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For Guadalupe Maravilla, Making Art Is a Form of Healing

Guadalupe Maravilla’s studio is not the usual artist’s workplace. Most of the time, there are no artworks in it; instead, conch horns, flutes, and gongs—his healing instruments, as he describes them—are arranged ceremoniously in the room, alongside items collected while retracing his childhood migration route from El Salvador to the United States. That journey is at the crux of his latest project, a traveling exhibition called Mariposa Relámpago, or “Lightning Butterfly,” currently on view at Ballroom Marfa in Texas through March 2024.

Born in El Salvador in 1976, Maravilla migrated alone at the age of eight to the United States, passed from coyote to coyote for two and a half months until arriving at the border. His mother and father had traveled to the U.S. before him after fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War, a conflict that raged from 1979 to 1992. “When I go into the studio to make art, it’s an explosion that comes out of nowhere,” Maravilla says. “I work really fast. And then the pieces get sent out and the studio is empty again. What is consistent is that my healing instruments and the objects I collect from my trips are in the studio. A lot of times, it’s a space where I can meditate or do private ceremonies.”

This convergence of art and healing practices is at the core of Maravilla’s work. He believes that traumas manifest physically through diseases in the body, and he has been working through the ramifications of his own displacement for his entire life. As a teenager in New York City, he remembers being attracted to ideas of spirituality and healing. His first teacher was a curandero, or healer, that he met at a botánica, spiritual and religious goods stores common in Latino communities. But it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer in 2012 that his need to heal the wounds of the past—and seek alternative forms of medicine to do so—became urgent.

“One day, after having radiation treatments, I went to a sound bath, and it really helped me,” Maravilla says. “I made a promise to myself that if I healed from cancer, I would learn to play gongs.” He sought out Don Conreaux, a world-renowned Australian-American healer and one of the leaders of vibrational therapy in the 1970s, and became his student. Since then, gongs have been a key element of Maravilla’s sculptures, present in his Disease Thrower series from 2020 and in the sound baths he hosts during many of his exhibitions. “There was a point when I was dealing with cancer and a lot of the curanderos I was working with were like, ‘Do you want to come with us and do the work? Go to the jungle and learn to be a healer,’” Maravilla says. “I thought about it, but then I realized that my path is to be both an artist and a healer. I thought, I’m going to invent my own way to be both.”

The exhibition’s cornerstone is his largest sculpture to date, a school bus Maravilla transformed by wrapping it in metallic armor. Decorated with hundreds of items ranging from a Mesoamerican symbol for corn carved out of volcanic rocks to an anatomical torso of a child—a nod toward the untold number of children who have journeyed north from Central and South America to the United States—it doubles as a curative space for sound baths. “Mariposa Relámpago is my trojan horse for healing,” he says. “People get really excited by the way it looks, but once they enter it and feel a vibration during a ceremony, it really starts to demonstrate how sound can be medicine.”

A film narrating the creation of Mariposa Relámpago, which was originally commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, will be released in January. It will cover details of Maravilla’s journey, including the blessing and cleansing of the bus by shamans. His intention is for it to be a healing machine that tours the world; for now, the installation will travel through Texas, to The Contemporary Austin in April of 2024, and the Blaffer Museum of Art at the University of Houston in November. Maravilla selected institutions close to the border with Mexico in hopes of reaching migrants and providing them with an opportunity for healing through sound.

His exhibitions also include outreach programs that bring aid and resources to communities in need. “I think there are up to twelve things happening with my exhibition in January, " he says, referring to another show, this time at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. “That includes historical items from the museum’s collection, my own sculptures, the sound baths, workshops with students, work we are doing with the local detention centers, and exhibiting some of the letters that were written inside those detention centers.”

Maravilla also maintains a tradition of collaborating on murals with local migrants. He plays with them tripa chuca (“dirty guts”), a game from his childhood in El Salvador in which players draw lines between matching numbers. The result is an abstract line-art drawing that resembles a map or mystical storyline. This way, he says, he creates a micro-economy by ensuring that museums pay his collaborators for their participation. He can also connect with others who have experienced similar struggles to his. At the Gwangju Biennial in South Korea, he played with a North Korean defector; at the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil, he met a migrant from Ghana, and at the Liverpool Biennial in England, he engaged with two people who had fled Syria.

Maravilla regularly offers sound baths at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn that are open to the public. His last one, this past November, doubled as a coat drive for asylum seekers arriving in the city. “I would be super bored if I did just a painting or sculpture show,” he says. “I love working like this because I love working with people. I’m collaborating with a pastor. I’m collaborating with the curators. I’m a quadruple Sagittarius, so I have endless amounts of fire. And I use that fire—it’s what keeps me going.”