It is February and Daniel Arzola, a renowned Venezuelan LGBTQ artist whose name is pronounced “Danielle,” is delivering his keynote speech at the University of Alberta. Basel Abou Hamrah, a member of an LGBTQ group for refugees in Edmonton, stands nearby with many others from his organization. What he hears Arzola say echoes his own life. “He inspired me and he inspired the group members, how he stands for LGBTQ rights in his country, and lots of us, we saw him as a mirror of ourselves,” Hamrah says.
Arzola’s story and his ‘I Am Not a Joke’ project connects powerfully with displaced LGBTQ peoples, especially those who have fled their home countries to escape persecution, as he did, only to find elements of it remain. This connection is why Arzola’s visit to Edmonton for International Week 2018, during which he visited elementary and junior high schools as well as conducted a workshop and gave a keynote address at the University of Alberta, has affected so many to this day.
Arzola’s own tale is of moving and, only later, of connecting. He grew up, in his own definition, queer in Venezuela, a country where he says those from the LGBTQ community are treated as punchlines or as objects of hate. The oppression intensified to the point that guns were pointed at his head on several occasions. So, at 24, after enduring years of such targeted aggression, Arzola fled to Chile, where he is today able to live and work.
He connects with people most viscerally through his art, which he describes as ‘artivism’ — a nonviolent action to assert his rights and create transformation. “It is taking an idea and adding it to the power of art,” Arzola says, from his home in Chile. “Art has the ability to transcend, however it is fragile — a single match can destroy the Mona Lisa, but it cannot destroy the idea of the Mona Lisa, because it exists in our mind. So, what if you create art in a format that cannot be destroyed and you add a social message?”
Arzola’s main artivism project, ‘I Am Not a Joke’, is a series of 50 posters that are blunt, colourful and raw. Each state the problem as Arzola sees it — “Respect is not a Crime/ It’s a Right” or “Nobody has the right to hurt you for being different” — and then hammers it home with a consistent message: “I Am Not a Joke.” The posters have been distributed worldwide and translated into 20 languages. They won Arzola the 2016 Human Rights Award of the International Queer and Migrant Film Festival in Amsterdam.
University of Alberta graduate Thomas Trombetta says as soon ashe came out to friends and family he also came across Arzola’s work, and says he felt so moved by it that he eventually had it tattooed on his arm. The reverence only grew from there.
Back in 2016, as he worked with the Augustana Queers and Allies group to organize that year’s Pride Week events, he reached out to Arzola on a lark. “We wanted to bring activism through art and I figured there’s nobody better than Daniel, so I contacted him and told him what our plans were.” Trombetta doubted Arzola would even respond, but surprisingly, Arzola wrote back, and even better, wanted to participate.
From there came the first exhibit of Arzola’s work in Canada and an ongoing friendship between the two. But as they talked over WhatsApp, Trombetta slowly learned Arzola dreamed of visiting Canada. He approached the Global Education Program and together they realized Arzola was an ideal fit for 2018 International Week, as there was an open slot for a keynote speaker.
“It aligned perfectly. I don’t think I was instrumental – his work speaks for itself – but I proposed the idea and a group of people made it happen,” Trombetta says. And as he watched the events he says he saw queer and trans people of colour affected by Arzola’s art. “His work is really inclusive of different communities.”
During his Edmonton visit, Arzola created a 51st poster for his series, which he unveiled at his keynote address. “It was indeed my first visit to Canada and, for me, Canada was always a beacon of hope in the north of the world,” he says. “Since I was little, [Canada] always meant a lot to me, since I was born and raised in Venezuela. I think I would have liked to be able to stay longer. There were many people I could not talk to. The energy of the people was so beautiful, and I wanted to be able to talk to everyone. I think I vibrated a lot with them because you always fall in love the same way, and for the migrants that come from such violent places, Canada has that effect on you, it makes you fall in love.”
Back in Chile, Arzola says the situation in his native Venezuela has deteriorated. It is not only persecution against LGBTQ peoples that concerns him. It’s almost everything. “There is a great humanitarian crisis,” he says. “No medicine, there is no food, a phone is enough reason to kill you, and if all this adds up to be LGBTQ there is an extra level of difficulty. For me to go out and see the markets with food, and pharmacies with medicine, is not normal — because in Venezuela it is not normal. But in the rest of the world it is normal, to go out without fear, because living with fear is not living completely.”
With this as the backdrop, he says he hopes to come back to Canada. “You should always go back to the places where you loved life, and I fell in love with life being there,” he says. “It did not scare me at all, not even so much snow, it was the first time in my life that I saw that much snow. There is something special in those places where you can live without fear, you always want to return.”