Censorship in Brazil: five responses

Recent instances of censorship show an emboldened far right attacking the arts, queer identity and more: artists, curators and writers respond

Today, many Brazilians still remember the repressive military dictatorship that ruled the country from April 1964 to March 1985. It is therefore profoundly disturbing that the current government of Michel Temer – who seized power through the rancorous impeachment of his political rival, Dilma Roussef last year – should be using antidemocratic tactics to curb the rights of its citizens and limit their freedom of expression. When Temer appointed his all-white, all-male cabinet, he abolished the Ministry of Culture, until protests by artists, musicians and others (including the occupation of that Ministry’s headquarters and the staging of an ‘insurrectionary opera’) forced him to rescind the order. Now the arts are newly threatened by right wing factions who, emboldened by the government, have called for the censorship and punishment of artists and cultural institutions.

We invited five artists, writers and curators to provide their own responses to the unfolding situation. Below is a timeline of recent key developments:

10 September  Santander Cultural, Porto Alegre closes the exhibition ‘Queermuseu: Cartografias da Diferença na Arte Brasileira’ (Queer Museum: Cartographies of Difference in Brazilian Art) a month early, after facing mounting pressure from right wing groups who deny the legitimacy of queer identity.

1 October  Protests erupt at the Museum of Modern Art, São Paulo after a video circulates on social media of Wagner Schwartz’s performance La Bête (2017) on 26 September, during which a four-year-old girl – accompanied by her mother, an artist – approaches the naked Schwartz and touches his hand and foot. The mayor of São Paulo accuses Schwartz of ‘paedophilia’ and threatens to cut funding from the museum.

20 October  The exhibition ‘Histories of Sexuality’ opens at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). Facing significant pressure from right wing groups and local authorities, the museum restricts entrance to those 18 years of age and older. (The museum has since changed the policy to permit minors under adult supervision.) At the exhibition’s opening, a group of artists, protesting the decision, read a manifesto, now signed by more than 1200 members of Brazil’s creative industries. Read it in full here.

7 November  Philosophers Judith Butler and Wendy Brown are accosted by right wing protesters at Congonhas Airport, São Paulo, when they arrive to participate in a symposium at SESC Pompeia. Later, outside SESC, a mob burns an effigy of Butler.

Fernanda Brenner
Lucia Koch
Jonathas de Andrade
Lilia Moritz Schwarcz
Renata Lucas

'Queermuseum: Queer Tactics Toward Non-Heteronormative Curating', Santander Cultural, Porto Alegre, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Santander Cultural

'Queermuseum: Queer Tactics Toward Non-Heteronormative Curating', Santander Cultural, Porto Alegre, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Santander Cultural

'Queermuseum: Queer Tactics Toward Non-Heteronormative Curating', Santander Cultural, Porto Alegre, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Santander Cultural, Porto Alegre

Fernanda Brenner
Fernanda Brenner is as an independent curator and artistic director based in São Paulo. In 2012, she founded Pivô, a non-profit contemporary art space in São Paulo, where she serves as artistic director. In the past 5 years, Pivô has hosted more than 50 projects, including exhibitions, lectures and artists’ residencies. Brenner also recently curated 'So Far So Good' at White Cube, São Paulo and ‘Neither’ at Mendes Wood DM, Brussels. 

The Brazilian writer Antonio Prata recently wrote a text drawing playful parallels between the collapse of the Brazilian football team’s reputation (after its unbelievable 7-1 rout by the Germans in the 2014 World Cup) and the implosion of the country’s political establishment. Around the time that match took place, I remember seeing the cover of The Economist depicting  Rio de Janeiro’s monumental Cristo Redentor statue plunging to earth like a rocket, with the caption: ‘Has Brazil Blown It?’ The days when our worst worry was ex-President Dilma Rousseff’s fecklessness now feel like a nostalgic past. Current President Michel Temer recently loosened what the Brazilian government defines as ‘slave-like work’ to buy the support of a powerful agribusiness lobby, and Senator Aécio Neves returned to his seat in Congress last week, after being caught on tape asking for a R$2 million bribe – just two surreal examples of the changes we read about every day in the newspaper.

The dark cloud that hangs over the country’s politics has been fed by a rising far-right wing that uses social media to unite evangelical Christians, followers of Free Brazil Movement (a group of young free market liberals known for organizing street demonstrations calling for the impeachment of Roussef) and supporters of the anti-gay, pro-torture military colonel and congressman Jair Bolsonaro. This explosive ‘fake news-generating machine’ is now organizing hateful and intolerant attacks on the artistic community, jeopardizing not only freedom of expression but individual civil rights that the Brazilian people had struggled for decades to secure. Under the false pretense of representing the ‘Traditional Brazilian Family’, these groups have been violently and persistently assaulting a number of artists and cultural institutions all over the country. By deviating attention from the atrocities committed by the National Congress, these ‘new moralists’ are attempting to reestablish ‘quieter’ censorship mechanisms through intimidation and public defamation of the artistic community. The country’s scarce cultural funding mechanisms have been gradually dismantled by an anemic Ministry of Culture.

