Art In Conversation
Arazel Thalez with Olivier Berggruen and Mebrak Tareke
“The sacred and profane are two sides to the same coin. It is up to the individual to determine what something means to them.”
Arazel Thalez (aka La Deva Arazel) is a Black Indigenous visual and performance artist with particular focus on multimedia painting, vocal arts, acting, and burlesque. Described as a “Technicolor Dream Witch” and “Fetish Muse,” Arazel engages their audience with themes in the realms of the spiritual, the erotic, and the taboo—caught in the tension between the sacred and the profane—encouraging the viewers to “frollick in the shadows of subconscious, for all the darkness is alive.” Arazel was born and raised in Philadelphia where they performed with Philadelphia’s only QTBIPOC burlesque troupe, Raspberry Royale, among others. This interview was conducted over numerous exchanges and has been edited for clarity and concision.
Olivier Berggruen and Mebrak Tareke (Rail): Can you tell us about your interest in aspects of the human experience that are often relegated to the margins by society?
Arazel Thalez: Since my childhood, I have always been interested in the taboo—the arcane, occult, or hidden aspects of humanity. The parts of us that we hide away or pretend no longer exists. In Jungian terminology the sum of those parts is referred to as “the shadow.” I find that most of these shadow traits are not inherently bad or harmful, but are often parts of ourselves that we have learned to believe are unacceptable in some way and therefore we reject or repress them.
An interesting thing that we learn about darkness from the shadow is that whatever it holds still exists, whether or not it is readily seen. It is just as real and just as true as what is already exposed to the light. One of the things often considered the most taboo that I take particular interest in is sexuality. Though it is one of the most beautiful of artistic expressions, it is also one of the most shunned. Maybe because it is also perceived to be one of the most vulnerable expressions of all. Human beings have often shown that we struggle with our own vulnerability and tend to shame ourselves or others for our vulnerable expressions. Eroticism and the uses of it have been around since the beginning of humankind and yet, it seems that many people still have difficulty with its very existence, even though without it we would not exist. Sex and sexuality are as creative and integral to our existence as time itself, and as it is a part of me, it is also expressed in my art.
Rail: Growing up in Philadelphia, how did you develop your interest in Burlesque?
Thalez: I spent my childhood in South Philadelphia primarily, but I've lived all over the city. I’d say my interest in burlesque first began in my early 20s after reading an article online about Black burlesque performers. It inspired thoughts of my maternal great-grandmother, Starletta DePaur, who was actually a performer. She was an interpretive dancer who traveled the world performing. Listening to stories about her and how her performance career ended, coupled with my love of sensual movement, grace, and musicality, fueled my desire to perform and to allow my great-grandmother's spirit to dance through me.
I am also a theater kid and was always into acting in film and theater. I saw the theatrical quality of burlesque shows. I quite enjoy things that tend to intersect, which is why I majored in theater instead of just doing dance or vocal arts. I wanted to be able to act, sing, and dance. I found that burlesque can be a mix of all those things. I suppose I would describe burlesque as “theatrical stripping,” as it is classically performed on a stage and very much centered around the art of “the reveal”—teasing the audience by removing layers of clothing and or using props for “conceal and reveal.” These are things that I also enjoy about it.
Rail: What are some aspects that go into your performances?
Thalez: A key aspect of performance, for me, revolves around storytelling. The music is the most important element to my performances because it helps the storytelling, and my actions and movements further the narrative offered by a song. One of my favorite things to do is to highlight and reframe various dimensions of Christian liturgy and themes, like I have one act where I am the devil masquerading as a priest. The whole act is essentially a sermon, where I am providing warning and a public confession of sorts and as it goes on, I reveal myself to be the devil underneath, which is just an illustration of a few deeper messages. One such message for example, is the reality that for many, their pastor or priest whom they trust with their children and their lives, or even believe to be “ordained by God,” actually cannot be trusted and tends to be “devilish” underneath. But this doesn't only apply to religion; it can apply to any person in a position of authority or power.
Rail: In this theatrical act, is there redemption at the end or not really? Is there just a sense of hope or has the devil taken over for good?
Thalez: I think I tend to leave that up to the audience to decide, but I would say that he was always the devil, it was simply being hidden—and not hidden very well at that!
