Mobs, death threats and de­nun­ci­a­tions

Artists in Brazil are liv­ing in fear af­ter two years of cen­sor­ship and in­tim­i­da­tion from a resur­gent right wing. But with Jair Bol­sonaro about to take power, this could just be the be­gin­ning. Oliver Bas­ciano re­ports

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

Wag­ner Schwartz re­ceived the first death threat two days af­ter ly­ing naked on the floor of a mu­seum in São Paulo. It was Oc­to­ber 2017 and the Brazil­ian artist had in­vited mem­bers of his au­di­ence, which in­cluded chil­dren, to ad­just his body: move a limb, roll him over, that kind of thing. This was for a dance piece called La Bête, a work he had al­ready staged many times at home and abroad. So it was a shock to sud­denly find him­self the tar­get of an in­creas­ingly em­bold­ened net­work of rightwing and evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian groups.

Dur­ing La Bête, a four-year-old girl, en­cour­aged by her mother, lifted Schwartz’s hand and then his foot, while an­other slightly older girl touched his head. These mo­ments were caught on video and up­loaded to Face­book. “The cre­ators of this page,” says Schwartz, “put a cap­tion on the video say­ing the mu­seum in­cited pae­dophilia and that I was a pae­dophile. From this mo­ment on, peo­ple who did not know me or the work de­cided La Bête was a threat.”

Evan­gel­i­cal ac­tivists and mem­bers of the Movi­mento Brasil Livre (MBL) gath­ered out­side the venue, the Mu­seum of Modern Art (MAM), while 100,000 peo­ple signed a pe­ti­tion de­nounc­ing the work. One pop­u­lar meme jux­ta­posed a pic­ture of Schwartz with three bul­lets and the cap­tion: “Pae­dophilia has a cure.”

Pe­dro D’Ey­rot, a per­former in the funk-elec­tro­clash band Bonde Do Rolê, is a found­ing mem­ber of MBL. “Hav­ing chil­dren touch­ing and be­ing ex­posed to a naked strange man is wrong,” he says, but adds: “Our le­gal in­sti­tu­tions are the ones to deal with it.” Nonethe­less, Schwartz was forced into hid­ing and, shortly af­ter, boarded a flight to Paris. “I was fright­ened,” he says. “Jus­tice in Brazil does not pro­tect those who are threat­ened.”

Schwartz is just one of many artists in Brazil who had an early indi­ca­tion of the coun­try’s chang­ing cli­mate. The re­cent vic­tory of Jair Bol­sonaro in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions is, for a large num­ber of them, a night­mare in­car­nate. They cite the re­tired mil­i­tary of­fi­cer’s court­ing of the evan­gel­i­cal vote, his ho­mo­pho­bic and misog­y­nist rhetoric, not to men­tion his prom­ise to fold the min­istry of cul­ture, and “cleanse” Brazil of “com­mu­nists”.

Regina Vater, an artist based in Rio de Janeiro, is old enough to re­mem­ber Brazil’s for­mer mil­i­tary regime. “I never thought I would live through some­thing like the dic­ta­tor­ship again,” he says. “The sit­u­a­tion we are in now is even more sin­is­ter. There is a veil of democ­racy, but we are in a state of de­cep­tion.”

There were ju­bi­lant scenes out­side the Mu­seum of Art São Paulo (MASP) on the night of Bol­sonaro’s vic­tory. Dressed in the Brazil­ian flag’s yel­low and green, the pres­i­dent-elect’s sup­port­ers lit fires and cranked up the sound sys­tem, while a funk MC mocked op­po­si­tion politi­cians to a beat. As the party swelled, it looked as if the mu­seum was un­der siege.

It could well be. Such in­sti­tu­tions are un­likely to avoid in­ter­fer­ence, di­rect or oth­er­wise, from the new gov­ern­ment. Fer­nanda Bren­ner, artis­tic di­rec­tor of a non-profit arts body called Pivô, says the in­com­ing pres­i­dent owes a huge debt to all the groups who sup­ported his cam­paign – and she says they’re be­hind much of the in­tim­i­da­tion be­ing lev­elled at artists and per­form­ers. Bren­ner be­lieves one tar­get will be the Rouanet Law, a sys­tem that al­lows com­pa­nies to re­duce their tax bill by in­vest­ing in cul­tural projects. “The Rouanet Law will be an easy hit for him,” she says. “Peo­ple see it as artists tak­ing ad­van­tage of pub­lic money. If he cuts it, cul­tural projects will be­come very dif­fi­cult.”

Bol­sonaro promised as much dur­ing his run. At a rally in March – be­fore 2,000 peo­ple, some armed and in mil­i­tary fa­tigues – the can­di­date promised to dis­solve the min­istry of cul­ture into the ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment, while at­tack­ing the “big­time artists” who he claimed were get­ting rich off pub­lic money.

D’Ey­rot, whose band worked with the pro­ducer Diplo, and whose in­volve­ment in rightwing pol­i­tics shocked the Brazil­ian mu­sic world, hopes Bol­sonaro will keep his prom­ises: “I ex­pect his gov­ern­ment to stop fund­ing all the ide­o­log­i­cal ap­pa­ra­tus cre­ated by the PT that lives and thrives on tax­pay­ers’ money.” The PT, or Work­ers’ party, gov­erned the coun­try for al­most 15 years. “If these ini­tia­tives want to sur­vive,” adds D’Ey­rot, “they will have to find the money on the mar­ket like ev­ery­one else.”

An­to­nio Obá, an artist nom­i­nated for the Pipa, Brazil’s big­gest art award, caused a storm last Septem­ber when pic­tures and de­scrip­tions of a work he per­formed were cir­cu­lated on­line. In Acts of Trans­fig­u­ra­tion: Dis­ap­pear­ance of a Recipe for a Saint, Obá grinds to dust a statue of the Vir­gin Mary be­fore pour­ing the pow­der over his naked body. “I was raised in a tra­di­tional Catholic fam­ily,” he says, “and al­most at­tended the sem­i­nary. I play on Chris­tian rites with af­fec­tion. The work is sup­posed to reveal some­thing of my per­sonal his­tory. It was aw­ful to see it so dis­torted and politi­cised.”

Rocks are re­ported to have been thrown at the win­dows of the mu­seum where he was per­form­ing. “The in­tim­i­da­tion was sys­tem­atic,” he says. “Racist mes­sages, threats

– all driven by ru­mours and pho­tos cir­cu­lat­ing on­line. Life be­came un­sus­tain­able. I could no longer make work or teach. The strain on my fam­ily was too much.” In fear – and with le­gal ac­tion threat­ened by Magno Malta, a sen­a­tor now ex­pected to take a min­is­te­rial po­si­tion – Obá fled to Europe.

Igor Vi­dor, a Rio-based artist who re­cently put on a show in­ves­ti­gat­ing links be­tween gang vi­o­lence and pub­lic fig­ures, also be­lieves him­self to have been tar­geted by an or­ches­trated cam­paign. “The things they were say­ing, the ac­cu­sa­tions about me, were the same kind of things said by Bol­sonaro.” He re­ceived his first threat­en­ing email three weeks ago, and they have since be­come in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive.

Vi­dor’s ex­hi­bi­tion, at Ga­le­ria Leme, São Paulo, fea­tured in­ter­views with po­lice and peo­ple work­ing in the drug trade, to­gether with a page torn from a cash book he found de­tail­ing drugs bought and sold. Like many I spoke to, he seems shocked by the new Brazil. “I never thought things I could do as an artist, crit­i­cal thoughts pre­sented in a gallery, would put fas­cists at my front door.” The artist now em­ploys se­cu­rity for his fam­ily.

Late last year, the Amer­i­can gen­der the­o­rist Ju­dith But­ler, in São Paulo for a sym­po­sium ti­tled The End of Democ­racy, was am­bushed by ac­tivists from Tra­di­tion, Fam­ily and Prop­erty, a far-right Chris­tian group. Cit­ing her writ­ings about the flu­id­ity of gen­der, they ac­cused the pro­fes­sor of child abuse – and burned her ef­figy.

It has all con­trib­uted to a change in

‘Some time last year we lost the bat­tle. Artists are seen as pae­dophiles. The pop­u­la­tion at large is against us’

the pub­lic mood, ac­cord­ing to Mar­cia Fortes, a São Paulo gallery owner. “Some time last year,” she says, “we lost the bat­tle. Artists are re­garded as pae­dophiles and the pop­u­la­tion at large re­main against us.”

How­ever, Bri­tish play­wright Jo Clif­ford does not en­tirely agree. A Por­tuguese trans­la­tion of her play The Gospel Ac­cord­ing to Je­sus, Queen of Heaven – which imag­ines a trans­gen­der Christ – was due to open in Lon­d­rina, to Brazil’s north. But the venue can­celled at the very last mo­ment and the lead, a trans woman called Re­nata Car­valho, re­ceived death threats.

