Protesters demonstrating outside of the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art in Brazil.

Hundreds of Cultural Figures Defend Right to Artistic Freedom in Brazil

Hundreds of arts professionals have signed an open letter published Thursday, October 19, in protest of the “wave of hate, intolerance, and violence against free expression” in Brazil. In recent months, conservatives have been waging a war against cultural institutions by trying to censor and close down exhibitions, attacking museum staff members and visitors, and using social media to promote fake news and harass people who disagree with them.

The letter condemns the actions of members of right-wing groups, religious sects, and several politicians and civil servants responsible for the onslaught. “These arrogant fundamentalists refuse to give artistic works a more attentive reading, and go witch-hunting for signs of indecency, pornography and heresy,” it reads. “There is no questioning or intellectual debate, only violence and intolerance.”

The document, which as of today has more than one thousand signatures, was written in response to a series of events that occurred over the course of this year. It specifically cites the Santander Cultural Center’s decision to end its “Queermuseu” exhibition early following allegations of pedophilia; the outcry over a nude performance that led to a petition calling for the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo to close; and a rally against the works of Pedro Moraleida at the Palace of Arts in Belo Horizonte.

It also claims that artistic creativity has been threatened since 2010, when opposition began to build against the newly elected president Dilma Rousseff, who was ousted in 2016, and Brazil’s third edition of its National Plan for Human Rights, which includes extended protections for women and the LGBTQ community. According to the 342 Artes movement, a group fighting to preserve Brazilians’ right to freedom of expression, arts institutions are being targeted because they’ve been advocating for such groups.

In conclusion, the letter urges people to mobilize in order to “defend and deepen the rights to an environment of free circulation of ideas, and denounce those who work to destroy democracy in Brazil.”

The day the letter was published, it was read aloud to the National Congress by Workers’ Party member Paulo Teixeira, as well as at the opening of the exhibition “Histories of Sexuality” at the Museu du Arte de São Paulo, which recently caved to pressure from conservatives and set an age limit of eighteen and older for admission to the show. It was also sent to several politicians and circulated through e-mail and the messaging service What’s App. Artist Renata Lucas told Lauren Cavalli of that these attacks must end and called the attempts to censor the arts as “unacceptable and an imminent threat to democracy.”

Among the signatories of the letter are Clarissa Diniz, curator at the Museu de Arte do Rio; Fernanda Brenner, curator and director of the nonprofit Pivô; Lilian Tone, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Jorge Schwartz, professor and director of the Museu Lasar Segall; and Marcos Gallon, artistic director of the Verbo performance art festival, as well as countless artists, choreographers, professors, journalists, architects, and other cultural producers.

The letter in full is as follows:

We are artists, intellectuals and professionals from several areas, who have been speaking up in defense of democracy since 2015. Now we side with the recent initiatives against the wave of hate, intolerance and violence against free expression in the arts and in education. Hatred, intolerance and violence which have been pressed for a long time against women, LGBTQs, afro-descendant and indigenous people.

We radically support freedom of speech and free flow of ideas, beliefs, information and artistic expressions. And we firmly believe in the free debate of each of these expressions.

We believe, however, that it is necessary to identify the focus of these attacks on civil liberties. It became evident that right-wing militants, sects from within neo-Pentecostal churches, certain politicians with great public responsibility – but lacking republican spirit –, civil servants and bureaucrats in the judiciary sphere, the police force and public prosecutors are joining forces against artistic creations and art institutions. They are censoring exhibitions, harassing visitors and museum employees, and using social networks to demean and outrage people they disagree with.

These arrogant fundamentalists refuse to give artistic works a more attentive reading, and go witch-hunting for signs of indecency, pornography and heresy. There is no questioning or intellectual debate, only violence and intolerance.

That is how the reactionary and anti-democratic militias managed to abruptly shut down the exhibition Queermuseu at Santander Cultural Center in the city of Porto Alegre. In September, the police withdrew the painting Pedofilia, by Alessandra Cunha, from the Contemporary Art Museum in Campo Grande; then a local court of law banned the theatre play The Gospels According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, by Jo Clifford, at Sesc Jundiai. It is worth mentioning that the same militias have kickstarted a campaign against the Panorama of Brazilian Art at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo due to the performance La Bête, by Wagner Schwartz, an attack given irresponsible support by the mayor of São Paulo João Doria. Then, a horde of fanatics led by congressman João Leite attempted to invade the Palace of Arts in Belo Horizonte aiming to destroy the works by Pedro Moraleida.

We also believe that this is not about a specific assault to the artistic creativity but a phenomenon that emerged in 2010 as opposition to the National Plan for Human Rights (PNDH 3); a process that grew and was nurtured throughout the process of deposition of elected president Dilma Rousseff.

Clearly, not every supporter of the presidential impeachment belong to this antidemocratic lineage. But there were violent ultraconservative activists and public agents harrassing people of diverse thinking. The same people that were responsible for the several actions, such as the distribution of anti- Dilma sexist, misogynist and offensive car stickers; the verbal assault to left- wing politicians and activists on airplanes, in restaurants and even at more sensitive places like funerals and hospital wings; and the physical assaults to people wearing red clothes.

Once the impeachment was completed – in better words, a parliamentary coup arranged through the buying of congressman votes led by Eduardo Cunha – a number of social achievements that have been obtained since the 1988 Constitution are being snatched away from the Brazilian people. That is how, day-by-day, they are restraining civil, social and individual rights in Brazil, suppressing worker’s rights, threatening the freedom of education in schools, the environment protection, the same-sex union and much more. That is the body of work that results from this coup d’Etat.

What we need now is to expand all democratic forces, beyond political- partisanship, ideological and religious views, to face the concrete threats to freedom and social policies already in place, in the streets, in the legislative houses, in the courts of justice and in all the available means of communication. We propose the articulation of groups amongst friends, family and work colleagues for the organization of public acts and online action in the social networks aiming to defend and deepen the rights to an environment of free circulation of ideas, and denounce those who work to destroy democracy in Brazil.