I also have an act that’s kind of similar where I’m actually a nun who is romantically and sexually obsessed with Jesus. For this act the song used is “#1 Crush” by Garbage. The song, to me, sounds like a prayer, and does a very good job of illustrating the nun’s feelings. The entire act is essentially a nun’s prayer and personal ritual to Jesus, her number one crush. I find that I have a tendency to sexualize and/or fetishize aspects of the church and that comes through in these performances. I like exploring the melding of themes like religion and sexuality because many people do not make such associations and I like to find associations in places that many people generally may not find them.
Rail: I’m interested in the notion of lightness and darkness being related, of a permanent tension within us, not easily resolved, a kind of awareness of alternate states like that of a tightrope walker. How do you bring this awareness into your work?
Thalez: If one were to observe any form of my artistic expression they may see an integration of “light” and “dark” themes, symbols, and imagery, blended in a way that is meant to be harmonious and full. I think my art explores and embraces the light and the dark in others and within myself. I intend to illustrate full integration of our light and our darkness as it is our entire spectrum that makes us human—not parts, pieces, or tones taken out of context. With the bright and vivid colors also comes the dark and the edgy. Two sides of the same moon, infinitely turning as the same form.
Rail: There is a balance between vulnerability and toughness, a pairing of opposites, gravity and grace, fire and ice, radiance and soul. If these are the territories that you navigate, where do you situate yourself, and how are these opposite forces expressed visually and in performance?
Thalez: I can often see expressions of the paradox within life. I like to situate myself within the spaces in between. To essentially become the line between those seemingly opposing states. The spectrum instead of the poles or binaries. As I mentioned before, integration is a theme that is consistent for me. I believe that as human beings, we are all a galaxy of paradox and contradiction. In my work, I like to highlight the likeliness of what is believed to be unlikely or of things not initially considered.
In my visuals, as well as my performance, I enjoy combining many elements that would ordinarily seem to be in contrast with each other by arranging them in a harmonious way. I like exploring the opportunities to see and experience these individual elements in unexpected ways, or to make new associations that one may not have made before.
Rail: You allude to your love of beauty and harmony as something to attain from within. Do you see beauty as universal or is it a construct, by which I mean that the mainstream of Western society has imposed certain norms and ideals of beauty on us at the exclusion of other alternative tropes?
Thalez: Yes. As in, both are true. Beauty itself is a universal experience and a concept. Just like love. However there are constructs of beauty that are determined by certain individuals or groups, their own personal beliefs and associations around beauty, and the power that they hold to influence others with those standards. While beauty itself is universal, what one believes to be beautiful differs between individuals and cultures.
Global European colonization has resulted in the imposition of their cultures—ways of thinking, believing, and perceiving—on many others worldwide and as a result their standards and constructs of beauty are included in that. And we must keep in mind that if something is not universal then it is absolutely exclusive in some way. However, while much of those standards still do indeed permeate the world, it has not truly erased or stopped other standards of beauty from existing, being experienced, or perpetuated.
Rail: Could you speak about the therapeutic value of your work? This also brings to mind territories of transgression. We can evoke Kashmir Shaivism, and certain techniques of channeling energy, including sexual energy, as possible instruments of liberation. Is your practice an example, a way for others to envisage such possibilities? Do you see your work in erotic films as radical and therapeutic in an industry that is mostly commercial?
Thalez: My practice, and that of many others in the communities that I am a part of, are definitely examples of liberation, be they sexual or otherwise, and I find liberation to be therapeutic. Self acceptance and shameless expression are therapeutic. Our expressions are rooted in self-respect and personal empowerment which, in a society that seeks to constantly disempower and shame, is extremely important and healing.
I suppose it depends on which definition of radical we decide to employ. If we mean radical in the sense of relating to the root, origin, or the fundamentals of something, then yes. I find sexual, sensual, and erotic expression to be extremely common and already a part of our fundamental nature. Sex, sexual expression, eroticism, and the like are as old as human existence itself. I don’t believe they were ever truly in short supply. Not being mainstream does not mean that these things are not common or prevalent. I do not consider my desires for adult liberation to be extremist, excessive, nor single minded in any way.
Do I want the repression and oppression of sex, sexuality, and sex workers to cease? Yes, absolutely. Am I calling for the FOSTA-SESTA to be repealed and to allow adults to make their own decisions for their interpersonal relationships? Absolutely. Am I calling for collective healing through the eradication of guilt and shaming tactics and beliefs that separate humans from their fundamental nature? Yes. Am I calling for proper sex education for teens and adults so that folks can express and navigate their sexuality responsibly? Absolutely. If that is considered to be radical then so be it.
