Guadalupe Maravilla wants to use art to heal cancer patients, trauma

Artist Guadalupe Maravilla describes his sculptures as “healing instruments,” but they don’t look so benevolent when you first encounter them. They look fierce, like monsters or aliens, or perhaps some mythical animals who have swallowed up all objects in their path and now hold them in their exposed innards.

If you go

Guadalupe Maravilla’s exhibit continues through Aug. 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 1485 Delgany St. Info: 303-298-7554 or

Maybe it’s because I’ve watched too many Hollywood horror films — every one of the “Aliens” movies is a classic, no doubt — but it is difficult to see these horned and hairy “Disease Thrower” pieces he makes as friendly beings, with their exposed skeletons and fingery tentacles and the bounty of their ravenous feast exposed inside them: human hands and body organs, steel cables, seashells, a snake, a mouth with its teeth intact and other mysterious odds and ends.

The only visible hint to their true, helpful nature is in the series of gongs that are hung on scaffolding set up behind them in Maravilla’s current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. The musical, metal drums are known for their loud bangs but also for the lingering, peaceful tones that hold our attention in the moments after they are struck with a mallet.

Indeed, the gongs are a crucial element to the “sound baths” that Maravilla conducts around his creations, special ceremonies intended to help people open themselves up to moving beyond trauma and pain and toward a more robust existence. In that way, the sculptures double as both art objects and altars — not exactly religious, but certainly hallowed and ceremonial in nature.

And in a similar way, Maravilla himself is posited throughout the show as both an artist and a shaman, the holder of knowledge and experience that can benefit others. The MCA will host two of his ceremonies on July 16 and 17.

It’s a long way from sculptor to priest, and it’s easy to be skeptical of the leap, especially if you like sci-fi films and know they are all smoke and mirrors. But Maravilla’s biography — inseparable from his work here — lends some credence.

The artist, now in his mid-40s, immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in the 1980s as part of an early wave of undocumented children to arrive from Latin America. Three decades later, these waves continue of course, and media reports are full of troubling images of desperate, yet shockingly brave, young people who risk it all to make the journey north, only to be greeted by rejection, incarceration or deportation. The “swallowed” items in Maravilla’s works are actually objects he picked up along the road while retracing his original trek to the U.S. decades ago.

The artist is also a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with colon cancer in his college years. We don’t need media reports to understand the challenges of getting through the physical and emotional difficulties of dealing with a life-threatening disease, especially for someone just at the cusp of adulthood.

Maravilla links those two difficult journeys together through their common element — human trauma and the need to persevere through it as he did — and his work, and his ceremonies, aim to help others move forward. He does not claim to cure cancer or eliminate trauma, only to “assist,” and he is clear about that, though the aura of artist-survivor as gifted being permeates the work.

It also creates work for visitors to the MCA. How do we consume these objects? As sacred or secular, playful or somber, artifacts or totems?

It doesn’t help that the sensational appearance of these larger-than-life works belies their function; they do not look like healing instruments. They look like props. You have to know the story behind them — Maravilla’s story — to understand them.

Of course, fans of contemporary art are used to that obstacle and usually are willing to go along for the ride. We don’t expect art to unfurl formally; we don’t assume we will “get it” until we have some information about the process or the thought behind it. In a way, that is what makes contemporary art so challenging and, ultimately, satisfying. We love to figure it out, collect the clues that the artist leaves in our path.

But the disconnect looms large for me. It’s a distraction. Sensationalism can overwhelm intent here.

Curator Larry Ossei-Mensah does add some context to the show and Maravilla’s overall efforts by placing two additional works beyond the three large “Disease Throwers” on display.

The first is a mural that the artist applied directly to the wall at the MCA. As the accompanying text explains, it is based on the children’s game tripa chuca, where each player must draw lines on paper than can never cross, and the mural is a series of paint marker lines and images that have the appearance of a two-dimensional labyrinth.

Maravilla notes that he played the game with others on his first journey from El Salvador, and so the mural connects to the immigration tale at the heart of the exhibit and also helps to demystify the artist.  He is not a seer here but a kid who played a game, and it stuck with him as a tool for coping with trauma.

There is also a version of a retablo painting, one of a series that Maravilla created with Daniel Vilchis, a fourth-generation retablo painter. Maravilla has made it his own — replacing the European-centered religious imagery that is commonly found in the traditional retablos that hang in Catholic churches with images connected to Latino or Latin American indigenous cultures. Instead of the fair Virgin Mary, for example, this painting depicts people with brown skin, a volcano and corn.

In some ways, this piece, too, humanizes the artist: There’s a long line of humble, working painters who offered up retablos. At the same time, it is a still a sacred object; there is a suggestion built into such a work that the artist making it possesses, or aims to possess, a special, divine connection to the universe.

Maybe he does. Perhaps Maravilla’s pieces do have some unique power, or maybe the simple fact that he makes them, believes in them and surrounds them with sound bath ceremonies imbues them with a force that enables people to actually heal.

If a piece of art can provide genuine hope, or help, then it is a valuable piece of art, indeed.

Otherwise, it is just a monster.

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