The Performance Artist Fusing Mayan Rituals, Hip-Hop, and Punk | #50StatesofArt

How Irvin Morazan went from a Ricky Martin impersonator living in El Salvador to an outspoken, multimedia performance artist based in Virginia.

by DJ Pangburn
Mar 31 2017, 6:08pm

It's a multimedia affair whenever Irvin Morazan stages a performance piece. The artist fuses Mayan history with hip-hop, theater, sculpture, sound, video, and photography in his spectacular, shamanistic performances. Every component is essential, and Morazan's creations never seem overstuffed. Originally from El Salvador, Morazan grew up in New York City and is currently based in Richmond, VA, teaching performance and sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University. Though he's rooted, Morazan is constantly on the move for his art.

His next stop is Austin, TX, for a piece involving 50 people, including fifteen 15-year old girls in a quinceañera performance that also features a female biker gang and Tibetan throat singers. It's not the first time Morazan has incorporated motorcycles into a performance piece. Last fall in Costa Rica, he staged a performance in which LGBTQ people engaged in public displays of affection while two motorcycle gangs (a symbol of the country's macho mentality) revved their engines.

Motorpsycho, San Antonio, Texas, Luminaria Festival, 2012. Images courtesy the artist

Morazan tells Creators that the performance aspect of his art comes from time he spent in a Menudo. For three or four years, Morazan sang and danced Ricky Martin songs right in the middle of El Salvador's civil war. He was drawing and making sculptures at the same time, and saw all his creative pursuits as one unified meta-expression.

By the time he was eight years old, Morazan found himself in New York City, attending art school and absorbing the city's cultural offerings, like hip-hop. Later, he studied photography as an undergraduate, then got a masters degree in sculpture at Hunter College where he fused his work with video, photography, sound, and performance.

"I'm from El Salvador, so I'm deeply related to my indigenous ancestry, which were the Mayans," says Morazan. "I kind of grew up playing on the steps of the pyramids in El Salvador. There is graffiti on them, people piss on them, and they've been looted for years. They are just these ruins and the sides are still covered in grass... So, growing up and playing on these pyramids, my imagination kind of soared: what did my ancestors look like, what were their rituals?"

"Once I got into art school, I realized I kind of wanted to continue that heritage by using the world that was around me, which was New York City at the time," he adds. "So, that's how the ghetto blasters got involved with the sculptures. The Mayan culture had a similar aesthetic to the hip-hop culture: they used to drill jade into their teeth. So, I started seeing all of these parallels amongst Mayan culture, hip-hop culture, and punk culture… This helped me create my aesthetic."

At first, Morazan tentatively explored Mayan shamanism via large, elaborate headdresses. In 2012, however, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, which changed his artistic practice and output. Morazan supplemented typical Western medicine with shamanistic treatments from Korea, and Central and South America.

Performance in the Center of the World, Times Square, New York, El Museo del Barrio S-­files Biennial, 2011

"We did so many different type of rituals, and I really learned to go into a deeper place, to have a meditative practice that I do once or twice a day," Morazan says. "The plants in the Amazon taught me how to play musical instruments like the harmonica, which I picked up and incorporated into my performances. So, that's where the whole spiritual, shamanistic aesthetic comes from: this healing experience I had when I had cancer."

For Morazan, the great highlight of these experiences was seeing shamans perform while under the influence of Amazonian medicine. They were in trances, but still able to perform their duties, the performances of which were only seen by the ten or so people in the room with Morazan. As a result, his performances are inspired by trance states, but also have the effect of putting people into what he calls "emotional trances."

The Magus Performance, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2014

"I often have people cry at performances for different reasons," says Morazan. "After the Bronx performance, [Volver, Volver], five different people came up to me to say that they were crying during the performance."

"In this particular one, I had an undocumented immigrant singing an a capella version of this mariachi song 'Volver, Volver,' where he was saying in Spanish, 'Please return, please return,' over and over again, which talks about losing a love or person," he explains. "But my interpretation of this song for the performance was about an undocumented immigrant missing his family, or son, or past lover that he cannot come to anymore. I had him sing different versions of this amongst other things that were happening, and a lot of people who were in the audience familiar with the song were deeply impacted by this undocumented man and how deep his sorrow was."

El Fantastico, 2010

Morazan says that immigration plays a major role in his work, because he himself was undocumented. He notes that the guerrilla overthrow of Nicaragua scared the United States government, with Reagan responding by arming death squads in El Salvador to prevent similar coups throughout Central America.

"It's all connected to what's happening now," says Morazan. "The US won and got its way, but after the war, the economy crumbles, the US leaves. It's what happened in Iraq and Syria… And people are wondering why undocumented people from Central America are immigrating: it's because of the gang culture that is taking over the countries, and it's all because of what happened in the '80s."

Because of his personal background as an undocumented immigrant, it is difficult for Morazan not to be political in his work. In 2011, he did a performance in which he wore a headdress and crossed and recrossed the Rio Grande on the US-Mexico border. The day of the performance, Morazan and his audience of 30 people were met by a helicopter and border police.

"I'm a US citizen, so why am I being threatened?" Morazan asks. "Luckily, there was this rancher with his wife, who was in a really fancy dress and jewelry, and he said he was there to support the arts and watch the performance. The moment he said that, the helicopter and border patrol disappeared."

This reinforced something Morazan already knew: that in this era of immigrant demonization, it's more important than ever to resist, and to do so with artistic performance spectacles.

Illegal Alien Performance , USA/Mexico Border, Ruidosa, Texas, 2011

"There are a couple of undocumented immigrants I know that are currently in grad school right now, and they reached out to me and this is the conversation we are having right now," Morazan says. "They are wondering if it's better to just do abstract painting and stay away from politics so they go unnoticed as an undocumented immigrant, or do they take it on?"

"It must be so frightening to be undocumented right now with the Trump administration," he adds. "Personally, I would do it, but what I tell these young artists is that it is their choice, because they all come from different places… So, it really depends on the artist and where they are coming from."

Click here to see more of Irvin Morazan's work.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States. This month, we're covering Arizona, Mississippi, Nebraska, Maine, and Virginia. To learn more, click here.


After Going to Jail for Vandalism, a Virginia Muralist Keeps Painting | #50StatesofArt

Essay: Inclusive DIY Space "The Mez" Nurtures Amateur Artists in Nebraska | #50StatesofArt

 Essay: An Artist 'From Away' Fosters Her Own Tribe in Maine | #50StatesofArt