Another core aspect of myself and one of the most important is my desire for freedom. I and no other can truly express who we are at our core and we cannot be vulnerable if we do not feel free to do so. Feelings such as fear, guilt, and shame are mechanisms that have often been applied to keep us from our freedom of expression. We in so many ways have been taught that it is shameful for us to be human. That our animal nature makes us less worthy, less beautiful, less perfect, and therefore less deserving. Less deserving of joy, of peace, of pleasure, of being, and of life.
This is a lie. And one that I refuse to perpetuate. It is an illusion, a farce we perpetuate to play into archaic beliefs and platitudes to perfection that are self-destructive and unreal. These beliefs are oppressive, repressive, and harmful, hobbling our humanity and hindering our ability to be truly vulnerable. Hindering our art.
Rail: Then how do we bring about change?
Thalez: A good start is simply having these conversations. It's very difficult to get through to folks who don’t even really want to have the conversations to begin with so just building the comfort around talking about these things can help people open the doors to getting proper education on these matters. I also think that before anything else, being the example for others to observe is important to help inspire change. So let’s walk our talk as much as possible.
I believe we must learn how to express ourselves in healthy and constructive ways and seek to empower ourselves and others, so collective access to the education, therapy, and other resources necessary for healing are also completely necessary for constructive change. Reforming the ideals that power our cultural institutions and releasing the guilt, fear, and shame around ourselves and our intrinsic nature. Effectively processing our emotions, learning how to be compassionate towards ourselves and others, working constructively towards our goals. These are just a few general ideas but that is definitely a large and complex conversation to be had. Overall, true change comes from within so that is where the work needs to be done.
Rail: The fear, guilt, and shame that you speak of are all perpetuated by society, and it is difficult to escape them. But once you do, in your performances, the feeling must be akin to liberation, I imagine. In your burlesque shows, you've created a persona for yourself. Would you explain where your inspiration comes from in terms of visual imagery, as a performer?
Thalez: My inspiration as an artist comes from almost everywhere. I find beauty and interest in a large variety of things—Baroque, goth, Rococo eras, spiritual symbolism, Afrofuturism, kink, BDSM, clothing or imagery from movies like Queen of the Damned and Edward Scissorhands. Nature in all her glorious forms—though lately I’ve been partial to the sky—expressions of sensuality, elegance, power, and grace. I enjoy finding ways in which these interconnect visually and otherwise. The image that I would like to project is one of integration. Maybe it is simply the integration of how my love, attraction to, and appreciation for all of these things converge within me. A glance into my inner melting-pot so to speak. I don’t wish to ever be confined to just one thing, nor do I wish to be defined. I prefer to be experienced and described as the medley of being that I am.
Rail: You mentioned before how important it is to acknowledge and to be in touch with oneself and how to be able to observe feelings. Maybe you can talk more about that?
Thalez: Oh yes. Well I believe that our emotions are integral to the human experience and are meant to be felt. Our emotions are our internal guidance system and not only help us to clarify the experiences we desire to have, they are indicators of our needs and where we are in proximity to those needs being addressed. I do believe that a lot of the rigidity and unhappiness that we experience today historically comes from repression. I find that most people have lived their entire lives being discouraged from expressing their wide range of emotions and as a result they experience a numbness and an inability to identify or process their emotions. That numbing isn’t restricted to uncomfortable feelings, but also includes peacefulness, joy, happiness, excitement, pleasure, or any of our ideal emotions as well. Our most desired life experiences are fueled by our feelings and so we should take the utmost care to honor and make space for them.
I find that a good way to do this is to learn how to validate the feelings that we experience. Instead of believing that we should feel differently, to allow ourselves to simply feel what we are feeling and then explore why we feel that way and what that means about our needs and true desires. Finding healthy and effective ways of expressing and processing our feelings is also important. Writing, art, and therapy are great tools for this.
Rail: You mentioned embracing the light and dark in others and in yourself. But where does this ideology sit when it comes to things like misogyny, for instance, or toxic masculinity? Where do you draw the line?
Thalez: When speaking of embracing or accepting “the dark” in myself or others I am speaking to the acknowledgment and acceptance of all that is true about us and our behavior. We cannot grow or expand if we refuse to acknowledge and accept who we are now in relation to who we want to be. If I cannot identify where I am, I cannot formulate a clear and direct path to my desired destination. I desire to normalize mistakes as an expected and integral part of the learning process for individual and collective evolution. Mistakes are opportunities for growth as they are direct indicators of where growth is needed.
