‘Artivist’ Daniel Arzola Makes Space For LGBT Communities

By Eva Recinos

This exhibition does not have to be for your provocation.

A s a child, Venezuelan artist Daniel Arzola preferred drawing over talking to people. He tells me that he distinctly remembers that when he liked someone, he would draw them something as a token of his affection.

His family, however, didn’t share his love of art. Hoping to communicate his creativity but also please his family, Arzola settled on graphic design as a course of study. The design world seemed more practical and acceptable. But Arzola would soon undertake a project that sparked even more opposition from those around him — and ultimately put his life in danger.

His 2013 viral series “No Soy Tu Chiste” (“I’m Not Your Joke”) highlights the challenges and pressures that marginalized communities — specifically queer and transgender individuals — battle every day. The eye-catching, boldly colored pieces feature different figures with phrases like “My exhibition does not have to be for your provocation,” and “My sexuality is not a trend. Your ignorance seems to be.” Even allies are addressed, with one poster depicting a heterosexual couple with the words “You don’t have to be the cause to defend the cause.”

One poster depicts a heterosexual couple with the words ‘You don’t have to be the cause to defend the cause.’

Only a few months after Arzola started sharing the posters online, the campaign had gone viral internationally. Complete strangers reached out to him from the U.S. and Canada, wanting him to translate his messages into English. Others from Portugal and the Netherlands also reached out. Now, the posters have been translated into 20 different languages.

Even public figures like Madonna and Neil Gaiman have shared Arzola’s work. Yet as the works continued to attract new eyes and a massive following, plenty of other people voiced their objection. Arzola had started the project in school, where he had to fight against discrimination from teachers and staff.

“I had teachers that were so, so homophobic and some teachers say no you can’t do that because being homosexual is a mental disease,” Arzola says. “I’m very — I never keep quiet or in silence . . . I tell the teacher no, I’m not crazy, you are crazy . . . you are a teacher, you’re not supposed to be talking to me about these things. Teach me, don’t judge me.”

Despite this pushback, Arzola continued creating and eventually, some teachers chose to mentor him. Ironically, once his project gained more traction, the school decided to give him a prize for his accomplishments.

Arzola also creates physical pieces. That format makes his work more vulnerable, but the artist now knows what to expect: “It’s very common when I make an exhibition that some people try to destroy the work,” says Arzola.

“It’s very common, and always if the exhibition is outside, some people destroy one or two artworks. It’s very common to me. But actually artivism is about that, that you don’t have to look for the message, the message finds you. So it’s very natural every time people destroy some of my work. I feel so proud because, yeah, I’m bothering some hateful people.”

If anything, these types of reactions seem to fuel Arzola’s creative process; he recognizes that placing his work online and speaking out about these issues can make a real impact. Namely, he recognizes the power of the Internet to spread a message much further than its origin.

Arzola has, however, had to leave Venezuela due to the increasing number of threats against his life in response to his work. Having survived a “very, very violent childhood,” in a country where violence against both queer communities and activists is prevalent, the artist had two weeks in the wake of his rising fame to decide to leave his home country. He ultimately decided to bid Venezuela goodbye, packing his entire life into a carry-on. But, by sharing his work on the Internet, Arzola has continued to show support for queer communities in Venezuela — even while he no longer lives there.

Although he thinks very carefully about the aesthetic elements of his works — particular the psychological effects of colors on the viewers — he sees his practice as “artivism,” more than just art. Arzola has strong opinions on the differences between the two.

“Since I was a child, every time I draw or write, because I write poetry and short stories, too — I feel that if the art doesn’t have this social reflection, it’s not art,” says Arzola. “It’s maybe, I don’t know, something decorative, something pretty. But artistic? I don’t know.”

Artivism — a term he’s helped popularize — also allows him to reach audiences in a way that traditional activism might limit.

“The difference between activism and artivism is that when you only do activism, you have to be there to share the message,” says Arzola. “But when you use art, when you use artivism, I don’t have to be in Russia or in India.”

‘I feel that if the art doesn’t have this social reflection, it’s not art.’

Arzola continues to make socially conscious work. Recently, he created a poster for International Asperger’s Day with the words “I’m not ‘slow,’ I have my own pace. I’m not ‘crazy,’ I perceive different [sic].”

In order to spread the word about the power of artivism, Arzola also recently created a manual with 12 steps for creating an artivism project. He hopes that this manual will encourage others to create their own artivist works across a range of mediums.

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