In recent months, the ‘Queermuseu’ exhibition at Santander Bank’s cultural centre in Porto Alegre was closed a month ahead of schedule, and employees of São Paulo’s Museum of Modern Art (MAM) were physically and verbally assaulted by protesters that claimed the performance of Wagner Schwartz’s La Bête (2017), ‘incites paedophilia’. Since these cases unfolded the artistic community has stood strong in opposition to these threats – from filing lawsuits to organizing protests and petitions. One of the strongest gestures was an open letter denouncing censorship in the arts, co-authored by a group of artists and cosigned by more than 1000 key members of the Brazilian cultural establishment. The document was read aloud in the National Congress by deputy Paulo Teixeira from the Workers Party, and that same night was read by artist Renata Lucas at the opening of the exhibition ‘Histories of Sexuality’ at MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo). That show recently succumbed to conservative pressure and restricted entrance to those over 18, against the will of its curators. Though we still do not know where such resistance will lead, and the complex situation at hand requires focused strategy, it is refreshing to see this kind of engagement in a battle that is far from won. 

Victor Meirelles, Moema, 1866, oil on canvas, 130 x 197 cm. Courtesy: São Paulo Museum of Art

Victor Meirelles, Moema, 1866, oil on canvas, 130 x 197 cm. Courtesy: São Paulo Museum of Art

Victor Meirelles, Moema, 1866, oil on canvas, 1.3 x 2 m, included in ‘Histories of Sexuality’, São Paulo Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy: São Paulo Museum of Art

Lucia Koch
Lucia Koch is an artist who lives and works in São Paulo, Brazil. Her work is currently included in ‘Condemned to be Modern’ at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, as part of ‘Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA’.

Censorship of art is not new to those of us who lived through 21 years of a vicious dictatorship in Brazil, so we know how much it can affect our lives. Ironically, the 1964 military coup d'etat was officially named ‘the Revolution’. Then and now we must call a spade a spade: the parliamentary coup we are now facing in Brazil was consummated with the impeachment of elected president Dilma Roussef in 2016, an episode full of sexism and violence, and the new regime has imposed itself through all kinds of threats to human rights. Recent changes to labour laws approved by the Congress have made it easier to avoid fairly compensating workers. Every day brings outrageous news, such as a judge’s authorization of gay conversion therapy (the infamous ‘cura gay’ that takes homosexuality as a disease), in spite of the fact that Brazil had legalized same-sex marriage in 2013.

This context is bolstering right-wing and religious groups who are calling for censorship in museums and theatres, claiming to speak for ‘the Brazilian family’ but in fact trying to deprive Brazilian citizens and families of art and culture, by attacking exhibitions, artworks, artists and public institutions, and harassing those who frequent them.

People should have free access to art, protected by solid cultural institutions that resist such attacks and offer meaningful programmes and collections to the public without restrictions, providing a space for debate that is open and inclusive. That’s the only way to develop a critical approach to art, as to life.

Wagner Schwartz, La Bête, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: the artist

Wagner Schwartz, La Bête, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: the artist

Wagner Schwartz, La Bête, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: the artist

Jonathas de Andrade
Jonathas de Andrade is an artist who lives and works between Recife and São Paulo, Brazil. In 2016, his work was included in the 32nd São Paulo Biennial, and in 2017 he had solo exhibitions at The Power Plant, Toronto, the New Museum, New York and Museo Jumex, Mexico City.

Art has been falsely targeted by right-wing groups that believe all nudity and expressions of queer sexuality or non-normative gender identity must be punished or banned. It’s a clear strategy to moralize public discourse and deviate attention from the fact that Brazil has been drowning in unbelievable political and social losses: the ongoing genocide of indigenous communities, the sale and destruction of forests, the breakdown of workers’ rights and the absurd corruption of a rotten political elite beholden to the interests of evangelical Christians and powerful landowners. The recent censorship of exhibitions, artworks and cultural institutions is very serious. It echoes a dictatorship the country has never overcome. It is urgent that we all fight back.

‘Histories of Sexuality’, São Paulo Museum of Art, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: São Paulo Museum of Art

‘Histories of Sexuality’, São Paulo Museum of Art, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: São Paulo Museum of Art

‘Histories of Sexuality’, São Paulo Museum of Art, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: São Paulo Museum of Art

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz
Lilia Moritz Schwarcz is an historian and Professor of social anthropology at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. She is a founder of the publishing house Companhia das Letras and a co-curator of ‘Histories of Sexuality’ at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP).