“Af­ter we were left with­out a venue, how­ever, with a mob out­side, these lo­cal women – lots of them with chil­dren – turned up,” she says. “They formed a hu­man shield to pro­tect us as we went to a new venue, a semi-derelict space where we per­formed by torch­light.” In­junc­tions have been sought by both Pen­te­costal and Catholic groups to stop the pro­duc­tion. “At an out­door venue in Garan­huns, a smoke­bomb was thrown over the wall. De­spite this, 500 to 600 peo­ple came to see the play that evening. At­tend­ing theatre has be­come an act of de­fi­ance.”

Sev­eral re­sis­tance move­ments have now emerged. Last month, Wil­son Witzel, now gov­er­nor of Rio, was pic­tured along­side a col­league who was de­stroy­ing a plaque com­mem­o­rat­ing Marielle Franco – the pro­gres­sive city coun­cil­lor as­sas­si­nated in March. Chan­nelling their out­rage, artists Paula Kos­satz and Sid­nei Bal­bino pro­duced and dis­trib­uted 1,000 repli­cas of the plaque. Like­wise, the #col­er­aale­gria move­ment has brought to­gether hun­dreds of artists. At work­shops held at Casa 1, an arts venue and refuge for LGBT youth in São Paulo, fab­ric protest ban­ners are sewn for dis­play on the city’s streets.

Other ini­tia­tives have more fo­cused aims. The 324 move­ment, named af­ter the num­ber of votes needed in congress to pass a law, is co­or­di­nated by film pro­ducer Paula Lav­i­gne. This week, 324 Artes, the branch ded­i­cated to the arts (oth­ers cover cor­rup­tion and the en­vi­ron­ment) will meet to plan “op­po­si­tion strate­gies”, but most com­mu­ni­ca­tion takes place via What­sApp groups, in­volv­ing peo­ple from across arts and me­dia.

Some notable suc­cesses have al­ready been chalked up. When San­tander bowed to pres­sure and pulled an ex­hi­bi­tion of queer artists from the bank’s cul­tural cen­tre in the south­ern city of Porto Ale­gre, and the mayor of Rio blocked the show from trav­el­ling to the city’s Mu­seum of Art, 324 mo­bilised to restage it at Rio’s art school, crowd­fund­ing £220,000.

In Oc­to­ber last year, MASP pro­hib­ited un­der-18s from at­tend­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion His­to­ries of Sex­u­al­ity. How­ever, lawyers work­ing pro bono for 324 were able to force the in­sti­tu­tion to make the age restric­tion ad­vi­sory. “Cen­sor­ship gen­er­ates self-cen­sor­ship,” says Fortes. “This is the big­gest dan­ger.”

Re­tain­ing vis­i­bil­ity is key, says Wag­ner Schwartz, es­pe­cially in art that deals with gen­der or sex­u­al­ity. He is back in Brazil, about to stage an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work at a venue in Rio, fea­tur­ing other per­form­ers who have been on the re­ceiv­ing end of ha­rass­ment – in­clud­ing Re­nata Car­valho, Elis­a­bete Fin­ger (mother of one child who par­tic­i­pated in La Bête) and Maikon K, a theatre-maker who was de­tained by the mil­i­tary po­lice af­ter a nude per­for­mance at the Na­tional Mu­seum in Brasilia last July. “The art I do is one that dis­turbs au­thor­i­tar­ian dis­courses,” he says. “Brazil has not and will not stop be­ing a ter­ri­tory that I work in.”

Clau­dio Bueno, the cu­ra­tor of a new LGBT ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Sex­ual Di­ver­sity in São Paulo, echoes this stance. “We dis­cussed whether we should in­clude the artists’ names in the show,” he says. “Whether we are putting them at risk, es­pe­cially the trans artists who are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble in this cli­mate. But we can­not hide, we will not dis­ap­pear. We must re­sist.”

Am­bushed … a protest against gen­der the­o­rist Ju­dith But­ler

Dis­torted … An­to­nio Obá grind­ing a Vir­gin Mary statue

Pres­i­dent-elect Jair Bol­sonaro

Smoke­bombed … Re­nata Car­valho in The Gospel Ac­cord­ing to Je­sus, Queen of Heaven

‘Peo­ple de­cided it was a threat’ … Wag­ner Schwartz’s La Bête

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