eclipses with 55 percent accuracy.

"My art is informed by the ancient cultures from Mexico and Central America," Maravilla says. "They used advanced mathematics, including the number zero, and knew the solar system well. They knew when everything was happening. Their calculations were very accurate."

At its height, the Mayan Empire encompassed Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula, and part of it extended into what is now El Salvador, Maravilla's homeland.

During El Salvador's grisly civil war (1979-1992), Maravilla fled the country as an 8-year-old undocumented minor. He made his way alone to the United States to reunite with his family. That migration — as well as his subsequent encounters with cancer and what he discovered during his recovery — remain at the heart of his art.

Where can I find "The Serpent"?

Maravilla's blue and bronze sculpture is both a serpent and a bolt of lightning.

"The blue comes from the sky," Maravilla says. "The bronze is electrifying. Serpents represent healing — you see them in the Greek symbol for medicine — and in Pre-Colombian culture, they were also signs of healing."

"Serpent" erupts from the Earth in the southwestern part of Waterloo Park in Lowell Lebermann Plaza, named for the late Austin civic, business and cultural leader who served as a City Council member and a University of Texas System regent.

The plaza is shaped somewhat like a Greek amphitheater. On one side of a flat, circular space for gatherings or performances rise tiers of large, crisply cut limestone blocks. They form a natural audience space. "Serpent" emerges from the inscribed circle seen below the tiers.

(Why this gorgeous outdoor space is not used more often is something of a mystery, although one could blame the blazing daytime heat that beats down on Austin for six months a year, along with the lack of theatrical lighting structures needed for nighttime performances. Perhaps a retractable canopy could help?)

"It's like this place was built for it," Barry says of Maravilla's art. "It pops out."

To transport, insure and install "Serpent" in Lebermann Plaza, 20 people from two countries collaborated for more than a month.

"The metal was assembled in the artist's Mexico City studio," says Robert Boland, owner of Austin-based Vault Fine Art Services. The length of the installation process "depends on the crew and how many people, including engineers, are involved. We also work with the artist's gallery if they are on loan."

Fusebox commissioned "Serpent" for the total eclipse with the help of a grant from the Simons Foundation, which supports mathematical, life and physical sciences, along with autism research.

The foundation has helped fund more than 100 eclipse-related events across the country. Several of them, including projects in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Carbondale, Illinois, lie, like Austin, in the path of totality.

What about Maravilla's other art in town?

Maravilla's school-bus art, installed at Laguna Gloria, has been seen previously in Boston, New York and Marfa, and will next be hosted by the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston​ from Nov. 20, 2024-April 27, 2025.

According to a museum description, "Mariposa Relámpago (Lightning Butterfly)" incorporates "natural materials, handmade objects and items collected by the artist while retracing his migratory route to become shrines and healing instruments."

More about this and other projects at the museum can be found at

Marvilla consulted with Megan Kirchgessner, a neuroscientist at the New York University School of Medicine, to build the sound ceremonies.

"She engaged with Guadalupe specifically around his sound practice," Barry says, "adding a scientist's perspective to his work with sound."

For "Serpent," for instance, "The metal gong behind the cloud will be tuned to the same frequency as the planets," Maravilla says. "During the eclipse, it will be the frequencies of the sun and the moon."

These are not Maravilla's first set of art performances in Austin.

In 2017, in a state parking garage with a mammoth atrium, women in quinceañera costumes emerged from the mouth of a 50-foot-long inflatable alligator to dance. Then a women's biker club from San Antonio revved their engines while Maravilla conducted them like a choir. Audiences looking down from above over low walls chanted down racism.

Barry: "It was one of my all-time favorite Fusebox events."

Successful as the alligator art was for the Austin festival, now recognized as one of the top such performance events of its kind in the world, Barry is gratified that Maravilla responded to the request to amplify Austin's extremely rare total eclipse, especially from an Indigenous perspective.

"'Serpent' speaks the language of the eclipse," Barry says, "which is ancient and, at the same time, it's from the future. It connects us across time."