Daniel Arzola is a Venezuelan writer, visual artist, graphic designer, and LGBT rights activist. His 2013 poster series No Soy Te Chiste/I’m Not a Joke went viral, and since then he has become a highly visible figure at home in Venezuela and internationally working at the intersections of art, otherness, and social justice. Nikki Smith spoke with him through email about his art and activism in early 2014.
Your most recent poster artwork is No Soy Te Chiste (“I’m Not a Joke”). What are you trying to do with this collection?
“I’m Not a Joke” has a social message that I portray in every poster through the psychology and symbolism of color. “I’m Not a Joke” is based on a principle of non-violence, inspired by Professor Gene Sharp. The message is to educate and to break stereotypes tied to sexual expressions, phenotypically and with gender. The project includes fifty posters that I’ve illustrated, and with them, phrases I’ve personally written. At the moment, “I’m Not a Joke” is available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
When did your work first become public? Can you discuss in more detail the activist goals of spreading LGBT awareness through your art?
Since its first year my blog had a certain audience. However, with the increase in social media, it gained more recognition. My first poems were included in the local and national press, between the years 2008-2009. Later, in 2011, I photographed a series of male portraits, each one accompanied by a poem; it was titled “Efebos” (translated to “Ephebus”). This was included both in press and regional television. With that I received an honorable mention for being the youngest person to exhibit his work in the museum of history in Maracay (my city).
Later, in January of 2013, I created “I’m Not a Joke,” returning to my first artistic dive (when I was a kid I would draw more than I spoke). This project became viral in 5 continents in less than 6 months.
I started to get interviewed by a variety of media around the world. I never imagined Madonna herself would say that she loved what I do. It was wonderful and far more than that. With “I’m Not a Joke,” I want to deliver a message that extends far more than the LGBT cause, I want to approach respect to differences as a life philosophy, remembering that respect is a human right that belongs to each person and not to the majorities. Those labels are superfluous. We’re simply human.
Why do you think your work attracted so much attention so early on, even before last year with the popularity of the I’m Not a Joke series?
It's hard to say, I think it has to do with the mix of art and advertisement for a social cause. I changed some of the campaign’s original philosophy. I stopped saying we're all equal and stopped condemning what's different. I believe we're all different and that those so-called “weird” people are the ones that have changed the world, that's why I say that we're only equal under the law.
How has your life changed since I’m Not a Joke? I wonder if you feel more visible in your community now, online or in real life.
My life has changed drastically. That is, a year ago I would have never imagined Madonna writing about me, or receiving an award for human rights. There are people that stop me on the streets and ask me to take pictures with them or to give them autographs. A year ago, none of this would have happened. It's also a great responsibility; I feel that I still have many things to do. In a certain way, everything that I do from now on will compete with "I'm Not a Joke."
You started your blog in 2007 with mostly poetry and photography. I especially enjoyed "Desde Adento Para Ti". The last line seems to be a good summary for your blog: "He Decidido Dejarte por Siempre, he Decidido Empezar Desde Aquí," which roughly translates to "I've decided to leave you forever, I decided to start from here.” What is your inspiration for the blog and your early poetry?
I began to write poetry when I was 12, however when I was 16 a certain group of people tore the notebook where I would write, and from then on I felt I had to write in a place that couldn’t be destroyed; so I began my blog.
When I started writing in it people from different countries began to visit it, some of my age, and others older than me. I think they felt a certain fascination with the fury I felt when I wrote.
My first published poem was “Bajo La Marea,” which translates to “Under the Tide.” It’s something I wrote about a person that tried to abuse me. I managed to escape hurt by a knife he carried. It was an experience that made me feel ashamed of my body for a long time; lots of people began to tell me about similar or worse experiences. When I write I have a name for every thing, for every emotion; I know everything when I write, and it was in that way that I was able to forgive and get over it; It was in this way that I got stronger. I began showing myself again, and because of this, my first poem has a self-portrait with it.
“Desde Adentro Para Ti” was a poem that I wrote about when I finished my first relationship. It was my first love, and I was the third person in the relationship; he was much older than me, and so it irritated me that I was the more mature one in the relationship. I was really upset because I felt that I had given a lot, and I had only received half of that. I always find that endings transform us. So, I decided that I would begin my path once again.
2008-2009 is mostly dominated by self-portraits, such as "La Perspectiva del Brillo". How do you portray personal obstacles in your earlier work, as well as your most recent?
Taking out a camera on a Venezuelan street is like taking out a piece of meat in a lion’s den. It’s an extreme sport because of the enormous lack of security. This is my major obstacle as an artist. Sometimes I wish I could go out and take pictures, or go out and write with my laptop, to any place, without risking theft or murder. Because of this, so many of my self-portraits usually take place in my house.
I think the self-portrait is masturbation in art. I had a problematic adolescence where I was attacked for being who I am, sometimes for my sexuality, other times for being an Aspie (Asperger’s Syndrome), so I felt embarrassed about my body for a while. I managed to rid myself of that by confronting my fears; I was afraid of pictures, I felt uncomfortable and frightened before a camera, so I had to take pictures of myself in order to end this fear and finally conquer it.
What is the LGBTQ community like in Venezuela?
It's a difficult subject. In Venezuela there are people who tell me that there is no homophobia, but I can't hold hands with another man because it generates contempt and mockery, sometimes in physical violence. Additionally, there is homophobia on behalf of the government; they use homophobic terminology to attack competition. This year the bill for marriage equality was introduced in a manifestation where my work was used, but this was through popular initiative, not through governmental means. When it comes to the people, there is still a lot of growth left for us. We should stop attacking one another.
Is there popular support for LGBTQ rights?
There isn't, and it's shameful. In fact, Venezuela faces grave medicinal shortage issues for people battling against HIV, among other things; the majority of the support comes from LGBT non-governmental organizations. Sexuality is still an offense.
As we start a new year, what can we expect from you in 2014? What social and personal changes do you hope to accomplish?
I’d like to be able to exhibit “I’m Not a Joke” in other countries around the world. I’ve had a kind of tour around Venezuelan universities, and I’ve given talks, while exhibiting my work, to more than 3000 students. Currently, I’m writing and illustrating a children’s book about families with same-sex parents; I’d like to publish it this year. Also, I just developed a new campaign in collaboration with “It Gets Better”, directed towards LGBT youth. It will be an alliance between “I’m Not a Joke” and “It Gets Better.” Along with that, I have the opportunity to develop a collective project with the organization IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia). It will join artists from all over the world to create art pieces that will present gender-sexual expression as freedom of expression.
In March, shortly after exchanging the emails which have become this interview, Daniel sent us a new poster. Venezuela had been in the news more than usual, as the country’s largest anti-government protests seen in a decade turned violent. With his permission we are publishing the poster here, along with his commentary.
"Media censored and shut down, fractured economy, food and medicinal shortages, more than 25,000 homicides in the year 2013, and two devaluations in less than two years. More than 15 dead in protests at the hands of The National Guard and armed governmental groups. Endangered Human Rights: Right to Life, Equality, Freedom, Honor, and Information."
Nikki Smith is a second-year English major from the Germanic, tubing town of Helen, Ga.