In September, conservative critics in Brazil caused the country’s largest exhibition dedicated to queer art to shut down. People accused the display at the Santander Cultural art space, in Porto Alegre, of being blasphemous and harmful to children.
Titled Queermuseum, the exhibition featured 263 modern and contemporary artworks, including pieces by renowned artists Lygia Clark and José Leonilson. Far-right critics accused the exhibition of “perverting the notions of the family,” citing images of homosexual and interracial sex; profane language; and appropriations of Catholic imagery. As a result, Queermuseum closed one month earlier than planned. The curator, Gaudêncio Fidelis, was not notified or consulted by the cultural center of its decision. The event shook the country’s art community, which is still dealing with the consequences.
This Thursday, November 23, Fidelis will appear before the senate in the capital, Brasília, to be investigated for the “Mistreatment of Children and Teenagers.” He was summoned by the CPI, an investigative committee of Congress, whose president is the right-leaning Senator Magno Malta, an evangelical pastor affiliated with the Party of the Republic.
The parliamentary mandate stipulates that the federal police must take Fidelis to the senate by force. According to Fidelis, this kind of proceeding is exceedingly rare, and would apply to a fugitive or to someone who refuses to cooperate, which he states is not the case. “There is no precedent,” he told Hyperallergic. “Much less with a curator, a member of the artistic community.”
On October 4, Fidelis was summoned to deliver a convocation before the senate under the pretext that he had organized an exhibition to incite pedophilia, bestiality, and the abuse of children. Fidelis initially declined the invitation, insisting that his exhibition had not caused any of those things. He filed a writ of habeas corpus, demanding the request to be canceled and asking for the representation of a lawyer. The Supreme Court determined that Fidelis had to attend, but could be accompanied by a lawyer. The appearance was scheduled for the following day, which, according to Fidelis, would not have given him enough time to secure a lawyer and travel to Brasília. He said he accepted the court’s decision but filed another habeas corpus, asking for an extension; this request was denied. Senator Malta has said that Fidelis refused to cooperate with the mandate, which is why he ordered the federal police to escort Fidelis by force.
Meanwhile, the CPI has also targeted the artist Wagner Schwartz for performing nude alongside a four-year-old child at São Paulo’s Museum of Modern Art in September. In the performance, the child interacts with the artist’s body, in the company of her mother. Schwartz was summoned to appear before the CPI and, like Fidelis, similarly filed for a writ of habeas corpus, demanding an extension for his appearance. The same judge who declined Fidelis’s request approved Schwartz’s. “This has to be the influence of the senator,” said Fidelis. “He wants to build a political promotional platform. I’m going to bring him a huge amount of media.”
Since former President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment last year, conservative parties in Brazil have felt increasingly emboldened. On November 7, conservative groups organized an anti-feminist and anti-gay protest directed at Judith Butler, who was participating in a consortium called “The Ends of Democracy” in the department of philosophy at University of São Paulo. Protesters held up a burning dummy of Butler while exclaiming “Burn the witch!” In September, artist Renata Carvalho’s performance of a transgender Jesus Christ in the play The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven faced intense criticism while the cast dealt with online harassment; one performance was cancelled after a judge imposed an emergency injunction.
And, in what seems to be a direct reaction to the shutting down of Queermuseum, the Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP) prohibited children under the age 18 from attending its exhibition Histories of Sexuality, which opened in October. The display spans centuries and cultures, featuring artists as diverse as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the Guerrilla Girls. The age limit caused outrage among the artistic community, with even Ai Weiwei participating in a protest against censorship at MASP.
On November 11, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, an independent constitutional entity, issued a 47-page long technical note on the “Liberty of artistic expression in face of the protection of children and teenagers.” It stipulates that, according the Department of Justice, “non-erotic nudity does not make content inappropriate for children, even those under the age of 10.” As examples, the document cites Edouard Manet’s famous painting “Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” in which a nude woman picnics among men, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which dealt with adultery. While these artworks were shocking and controversial during their time, the technical note acknowledges no one has been morally damaged from seeing them.
The document concludes that those responsible for displaying such artworks (i.e. museums) have the duty to inform the public of the art’s contents but that it is ultimately up to parents to decide whether their children can view certain art. Days after the note was issued, MASP changed the age limit so that children under the age of 18 are permitted to enter the exhibition as long as they are accompanied by a parent. Hyperallergic contacted MASP to ask about the change in age limit policies, but has not received an answer.
“There is a general understanding in Brazilian society — whether they agree with these exhibitions or not — that these are grave acts of censorship,” said Fidelis. A Change.org petition against Fidelis’s investigation by Congress has gathered more than 8,500 signatures as of the writing of this article. In October, the musician Caetano Veloso, together with other artists, launched the “342 Arts” campaign against censorship in the arts. “I lived during the dictatorship and I don’t want anything similar to that,” Veloso said.
In the meantime, Queermuseu is scheduled to reopen early next year at the Parque Lage Visual Art School in Rio de Janeiro.