RIO DE JANEIRO — Nearly one year after far-right groups caused Brazil’s largest queer art exhibition, Queermuseu (Queermuseum), to shut down, it has reopened to much fanfare in Rio de Janeiro. Queermuseum: Cartographies of Difference in Brazilian Art boasts a total of 214 artworks, including pieces by renowned artists like Cândido Portinari, Lygia Clark, and Fernando Baril. Curator Gaudêncio Fidelis states in the catalogue that the collection aims to explore “issues related to the expression and identity of gender and differences in Brazilian works of art.”
Originally, Queermuseu was held at Santander Cultural, a gallery space sponsored by the eponymous Spanish bank in the city of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. After running for 26 days, it was prematurely shut down when conservatives accused the exhibit of promoting blasphemy and pedophilia.
A wave of protests driven by a Brazilian libertarian group known as Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL), included defacing Santander’s building and leading a smear campaign on social media that used bots to spread defamatory content about the exhibit. The curator also claims to have received more than 100 death threats during this time.
Santander’s unilateral decision to shut down Queermuseu was understood as censorship and met with a counter campaign to safeguard freedom of expression in Brazil. The outpouring of support was so great that a crowdfunding drive broke a national fundraising record by collecting nearly half a million dollars to relaunch the exhibit.
When Queermuseu reopened on August 18, the inauguration was met with demonstrations both for and against the show and long lines of people waited in anticipation to get in. According to the curator, around 10,000 people saw the exhibit that day.
“Coming here is a way of supporting the fact that people should have the right to choose if they want to go to an exhibit or not,” said 27-year-old librarian Priscilla Feliciano after visiting Queermuseu in its new home in Rio de Janeiro.
Due to the political significance it gained, many attendees found it fitting that Queermuseu reopened at Parque Lage, a public park in Rio de Janeiro that also houses a famous art school, Escola de Artes Visuais (EAV), founded in 1975 at the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship.
The exhibition’s introductory text speaks to that context: “With a history of resistance and avant-garde action, EAV Parque Lage is now restating its unequivocal commitment to freedom of expression by hosting Queermuseum: Cartographies of Difference in Brazilian Art.”
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Queermuseu’s curator Gaudêncio Fidelis cited two artworks in particular: Cândido Portinari’s 1928 “Portrait of Rodolfo Jozetti” and Fernando Baril’s 1989 “Halterofilista.” The two unconventional male portraits are placed beside one another, creating an interesting point of comparison.
According to Fidelis, Portinari’s painting was commissioned by a doctor who rejected the portrait because he didn’t like the portrayal. Similarly, Fernando Baril said his painting “Halterofilista” was turned down by an American LGBT magazine that requested the piece because, as Baril put it, they felt that “it was a little too gay.”
“These two paintings have a similar trajectory because both defy the norm of what is socially acceptable, but in two completely different ways. Portinari’s defies what is accepted in the academic sense, and the other defies the expectations of what people believe to be a standard representation of image, gender and sexuality,” said Fidelis.
One of the pieces in the collection that was most heavily criticized by conservative groups was Adriana Varejão’s 1994 painting “Cena de Interior II.” The piece depicts colonialism in the context of racial, sexual, and gender stereotypes in the history of Brazil.
However, now that Queermuseu has reopened, some say that the defamatory claims brought on by far-right groups don’t hold up in real life.
“Varejão’s painting was the only really provocative piece, and in my opinion, it was the best part of the exhibit. I was actually disappointed because I heard the exhibit had been censored, and as a whole, I actually didn’t find it that provocative at all,” said 22-year-old film student Nickolas Menescal.
Still, criticisms surrounding the exhibit have sparked a larger debate about censorship and art all over Brazil.
Just in time for the inauguration at Parque Lage, a federal judge ruled that no one under the age of 14 would be allowed to visit Queermuseum. Currently, there is no law that determines this type of prohibition on a national scale.
After the exhibit was shut down last year, conservative groups began lobbying to prohibit the exposure of minors to content they deemed to be “R rated” in art exhibitions nationwide. Fidelis said he joined progressive groups in defying this movement, claiming that parents should have a right to decide what kind of art is beneficial to their child’s education. On August 21 the sentence that prohibited minors under the age of 14 from visiting Queermuseu was overturned.
According to Fidelis, what makes the exhibit unique is its ability to transcend the art world and enter the public debate by raising concerns about censorship, freedom of expression, and the criminalization of art.
“People go to see the exhibit because they want to reclaim a right to something that has been stolen from them: the ability to have access to art,” he said. “I spoke to many people at the opening and they said that what really compels them to see the exhibit is that they feel a part of it now. The exhibit now belongs to society, it belongs to everyone.”
Queermuseum: Cartographies of Difference in Brazilian Art continues at Parque Lage (R. Jardim Botânico, 414, Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro) through September 16.