When I consider tools of subjugation such as misogyny, the extremely limiting and harmful application of gender roles, etc., I recall that these are all taught/learned complexes and behaviors, you know, from cultural, social, and institutional constructs that have been formed decades and in some cases centuries before our time.
We are all indoctrinated into these pre-existing psychological systems and conditioned to believe that these ways of thinking are not only normal, but true and correct. We are not born racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc., as we know, but have instead learned these complexes from whatever cultural framework we were raised in. We are taught that this is how we have to be in order to be deemed socially acceptable, but also that thinking in these ways is what it means to be a mature human being and that these learned behaviors and mentalities are essential for survival. If we desire to address any of these social issues, we must consider the source and that the source isn't human nature, but human psychology.
I hold compassion for the unhealthy ways we have all been socially conditioned from childhood. Many of us have been beaten into compliance or haven’t had examples of healthy ways of being. We all perpetuate unhealthy complexes and behaviors that we are collectively unlearning. It can be self condemning and hypocritical to vilify others for perpetuating the same mindsets, ideas and behavior that we all have learned and enacted in some way. Treating people as if they are singularities in a vacuum instead of a reflection of the larger society that we are makes it difficult to address the actual root of these issues because it puts everything on the individual instead of the socio-cultural ideals they were molded by.
I believe that we can show compassion and empathy for each other and simultaneously hold ourselves and each other properly accountable for our behavior. I think where I personally draw the line is with people who do not desire to be better, who are intentionally careless and harmful toward others; those who do not honor consent, are unwilling to do the work to be better, or with folks who are closed-minded or resistant to learning. That is not to say that folks like this are completely unreachable, but I am not qualified nor required to be the person to reach them. That is where the important work of therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists comes into play.
Rail: How do you overcome the tension between being free in your practice and facing criticism for sexualizing non-binary bodies? Your subversive take on genders, sexuality, and body image made us think about the thin line that exists between liberating oneself and performing the very tropes that trapped you in the first place.
Thalez: This is a valid question! I realize if there have been such criticisms, I have not noticed or given much attention to them. Everyone has sexual validity and power, whether they access and express it or not. I am well within my rights to express those things as a non-binary individual and sexualize myself in the ways that I feel are most fitting for myself at the time, and do not conflate myself nor my experience as a non-binary person with any other person’s experience.
Rail: Also, is there scope in your practice for a more sacred reading of sexual freedom, one that separates sex, eroticism, and sensuality from the more crude appropriation of sex as vulgar in pop culture, pornography, etc.? Where do we draw the line between sex as performance and sex/sexuality as divine and sacred?
Thalez: I have a two-part answer to this: I believe that we do not necessarily need to draw that line. Sexuality that is shared with an audience can be just as sacred as sexuality experienced in solitude. I believe that sex, sexuality, and any other modes of sentient being are all inherently sacred and divine as they are all extensions of the divine principles themselves. I do not believe that anything is truly separate from spirit. Even other humans that we do not much like are sacred.
When considering the definition, sacred is usually coupled with spiritual/religious connotation and more specifically Christian and Catholic principles. What Christians consider to be sacred can be very different from what a Buddhist or a Pagan considers to be sacred and I find the term is mostly utilized for unfair, shame-based moral judgments than for useful, expansive intentions.
While sexuality can be made into a parody or a mockery and can be approached irreverently, (as it has often been in many mainstream cases) so can anything else, and that reality does not change the actuality that it is and will always be a beautiful sacred act of expression. One’s ability to see or act with reverence and respect for something is not what determines the value or validity of that thing.
The second point that I will make is that the sacred and profane are two sides to the same coin. It is honestly up to the individual to determine what something means to them. Morality, meaning, sacredness—all of these things are contingent on various circumstances. What one individual finds to be empowering for themselves another may find to be embarrassing. It is about the individual and how they choose to honor their own individual expression. I am in no position to dictate what is empowering or dishonoring to another in absolutes, and my doing so would be indicative only of my personal perception.
If I were to make a distinction, I'd feel the only two I would make are: “Are the acts taking place consensual?” and “Are these people present in what they are doing? Are they truly connected to themselves, their partner or the actions taking place?” Maybe that is what truly separates the sacred from the profane—a depth of connection.