New York Salvadoran artist Guadalupe Maravilla’s “Planeta Abuelx” sculpture exhibition opens at Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens on Saturday, May 15, 2021.
The work is an extension of his “Disease Throwers” sculpture series, some of which were recently exhibited at PPOW Gallery ppowgallery.com which represents the artist in New York.
Maravilla’s work is dipped in double meaning. Like many of us, he is processing the threat and loss of the COVID-19 pandemic, white supremacy, and the destruction of the Earth.
We haven’t spoken with the artist. These are our own impressions of his work.
The Cultural Context of Planeta Abuelx
The first point of context has to be Maravilla himself. He is a survivor who fled the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992) as a child, first arrived in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, and then survived cancer.
All of that takes an optimistic character which you can see in his work. He deals with heavy subjects, but in a hopeful way. We are pretty sure he himself is a healer. How “marvelous” (maravilla) to heal yourself through art, and to enable others to heal themselves by viewing your art.
We don’t know if the artist’s name is his given name or a nickname, but Guadalupe is a reference to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the icon of Mexican and Latin American Indigenous-European identity. Guadalupe is a world famous Marian apparition. The Virgin Mary is the Christian version of Mother Earth. In many West African contexts she is Yemayá, the orisha of the sea. In El Salvador, Maravilla would have been exposed to both traditions.
Abuelx is a word play on the Spanish word for grandparent (abuelo or abuela) and Latinx, the now popular term for Latin Americans in the United States. The title basically means “Grandparents Planet.”
The ultimate grandparent is our own Mother Earth. We are her children, but our industrial culture is killing her (and us too).
We tend not to think of Mother Earth as conscious, yet she may be alive in ways that are beyond our comprehension. It can even be argued that pandemics are Mother Nature’s way of culling life that turns out to be too toxic (us).
Indigenous Faith Traditions
Maravilla is obviously referencing Indigenous faith traditions. Around the world many are based on ancestral veneration. Elders are the keepers of the faith and all our cultural traditions. Importantly, children get most of their sense of who they are and their value systems from their grandparents – not their parents.
By placing his art in the ancestral tradition, the artist comments on the importance of our elders, and the terrible loss of family and cultural knowledge from the pandemic.
COVID-19 shut down cultural traditions around the world. Some – even very ancient traditions – will not return because the keepers of the knowledge have passed away. That is especially true in Indigenous communities because colonizers stripped us of our identities and forced us to pretend to be European. Only now, as society evolves in some parts of the world, have Indigenous and African peoples begun to reclaim our heritage.
Trauma Can Pass Through Generations
Maravilla mentions epigenetics. That is the study of non-genetic influences on our DNA genetic code. Most culture is taught, but social scientists have proven that the experience of trauma can pass down through the generations without any possibility of being learned.
Somehow, certain life experiences can be coded in our DNA and passed to our children. That seems impossible, but the results of social science experiments are very clear. It happens. It’s also a warning to us that trauma doesn’t only impact lives, it affects generations.
The Indigenous Healing Art of Planeta Abuelx
The artist seems to be reacting to the forces of nature, a code for Indigenous and African faith traditions. We may know them through ritual art and altars; or drum, song and dance traditions. These communal traditions function as expressions of family, faith, community and love. They also have medical and psychotherapy functions. They are healing traditions.
There are many types of healing. They generally seek to free up and rebalance blocked energies which if held in our bodies cause illness. Touch and massage are a common form of healing. They operate through the giving and receiving of life force.
There is also a tradition of sonic healing. ThaT makes sense because both life force and sound are forms of energy. You can get your teeth cleaned by sound and can get your soul cleaned by sound too. Meditation on the ringing of a bell, chime or gong in many traditions are examples of sonic healing.
Time heals too. Ever notice how when a relationship ends, you need time to put yourself back together? Maravilla plays with the concept healing through time.
There is something deeper here too that will be instantly familiar to Caribbeans. We are not sure how it fits into El Salvador, but Florida and many Caribbean islands are made of karst.
Karst is water-soluble rock such as limestone that has been eroded by water. It looks like swiss cheese with a lot of holes. It makes caverns and sinkholes which are often considered sacred places. In the ocean, karst forms vibrant reef communities, the nurseries of the sea.
Maravilla created at least one of his sculptures by experimenting with pouring molten aluminum in the park’s production studio. It looks just like a karst reef. He reinforces the reference with figures that look like corals, seashells and even a rabbit. A rabbit is a fertility symbol in many traditions including in Central America.
New York Harbor used to be full of oysters. Conservationists are reseeding the harbor because oysters both clean the water and protect the land from storm damage. In a way, Maravilla represents the Socrates Sculpture Park itself as a reef of creativity along the waterfront.
Tripa Chuca is a children’s game in El Salvador. The name roughly means “dirty guts.”
To play, draw two sets of numbers, such as 1-10, randomly all over a piece of paper. Each player then takes turns drawing a line connecting the number pairs. The first player draws a line from 1 to 1. The next player draws a line from 2 to 2, and so on. If you touch another line, you lose. The game looks simple, but after four or five rounds, it gets very hard. It’s fun and kind of addicting. It’s so easy, but so hard. In a way, life is like the game of Tripa Chuca.
There is another cultural reference here. Many traditions draw sacred figures on the ground in preparation for a faith ritual.
Maravilla has been working with the game for some time. He uses it as a metaphor for migration and crossing borders. ln a way, his sculpture is a Tripa Chuca in 3D.
The artist is going to turn the five-acre park into a giant Tripa Chuca with another cancer survivor. He is going to create the game in a way that fades away over time. That is the time to heal.
Healing Ourselves with Planeta Abeulx
Many of us a very shaken by the impact of the pandemic. Isolation creates a slow-burning panic in humans. We are frightened by the pandemic’s loneliness and loss, but also by the senseless White supremacist violence stirred up by some politicians.
Being in nature is healing. The park is outdoors. Contemplating art can be healing too – especially work like this which draws so many connections with the healing arts.
Take some time with the “Planeta Abuelx” exhibition at the Socrates Sculpture Park and see what happens.