Venezuelan artist and activist Daniel Arzola said the world needs “more artists and less martyrs” at an event hosted by the Northwestern University Community for Human Rights on Saturday.
The talk was the closing keynote address of the three-day conference “Art x Human Rights: Propaganda, Power, & Protest,” focusing on the intersection of art and human rights. More than 70 people attended the address hosted at the McCormick Foundation Center.
NUCHR executive co-director Maria Fantozzi said NUCHR’s 18-member executive board had been planning the conference for the last eight months with the intention of highlighting the voices of marginalized peoples.
“We’ve been struck by this weekend (and it) has been an incredible emphasis on listening and how all of us really can work harder just to become more empathetic and more critical listeners,” the Weinberg senior said.
Arzola spoke about his experiences with “artivism” — a term he coined to describe his artwork — and spoke about his journey as an artist fighting for his cause.
“Artivism is more than a mix between art and activism,” Arzola said. “Activism appeals to your reason, but artivism appeals to your emotion because all people feel in the same language.”
Arzola said drawing was the only way he felt he could communicate with people, but there was a time when that was not the case.
A traumatic experience in his adolescence prompted Arzola to nearly abandon his art. When he was 15 years old, he said he was attacked by some of his neighbors who tied him to an electric pole, undressed him and used cigarettes to burn his genitals. One of his attackers suggested that they should burn him alive along with all of his drawings.
Although Arzola found a way to escape from his attackers, he gave up drawing for seven years following the incident.
“I understood the fragility of art and the fragility of the body because, what it takes you to create in one month, someone can destroy in just one minute,” Arzola said.
Arzola said it wasn’t until he read a story about a boy in his city who was burned alive for being gay that he realized he needed to do something. He started creating digital illustrations and posters that grew to become “No Soy Tu Chiste” or “I’m Not a Joke”— a series of campaign posters in support of the LGBTQ community that drew global attention through social media, more than 20 translations and even the endorsement of Madonna on Twitter.
The “I’m Not a Joke” series was a rebellion against media in Venezuela, which Arzola said had a the lack of LGBTQ representation and showed LGBTQ people as stereotypes. Artivism became Arzola’s response to violence, a way to “fight back” using nonviolent action.
“This is the only way I found to break the cycle of violence, because if you fight violence against violence, you’re not fighting. You lose the battle,” Arzola said. “There’s a lot of people out there also saying to us that our differences make us enemies but I think diversity is the greatest expression of freedom.”
In the past, NUCHR’s annual conference focused on more “traditional” human rights topics like the environment and social justice, said Katie Mayer, the group’s other executive co-director. The Weinberg senior added that the focus on art “breathed life” into the conference and gave a new perspective on human rights issues.
“I think we see with Daniel … that yes, there’s hopelessness in this world, but art is how you overcome that,” Mayer said. “Art is an answer, and so I think to have a conference centered on something that really is a solution and a beacon of hope — that’s how I want to talk about human rights.”
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