Activists protest against censorship in front of Santander Cultural, after it caved in to pressure from conservatives and cancelled the exhibition about sexual diversity. Photo: Sul 21, published with permission.
Two art exhibitions were the target of conservative groups’ anger in September in Brazil, sparking a heated debate on social media over artistic freedom and censorship.
First, the exhibition “Queermuseum – Mapping Difference in Brazilian Art”, about gender and sexual diversity, was cancelled abruptly on 10 September after pressure from right-wing groups which accused the artists of promoting paedophilia, bestiality, pornography and blasphemy against religious symbols.
The groups organized protests at Santander bank's cultural centre in Porto Alegre, where the exhibition was held. Bank branches were also graffitied and pelted with stones.
Weeks later, the criticisms turned to the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo after a video of the performance “La Bête” went viral, in which choreographer Wagner Schwartz let the public manipulate his naked body. The images show a child and mother playing with the hands and feet of the artist.
A crowd of people protested in front of the Museum of Modern Art on 29 and 30 September, and there were reports of attacks against employees and visitors of the museum which, in contrast to Santander in Porto Alegre, did not cancel the exhibition “Brasil em Multiplicação” – Schwartz’s performance was held during its opening on 26 September.
The campaigns targeting both exhibitions were headed by websites and Facebook pages linked to religious and conservative movements, in particular Movimento Brasil Livre (Free Brazil Movement), which was at the forefront of the demonstrations in 2015 calling for the impeachment of ex-President Dilma Rousseff.
Despite having described itself as a liberal movement – which in Latin America mainly means defending minimal government – MBL has consistently taken conservative stances, for example positioning itself against the legalization of abortion or education policies regarding gender in school.
Santander released an official statement justifying the cancellation of the Queermuseum exhibition:
Conservative groups accused the Queermuseum exhibition of defending paedophilia. Photo: Sul21, published with permission.
According to the Museum of Modern Art's official statement, the performance “La Bête” took place in a labeled room, indicating the presence of artistic nudity:
The debate reached such a scale that right-wing politicians also decided to support a boycott – such as the mayor of São Paulo, João Dória, elected in 2016 with support from the Free Brazil Movement, who in a video called the performance “libidinous”.
In the country's capital Brasilia on 3 October, members of the Chamber of Deputies expressed their views on the controversy, with some openly defending the idea of torturing Schwartz. A deputy from the Republican Party, Laerte Bessa, who is a former police marshal, stated in the assembly:
The situation has given progressives in Brazil reason to worry; they see support for their side waning against the rise of conservative forces on social media, in the streets and in formal politics.
Sign referring to the work “Criança Viada”, one of the most attacked by those opposed to the exhibition “Queermuseu”. Photo: Sul21, published with permission.
Among the 263 works of the Queermuseum exhibition, running since 24 August, were the creations of contemporary artists Adriana Varejão and Bia Leite, who are regularly attacked online.
Varejão’s painting “Scenes from the Inside II”, done in 1994, portrays different sex scenes between Japanese characters, black and white men, and a goat. In an interview with the newspaper Zero Hour, the artist stated: