DePaul Vera described his public image like this: “I’m known as this bubbly, hyper person that is just love all over.” A graduate student in the University of Nevada, Reno’s art department, he’s easygoing and quick to laugh.
Vera also contends with some ongoing difficulty, though—a lot of which is encapsulated in the title of a collage he made right after the Charlottesville riots in August: “Here I Am, Enjoying Graduate School, But I Have to Deal With This, And So It’s Time To Save The World.”
Vera—who is 25, black, gay and originally from Kentucky—said he didn’t intentionally set out to classify himself as a political artist. But after he moved from a racially mixed town to Reno, where only around 3 percent of the population is African-American, an inescapable feeling of otherness set in.
“Just existing as a queer person of color is political in itself,” he said. “The fact is, literally, me breathing is a political statement to some people. So, after the circumstances of the Charlottesville riots, I just felt like I had to make that piece.”
The piece is a digital collage. The background is an old photograph of hooded Klansmen with arms outstretched so that they form a human barricade. A cross burns behind them. It’s a pretty typical image of Klansmen—except the power dynamic is flipped. A nude, muscular black male in the foreground is not in peril, but in a position to have the next word. He stands on a tree stump that serves as a pulpit, striking a relaxed, confident pose and holding against his hip a star-spangled volleyball.
“I was thinking, me being my fun self, how would I approach the Klan?” Vera said. “I would want to serve it up with this volleyball, one by one. Let’s go, guys.”
In others images, Vera’s placed black bodies—often muscular, nude, male ones—in various configurations. He’s asserting that it’s about time for members of his race and orientation to be seen as normal. “Mostly when you look at advertisements or the media, black people are portrayed as below the poverty line,” he said. “And I think that is absolutely ridiculous.” Likewise, he said, in media portrayals of gay men, they tend to be white.
Vera said he tries to strike a balance between claiming his place in the public eye and not visually assaulting viewers. The feedback he’s gotten from grad school peers and social media followers has been all over the map. Some are offended. Some are impressed. Some wish he would include bodies that aren’t built like models.
“As a designer, you know, you try to do things effectively, you try to design effectively,” he said. “And I’m trying not to beat people over the head, but to give them room to breathe as well as put some intense content in front of their faces.”
He understands what a tricky balancing act he’s trying to strike. He keeps experimenting with different ways to be approachable as a person and assertive in message—collaging together elements of history and fantasy, circulating work online, hanging it on gallery walls, maybe getting it onto a billboard someday. And he’s crystal clear on his reasons to keep taking on the challenge: “’cause it’s just swept under the rug so much here.”