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ICA Exhibit Explores Trauma of Migration and Illness Through Sculpture and Sound

Man in a blue robe plays gong
Maravilla, a professor in VCU's sculpture department, credits vibration therapy with helping him manage pain and trauma. (Photo: Institute for Contemporary Art)
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Woman stands with back to camera in blue robe
(Photo: Institute for Contemporary Art)
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Woman lifts mallets in front of gong
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*VPM intern Alan Rodriguez Espinoza reported this story

The latest installment in the Institute for Contemporary Art’s Provocations series, Disease Thrower, explores the connection between illness and traumas of migration. Artist Guadalupe Maravilla uses sculpture, drawing and performance to “repel anxieties, depression or any physical illness.” 

Maravilla migrated to the United States from El Salvador in 1984 as part of the first-wave of undocumented children escaping the country’s civil war. He was only 8-years-old.

“The war separated me from my from my parents and my sister. And through the help of coyotes, I was able to cross the border. I was undocumented, unaccompanied,” Maravilla said.

Maravilla studied fine arts in New York City and became a US citizen at 27. He now teaches in the Virginia Commonwealth University sculpture department. 

Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He underwent over 50 sessions of chemotherapy and two surgeries, which he says brought so much pain that he could no longer walk.

Maravilla turned to shamans and healers in the Americas, China and Korea and found relief for his pain in vibrational therapy, also known as sound baths.

“I realized that my trauma of being undocumented, being this child that was left alone… I developed this trauma that I held in my gut and it eventually manifested into a cancerous tumor,” he said.

Maravilla has used his Disease Thrower sculptures in the past to perform sound baths for the vulnerable communities of cities like Miami and New York City. Now in Richmond, he hopes to help others find healing through his installation.

Four sculptures in a large room
Disease Thrower is being exhibited at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. (Photo by Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM)

Disease Thrower consists of four totem-like sculptures, each of them holding a gong at the center, as well as other objects that Maravilla has collected while retracing his migration journey from El Salvador, through Mexico and into the US.

Amber Esseiva is the curator for Disease Thrower at the ICA. She says the exhibition’s inclusion of these objects -- toys, shells and gems, among other things -- turns them into “totems of ideas.”

“Each of these disease throwers have organs, like anatomical organs that you might find in a teaching institution like a school, and they designate sites of the body where someone, either Lupe or someone in his family, has had cancer,” Esseiva said.

Besides the disease thrower sculptures, the installation also features a long snake made of agave leaves that hangs from the 33-foot tall ceiling. On the wall, hand-made banners produced in Mexico protest the current US immigration system. Esseiva says this aspect of Disease Thrower is uniquely relevant to the city Richmond.

“In a city and in a climate where we tend to talk about histories of trauma a lot, we need to concentrate on what's [actually happening now],” she said. “It's important to talk about the relationship to the city and the history of slavery, but there are actually people that are being held in cages and being held against their will now. That's important to talk about.”

The walls are decorated with silver lines drawn by Maravilla and an undocumented immigrant student, recalling a game Maravilla played during his childhood in El Salvador -- tripa chuca.

“He’s bringing in things like childhood games that he used to play. There probably is a significance to what art making and drawing had for him as a kid,” Esseiva said. “And so it’s a practice in trying to dig up those memories and keep them alive through art making.”

Woman stands in front of sculpture
Amber Esseiva, a curator at ICA, says the work is uniquely relevant to Richmond. (Photo by Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM)

When Disease Thrower opened at the ICA in November, Maravilla hosted a tea ceremony and a 12-hour overnight sound bath. Hannah Fisenne, one of his students, was one of dozens that slept on the floor for the full 12-hour sound bath.

“I have chronic pain,” Fisenne said. “I woke up with no pain which freaked me out. That’s never occurred before. I left feeling very healed.” 

Meera Brown is another student of Maravilla’s, and one of the performers who played an instrument during the overnight ceremony. They say they were drawn to the inclusivity of the exhibition.

“Everything is just charged right now,” Brown said. “As much as things are charged, you need to make space for those who need to be helped. It's for everybody, regardless of who you are and what you're there to experience.”

Disease Thrower will be on display at the ICA until July 1. The ICA says Maravilla will continue to use the installation to teach the public about the benefits of vibrational therapy, and he will be using his work to help immigrant youth connect with their roots. 

Maravilla will hold a talk and a Q&A session at the ICA on Wednesday, January 29 at 7 pm to discuss Disease Thrower.