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In early August, the cultural center Santander Cultural in Porto Alegre, Brazil, opened an exhibition on queer art. Featuring 85 artists and 263 artworks ranging from the mid-20th century to today, Queermuseum: Queer Tactics Toward Non-Heteronormative Curating was anchored, as curator Gaudêncio Fidelis put it in the catalogue, “in a concept we believe dearly: diversity observed under the aspects of variety, plurality, and difference.” The exhibition featured prominent artists such as Lygia Clark, Cândido Portinari, and José Leonilson, alongside lesser known, contemporary ones. It was the first major exhibition dedicated to queer art in Brazil — until it was shut down yesterday, September 10, almost one month before its planned end date.
Santander Cultural, a gallery space sponsored by the eponymous Spanish bank, decided to close Queermuseum after receiving an onslaught of vitriolic criticism on social media and from gallery visitors last week. People have accused the artwork of being offensive as well as harmful to children, citing blasphemy, pedophilia, and bestiality. One of Santander’s buildings was recently tagged with the phrases “the Santander Bank supports pedophilia” and “they are antichrists.” Behind these protests is the libertarian group Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL), which has gained traction throughout the country ever since it drew mass support of former President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. “Pedophilia, zoophilia, and the sexualization of children definitely do NOT represent the LGBT universe,” the group wrote earlier today on its Facebook page.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Fidelis, the curator, said he hadn’t been consulted by Santander and was caught off-guard by its decision. According to Fidelis, during the 25 days that the exhibition had been up, there had been no complaints. It wasn’t until last Wednesday that members of MBL began infiltrating the exhibition, assaulting visitors, and taking videos of the exhibition and posting them to Facebook.
In one video, three men pan over the artworks, exclaiming, “See for yourself whether this is art!” Among the images they linger on are Adriana Varejão’s 1994 painting depicting gay and interracial sex and Antonio Obá’s “Et Verbum” (2011), where communion wafers are scrawled with words such as “vulva,” “tongue,” and “asshole.” “This guy should be in jail,” one of the men says, referring to Fidelis. “They are perverting the notions of family.”
Amid intensifying online debate on Sunday, Santander announced on Facebook its decision to take down the exhibition. In the statement, it apologizes to those who felt disrespected and ultimately concludes that Queermuseum was “not in line with our view of the world.” Ironically, Santander critiques the exhibition, which celebrated marginalized artists, for not being “inclusive” and not “generating positive reflection.” The statement, which is worth reading in its entirety, is translated in full below:
In the last days, we’ve received various critiques about the exhibition Queermuseu – Cartografias da diferença na Arte Brasileira. We are sincerely sorry to all of those who felt offended by any artwork included in the display.
The aim of Santander Cultural is to encourage the arts and promote debate around the big questions of the contemporary world, and not generate any type of disrespect or discord. Our role, as a cultural space, is to shed light on the work of curators and Brazilian artists to inspire reflection. We have always done this without interfering in the content to preserve the independence of its authors, and this has been the most efficient way of delivering innovative work of quality to the public.
This time, however, we heard the complaints and understand that some of the works in the exhibition Queermuseu disrespected symbols, beliefs, and people, which is not in line with our view of the world. When art is not capable of being inclusive and generating positive reflection, it loses its greatest purpose, which is to elevate the human condition.
The Santander Cultural does not support one type of art, but art in its plurality, grounded in the profound respect we have for each individual. For this reason, we’ve decided to close the exhibition this Sunday, 09/10. However, we guarantee to continue to be committed to the promotion of the debate around diversity and other big contemporary themes.
When asked what he thought of Santander’s official statement, Fidelis said, “I found it labyrinthine.” According to him, Santander had been closely involved with the planning of the exhibition, and knew about every artwork that was going to be included. “To be clear,” he said, “I don’t consider the exhibition to be polemical in any way.”
Fidelis believes Santander has created a scary precedent with how it chose to deal with far-right criticism. “We’ve closed off dialogue,” he said. “During the time of the dictatorship we had all sorts of problems — censorship, etc. — but nothing quite on this scale, all done in one stroke.”
Meanwhile, Queermuseum has generated plenty of local support and social media users have organized a counter-protest to take place tomorrow, September 12, outside the Santander Cultural.