At his upcoming show at ICA Watershed, Boston, the artist transports his audience using the power of sound baths.
Guadalupe Maravilla is retracing his steps. It’s become an almost ritual practice for the New York-based artist, who collects the materials for his sculptures along the route he travelled solo as an eight year old in 1984 while fleeing civil war in his native El Salvador. He reckons he has repeated parts of that 3,000-mile, two-and-a-half-month journey at least 30 times over the past seven years. In cities and pueblos along the way, he’s befriended shamans, blacksmiths and retablo painters, whom he hires to help him make his otherworldly works, which function simultaneously as shrines and musical instruments. On their craggy surfaces – formed from a mixture of glue, wood, cotton and dried maguey leaves – seashells, anatomical models or dehydrated tortillas are embedded like the offerings at a temple or sacred cenote. Often, he installs them atop a network of lines laid out during a game called tripa chuca – a kind of Salvadoran exquisite corpse he played with the other children on his journey to the US. Maravilla’s exhibitions can be read almost like a map, not simply of his own migration but of the hopes and dreams of all who travel north in search of a better life.
For Maravilla – whose adopted name is Spanish for ‘marvel’ – this journey has been traumatic. At age 36, he was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer, which he believes was triggered by the strain of being undocumented. While suffering radiation sickness from chemotherapy, he attended his very first sound bath, and found himself feeling energized and cleansed. He studied sound therapy with gong master Don Conreaux and began to build his own instruments, which he calls ‘disease throwers’. Shaped like monumental Mesoamerican headdresses, they often incorporate mats or hammocks on which listeners can lie while hanging gongs are played. Maravilla sources his gongs from manufacturers in the US and Germany who forge them to match the vibrational frequency of specific planets or natural elements, so a listener can, for instance, meditate to the sound of the moon. ‘Western medicine has neglected sound as being a big component of healing,’ he told me on a call from Mexico City, where he has been at work on his largest project to date, Mariposa Relámpago (Lightning Butterfly, 2023), a school bus that he has disassembled and reconfigured into ‘the largest vibrational healing instrument in the world’, which will travel to the ICA Watershed, Boston, this summer.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Maravilla had already been providing free meals and sound baths to undocumented immigrants and cancer survivors at churches across New York. Suddenly, the need was overwhelming. He quickly raised US$150,000 for the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he played his instruments for the largely undocumented congregation every Sunday. After the Republican governors of Texas and Florida began forcibly bussing asylum seekers from their states to so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ like New York in September 2022, Maravilla found himself performing for 150 people every few days, most of whom had just left immigration detention centres, and were without food, clothing or a place to live. The Brooklyn Museum, where his exhibition ‘Tierra Blanca Joven’ (Young White Ash/Earth) was then on view, acted as a donation centre for clothes, gathering three truckloads of winter coats for the new arrivals.
Displacement was, coincidentally, a central theme of the Brooklyn Museum survey, whose title referred to a fifth-century volcanic eruption that had forced the ancient Maya to migrate north. The show, which included Maya objects from the museum’s collection, also featured Disease Thrower #0 (2022), a woven straw platform set within the frame of a mythical beast’s jaw, coated in ash collected from past rituals. In ‘Luz y fuerza’ (Hope and Strength) – his concurrent show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York – Maravilla performed nearly 50 sound baths with his sculptures, almost half of them for cancer survivors. ‘You don’t get many opportunities to fall asleep at MoMA to the point that you’re snoring!’, he laughs. ‘People are transported somewhere else by this sound.’
His bus, when completed, won’t be a literal form of transport. It has been stripped of seats and an engine and festooned with metal objects collected from markets in Mexico and El Salvador: spoons, knives, gongs, a carousel, giant cricket legs and, in place of front wheels, a set of working washing machines, all designed to rattle and thrum. Maravilla was inspired by the yellow school buses from the US that get retired and sold cheaply to mechanics in Central America, who trick them up with metallic paint and chrome detailing. His bus, which he acquired in El Salvador, will retrace his own journey north. Like him, marvellously it will return.