Guadelupe Maravilla came to the United States in 1984 as an 8-year-old fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. In his 30s, he was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer, which he believes was at least partly brought on by the lifelong stresses of war, migration, and living undocumented in the US. All that personal history is not just present in his work as an artist but entwined in its DNA; his pieces are a breathtakingly forthright expression of self. He’s not making a statement, comment, or point. He is telling you, in very clear terms, who he is, and how he came to be.
On the day I stopped in to see “Mariposa Relámpago,” Maravilla’s heartbreaking, mind-expanding exhibition that opened at the ICA’s Watershed in East Boston on May 24, the artist was 15 feet overhead on a skyjack. He was sketching jagged lines along an expanse of wall with Jesus Morales, an aspiring artist and East Boston resident. Morales, an undocumented immigrant and DACA recipient from Mexico, gave permission to include his name in this article. (Maravilla, who frequently works with undocumented people, builds into his practice the humanizing notion of making the invisible seen.)
As they inched the Skyjack along an expanse of wall half the length of a football field, the pair took turns with a thick marker, in a spontaneous duel of brisk marks. Their duet was a game of Tripa Chuca, a popular pastime among children in Latin America. Maravilla remembers the game vividly as a distraction from the anxiety and terror of his 2½-month journey from El Salvador to Tijuana, Mexico, the final threshold to the US border crossing.
In El Salvador, civil war was raging; the sound of nearby gunfire was a daily feature of Maravilla’s childhood. His parents had escaped to the United States almost two years earlier when, in 1984, Maravilla got the call: A network of so-called coyotes would shepherd him with a group of children over land through Central America and into Mexico, en route to what he believed would be safety and freedom in America. The physical journey ended more than two months later, when Maravilla reunited with his parents in the US. But his quest to make himself whole had barely begun.
Maravilla’s migration is the raw material of his work, both literally and emotionally. At the Watershed, the loop and curve of an enormous snake unwinds on a wall in the broad entrance hall. Its skin is a grotesque hash of maguey leaves and glue; embedded within it are wayward objects lost along the same migratory route Maravilla traveled as a boy — a child’s Croc, toys, bottles of Lanman Florida Water, commonly used in Central American Cultures to purge bad spirits.
Now a US citizen, Maravilla routinely retraces his steps on that long ago journey, collecting objects left behind by the thousands who now travel it every day. He has woven many of the items into the snake, a piece he calls “Migratory Birds Riding the Celestial Serpent,” 2021 Each time it’s installed, it’s never quite the same, mirroring the perpetual churn of migration itself. The route he traveled has become an increasingly crowded migrant byway, and a political lever to manipulate public sentiment; his work humanizes the cable news outrage, honoring journey and sacrifice in tangible terms.
His series of “Retablos,” meanwhile, portrays vivid scenes along his own migration path. They’re frank storytelling devices and an embrace of a broad spirituality that sustains him today.
Named for devotional paintings in the Catholic tradition, Maravilla’s “Retablos” speak of a very different faith. The paintings, which he commissioned two artists, Daniel Alonso Vilchis Hernandez, and Alfredo Vilchis Roque, to make, are alive with animist visions of ancestors and spirits of Mayan cosmology rubbing up against hard reality. The paintings portray such things as Maravilla’s arrival at a way station for migrant children in San Ysidiro, Calif., where a team of grandmothers fed and clothed them in a house stocked with toys. For the first time in months, Maravilla wrote, he felt safe. The title of the show, “Mariposa Relámpago,” or “Lightning Butterfly,” comes from a conversation between abuelas the artist overheard.
The retablos are framed in webbing made from the same ragged material that forms the body of the snake. It gives them a visceral urgency; the material forms a protective sheath, spindly and claw-like, as though safeguarding Maravilla’s memories.
Neither the serpent nor retablos are at the heart of “Mariposa Relámpago.” They serve as exposition and chorus to the exhibition’s central thrust. Maravilla’s work is born from trauma, but it is not about trauma so much as repair.
The works that first gained him notoriety are a series of inhabitable sculptures he calls “Disease Throwers,” which he conceived during his cancer treatment more than a decade ago. Exhausted mentally and physically by radiation and chemotherapy, Maravilla turned to the traditional Mayan healing practices of meditation and sound to drive the sickness out.
At the Watershed, “Disease Throwers” #0, #14, and #00 inhabit far corners of the space. “Disease Thrower #14,” from 2021, has the air of an altar, with its cast-aluminum forms looking like coral, or hardened lava. At its core is a gong, the engine of the artist’s journey back to wellness.
“Disease Throwers” #0 and #00, closer to the entrance, are more elaborate and organic, each of them fitted with a mat of woven seagrass where, both in theory and in practice, the sick are lain prone, a gong at their feet. When it sounds, it bathes the person inside in healing vibration, as was done for him, Maravilla told me.
The piece titled #0, from 2022, has the presence of an overgrown jungle, its organic form wrought from a network of the same material that clads the serpent, but in spiny black. Made just this year specifically for the ICA, #00, is white, with crystals embedded in rough hide; its sharp, arcing ribs fix its occupant in place like a specimen on a table.
Maravilla has been cancer-free for a decade; while the pieces may indeed be restorative and preventative, he didn’t make them for himself. In 2022, #0 was installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the sick were invited to experience its healing powers, an offer that will be extended to Watershed visitors this summer, too.
But the work is not merely performative. Maravilla is connected to social agencies and nonprofits at home in New York that serve cancer patients, and he offers his therapies to them as freely as he can. When I asked him if it was fair to say that he intends them as healing instruments first and sculptures second, he nodded, pointing out the soft tower of crocheted hammocks suspended above each of them—where the ancestors come to rest, he said, and aid the healing process.
If you were to draw tangents from one Disease Thrower to the next, they would intersect somewhere inside “Mariposa Relámpago,” the outsize work for which the show is named. An old school bus is stripped of its paint inside and out; Maravilla sourced it in Mexico, a familiar emblem of migration and its litany of dangers. Its journey from south to north is one from peril to safety, from sick to well; Maravilla has transformed it from a symbol of trauma to one of profound hope. A white-lacquered anatomical mannequin of a young boy, cross-sectioned to show its neat innards, serves as a de facto hood ornament, and maybe an avatar of the artist’s odyssey, first to the US, and then to wellness. Joining it up front are stone-carved effigies of corn, a symbol of Mayan sustenance and ritual, and a silvery scarab, a talisman of safeguard and rebirth.
Inside, though, the Lightning Butterfly achieves its purpose. Its back end is shorn open and its seats removed; a huge gong hangs at the back of the empty silver chamber, waiting to be struck. Maravilla didn’t activate it while I was there, but the quiver of the floor from my footfalls inside made it obvious that the bus had been designed as a resonation device to flood the entire building, and maybe beyond, with its curative vibrations. Whatever its effect, there’s no mistaking the generosity of intent. Maravilla has taken his own trauma and transformed it, materially, spiritually, and emotionally, into a life’s mission: to undo the ravages of displacement and offer healing for all.
GUADELUPE MARAVILLA: MARIPOSA RELAMPAGO
Through Sept. 4. ICA Watershed, 256 Marginal St. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.