Three days before it was set to premiere at the Knockdown Center in Queens, NY, artist Guadalupe Maravilla cancelled his performance. Disease Thrower was meant to be the final installment of his autobiographical trilogy, which began with The OG of Undocumented Children at the Whitney Museum in 2018 and was followed by Walk on Water, presented at the Queens Museum in 2019. These performances drew from Maravilla’s childhood experience of migrating from El Salvador, as well as familial experiences with deportation.
Disease Thrower focuses on the artist’s experiences with cancer and healing. For it, Maravilla had orchestrated another constellation of characters and collaborators: futuristic border crossers with spiked purple suits and backpacks as masks, a network of healers, purple fog clouds representing the artist’s mother, quinceañerxs reading a book with no words, vampire birds that drink the blood of American meat-eaters, and a pixelated goat representing the artist’s unborn child. A series of headpieces that share the performance’s name incorporate specific bodily organs — a reference to individuals in the artist’s life who have experienced cancer. Indeed, in this work, even tumors became characters. As is typical of Maravilla’s practice, each element fuses the personal and historic, working together to create what he calls “new mythologies.” These myths blur the fantastic and the “real,” history and the present.
It has been over two months since I first visited Maravilla’s studio to talk about the performance. Our present has shifted drastically amid a collective experience of sickness and loss. When I spoke to him again last week, Maravilla was between food deliveries in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. With a car and protective gear, he has been focused on providing cooked food and groceries to disabled, sick, and elderly folks who are not able to go out. During our conversation, Maravilla tells me about crisscrossing the city to make deliveries and describes a food line in Bushwick that spanned ten blocks.
Maravilla has also been raising money for undocumented families, who have been denied federal stimulus funds despite being especially vulnerable. He started by redistributing his own stimulus check to four families, and then reaching out to his online network for donations. So far, Maravilla has raised over $21,000 through Venmo (@Lupe-Maravilla), which has been distributed directly to immigrant families in need. Individual donations have ranged from $10 to $1,500 and, somewhat to the artist’s surprise, “have really added up.”
On his Instagram, one sees images of gloved hands holding envelopes of money, and Maravilla with groceries and protective shields. With collaborator Kenia Guillen, Maravilla has been tracking folks in need within his network, which include a single mother of three children, a 67-year old undocumented person, and a trans person living in a toxic apartment. As donations continue to come in, he’s strategizing about how to continue directing funds to those on his ever-growing list of folks in need. Maravilla is struck by how he, as an artist, now has to make these impossible decisions.
Since New York City has not acted on calls to cancel rent, needs will remain high, even when the city starts to slowly reopen. Come June 1st, Maravilla knows that many he and Guillen have assisted will be in need again. Last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $20 million fund to provide 20,000 immigrants with a one-time relief check, in partnership with Open Society Foundations. Though the amount offered per individual is less than half that offered by the federal program, it is a small step towards supporting the city’s estimated 360,000 undocumented workers, and only one in a handful of state and city initiatives around the country. Maravilla’s efforts are one example of mutual aid efforts organized by individuals, small groups, and neighborhoods directly addressing local needs as the pandemic especially impacts communities of color and increases existing inequalities.
As for Disease Thrower, Maravilla is currently looking for another venue for the performance and hopes to have access to his studio soon. In responding to a request for comment, Alexis Wilkinson, Knockdown Center’s Director of Exhibitions and Live Art wrote via email: “While there are many unknowns ahead, we believe strongly in Guadalupe’s work and hope to present Disease Thrower when the venue is able to re-open safely.” When it is staged, the performance will incorporate certain elements of the original work, with significant adjustments for our new reality.
While the performance element of his practice may be on pause, Maravilla is still centering non-Western and Indigenous medicinal practices, many which were critical to his own healing. For the artist, healing — like illness and trauma — is ancestral, urgent, and ongoing. Last year, Maravilla led Spirit Level, a series of healing workshops with undocumented folks, which incorporated a range of practices, including sound baths, meditations, herbal medicine, and nutrition. The workshops were meant to give participants — who, even before the pandemic, have been systematically excluded from access to medical treatment — tools to care for themselves. He has been able to support the workshop’s participants with aid during this time and, on May 31st, will present a virtual sound healing session and fundraiser with Central American production house Tierra Narrative. This session will be streamed from Teatro LATEA, a Latinx on the Lower East Side, and will activate Maravilla’s sculpture Disease Throwers #4 (Lungs). Maravilla plans to conduct more online sessions until it is safe to hold them in person.“Everyone needs to heal,” he explains.
Spirit Level with Guadalupe Maravilla: Sound Therapy for Communal Healing will take place on Sunday, May 31, 3–5pm EDT. The workshop will be presented by Tierra Narrative. See here for more details.