The democratic wholesomeness of a country can be gauged from the strength of its institutions and their capacity to contain hatred and to eradicate censorship. Several examples from history show how dictatorial periods were heralded by authoritarian measures that seemed, at first, mere minor details. They were not.

The current political situation in Brazil sadly reminds us of these moments of democratic suspension. Our institutions are slack, government is aimless, and the segments of the population exhibit intolerance and an incapacity for dialogue. In similar contexts, the arts are often the first to be attacked. Nazi Germany closed art exhibitions and labelled them ‘degenerate’. In Brazil today, instead of confronting the serious social problems that afflict the country – femicide, racism, homophobia, the rape of women and children, paedophilia – politicians have found it easier to censor exhibitions responsibly mounted by public institutions of recognized cultural importance. A number of rights that we thought were secure are in fact now at risk. Art, however, remains capable of expressing and transgressing such conditions, showing the way forward for a diverse, inclusive and uncensored Brazil.

Ayrson Heráclito, Gaye com Folhas Gu, 2015, fine art print with mineral pigment on paper, 195 x 110 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Portas Vilaseca Galeria and São Paulo Museum of Art

Ayrson Heráclito, Gaye com Folhas Gu, 2015, fine art print with mineral pigment on paper, 195 x 110 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Portas Vilaseca Galeria and São Paulo Museum of Art

Ayrson Heráclito, Gaye com Folhas Gu, 2015, fine art print with mineral pigment on paper, 195 x 110 cm, included in ‘Histories of Sexuality’, 2017, São Paulo Museum of Art. Courtesy: the artist and Cortesia Portas Vilaseca Galeria, Rio de Janeiro

Renata Lucas
Renata Lucas is an artist who lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The most important thing to say is that the recent attacks on freedom of expression do not happen in isolation: they come in the wake of a series of attacks on individual, civil and social rights in Brazil. Politicians and the right wing groups to which they are beholden have made working conditions increasingly precarious, reduced labour rights, and relaxed rules that restrict slave labour; threatened teachers in schools (interfering in the curricula under the slogan ‘school without party’); threatened the rights of LGBT people; attacked the reproductive rights of women (who are about to lose the right to abortion in cases of rape, malformation or risky pregnancy) and the rights of indigenous people; and sought to open mineral reserves under forest protection for extraction.The attacks have not come out of the blue either. For some time now we have been aware of reactionary and undemocratic militias that have been growing in strength since they first demonstrated against former President Dilma Roussef in 2013, and then took power in national and federal government in 2015, embarking on a sexist, misogynist, sordid campaign that was widely supported by the media and public figures of great responsibility, segments of Pentecostal churches, entrepreneurs and industry representatives, the police and the judiciary – and resulted in the parliamentary coup that deposed the democratically elected Rousseff.

Attacks on artists and cultural institutions are not limited to violent incursions into exhibitions. Although right wing groups have called for the abrupt closure of exhibitions and shows – and even the persecution and imprisonment of artists on the basis of ‘blasphemy’, ‘paedophilia’ and ‘bestiality’ – this is just the spectacular/mediatic component of the project, which among other things serves as a smokescreen for the predatory actions of an illegitimate government that these groups want to keep in power. This systematic attack on art and culture was already underway on a more structural level, with the programmatic suppression of cultural promotion and the dismantling of entire classes that depend almost entirely on incentive programmes: musicians, actors, dancers, visual artists and others who have witnessed successive budget cuts at federal, state and municipal levels.

But as we examine the funding of museums and other cultural institutions, the issue takes on another complexity. While Santander Cultural in Porto Alegre closed the show ‘Queermuseu’ immediately when confronted with public opinion, the same militant right wing groups later attacked the Museum of Modern Art (MAM, SP), and the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) restricted access to minors (even when accompanied by parents) to the exhibition ‘Histories of Sexuality’ before the show even opened. Days after the inauguration of the exhibition, when there was a large protest led by artists who published a letter in repudiation of the actions of these antidemocratic groups, one of the members of the museum’s board (a businessman accused of exploiting slave labour during the previous administration and one of the greatest enthusiasts of the campaign for Roussef’s impeachment), published a text in Folha de São Paulo titled ‘The communist is naked’ in which he denounced cultural production and the ‘politically correct discourse in schools’ as ‘subjects of the same book, which aims at cultural hegemony as a means of achieving communism.’

Main image: Maria Auxiliadora, Três mulheres (detail), 1972. Included in ‘Histories of Sexuality’, São Paulo Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy: São Paulo Museum of Art

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