Parts of Latin and South America are making progress with regard to LGBTI rights: specifically with the slow spread of marriage equality across the continent.
However, societal attitudes can often lag behind legal advances.
Artist Daniel Arzola knows this only too well.
He was born and raised in the Venezuelan city of Maracay. As a child, he loved to draw and paint, but often found himself singled out for his love or art and being different.
Regular bullying culminated at the age of 15 in a horrific attack.
‘They took off my shoes and burned me with cigarettes on my genitals’
‘A group of neighbors tried to burn me alive,’ he tells me down the phone.
‘They tied me to electrical post. They took off my shoes and burned me with cigarettes on my genitals, and destroyed all my drawings,’ he says.
Arzola was able to escape, but the experience left him scarred. Until that point, he says drawing was his way of communicating with the world.
During the attack, his assailants destroyed his drawings. Arzola stopped creating art, despondent that months of work had been so easily destroyed in a matter of seconds.
‘I call it artivism – you cannot destroy it’
It wasn’t until six years later that he began to make art again, but this time he did so digitally, realizing that images could be saved and preserved online – avoiding the risk of them ever being destroyed.
‘I call it artivism – you cannot destroy it.’
Arzola’s work often depicted positive images LGBT people. He says that growing up, gay men were only depicted as targets of ridicule or as jokes figures on TV shows.
In 2013, aged 23, he started producing a series of 50 illustrations entitled No Soy Tu Chiste. The images addressed LGBT issues in Venezuela, and presented a more positive image of gay life and love. It translates as ‘I’m Not A Joke’.
‘I always say Madonna changed my life’
To his shock, in October 2013, Madonna saw one of the images and tweeted about it, saying ‘this art is no joke i love this @Arzola_d.’
That one Tweet changed Arzola’s life. In the course of just a few days, he received media inquiries from all over the world and dozens of requests for interviews.
However, that spotlight bought him to the attention of Venezuelan authorities. He says he began to receive threats. Mindful of his previous experiences, Arzola decided he had to leave.
‘I always say Madonna changed my life. When she shared my work on Twitter, people started asking for interviews with me. One of them was RNW (Radio Netherlands Worldwide) in Amsterdam – and they helped me get out of Venezuela and go to the Netherlands.’
Arzola’s obvious talent led to offers of work from all over the world. After spending a few months in Amsterdam in 2014, he travelled to Argentina. In 2015, he relocated to Chile. He says his work contract there is soon coming to an end and he is considering his next move.
Recently, he created his most high-profile work yet. He was honored to be asked by the city of Buenos Aires to create a mural of the LGBTI activist Carlos Jaúregui.
The city had decided to re-name one of its subway stations in honor of the campaigner. Jaúregui was the first president of Comunidad Homosexual Argentina, before his death from AIDS in 1996.
It turned to Arzola, who had previously done drawings of Jaúregui, to create a 12meter by 4meter mural
— Daniel Arzola (@Arzola_d) March 27, 2017
‘It was amazing,’ he says of the commission. ‘I never get that sort of recognition in my country. Argentina is very progressive compared to Venezuela.
In Latin America, we don’t have a strong identity of LGBT history, but Jaúregui was sort of our Harvey Milk. He was talking about marriage equality back in the 1980s, which was really brave.
‘I drew him, and then people in the Argentinian government asked me if they could use this illustration for this new campaign, and then they said they were changing the name of the station and asked me to make the mural.’
As for the future, Arzola is excited to be working with Logo TV on some animations of his work as part of the channel new Trailblazer Honors project.
He’s also been asked by GSN to design this year’s Pride tote bags. In previous years, Gay Star News has featured celebrity drawings or images on the bags. This year, it decided it wanted to showcase the work or a rising LGBTI artist.
Arzola’s design will be unveiled during the upcoming Digital Pride festival.
However, before either of those, he has a more pressing concern.
‘I just want to get my passport back. It expired last year and I had to send it back to Venezuela for renewal last November, but I’ve heard nothing.’
He believes it’s another way in which authorities are trying to make life difficult for him. Rather than seeing progress, he says he feels like Venezuela is going backward.
‘It’s getting worse. Venezuela is a dictatorship. It may look like a democracy because we have elections, but if you think different, they disappear you, or you go to jail, or they threaten you.
‘Even now, they are sabotaging my future because I have been asking for my passport since November. I have my first exhibition in San Francisco in June, but they’re just ignoring me. Unless I can travel, I am close to losing my exhibition.’