On Sunday, September 10, Santander Cultural Center in Porto Alegre, Brazil, shut down the country’s largest exhibition dedicated to queer art after right-wing critics launched a scathing attack of the arts space on social media. According to Elisa Wouk Almino of Hyperallergic, people accused the show of promoting blasphemy and pedophilia.
Curated by Gaudêncio Fidelis, “Queermuseu: Queer Tactics Toward Non-Heteronormative Curating” showcased eighty-five artists, including Lygia Clark, Cândido Portinari, and José Leonilson, and 263 artworks. Sponsored by Santander Bank, the space announced its decision to close the show a month early on Facebook. “We heard the complaints and understand that some of the works in the exhibition ‘Queermuseum’ disrespected symbols, beliefs, and people, which is not in line with our view of the world,” Santander Cultural Center said in a statement. “When art is not capable of being inclusive and generating positive reflection, it loses its greatest purpose, which is to elevate the human condition.”
Following the exhibition’s opening, one of Santander’s buildings was vandalized, tagged with the phrases “The Santander bank supports pedophilia,” and “They are antichrists.” Yet Fidelis was surprised by the cultural center’s decision since, up until last week, he was not aware of anyone protesting the exhibition. However, on Wednesday, September 6, the controversy surrounding the show escalated when members of Movimento Brasil Livre, a group that describes itself as a nonprofit which “aims to mobilize citizens in favor of a freer, more just, and prosperous society,” began visiting the exhibition in order to take pictures, which they posted to their Facebook page with text that read: “Pedophilia, zoophilia, and the sexualization of children definitely do NOT represent the LGBT universe.” The group is known for organizing demonstrations to demand the impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff.
Among the works that critics found the most offensive were a 1994 painting by Adriana Varejão, which depicts gay and interracial sex; a 2011 work by Antonio Obá, Et Verbum, portraying communion wafers that feature the words vulva, tongue, and asshole; and paintings by Bia Leite from a series called “Criança Viada” (Gay Children).
For Fidelis, Santander’s response was unacceptable. “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.” More than thirty-four thousand people have rallied to the show’s defense by signing a petition calling for Santander to reopen the exhibition.
Santander Cultural Center’s full statement is as follows:
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.