A platform tries to map the reduction of artistic freedom in Brazil

Screenshot from the Observatório de Censura à Arte site, used with permission

This article by Isabelle Rieger is published on Global Voices under a partnership agreement with Nonada Journalism, creator of the Observatório de Censura à Arte (Art Censorship Observatory). 

Art can cause strangeness, anger, sadness or joy; it all depends on who sees it. But although arousing emotion in the viewer is a characteristic of artistic endeavor, the themes of some exhibitions and works can lead to censorship and boycott. Brazil has been proof of that.

To map these activities, in 2019, Global Voices’ media partner Nonada Jornalismo created a platform that records attacks on the country's artistic freedom, the Observatório de Censura à Arte (Art Censorship Observatory). Since then, 101 cases have been recorded.

To analyze the complaints received, the observatory follows a methodology developed from the research of sociologist Maria Cristina Castilho Costa, coordinator of the Communication, Freedom of Expression and Censorship Observatory of the University of São Paulo (USP).

The idea arose with a boycott at the closing of the exhibition Queermuseu: cartografias da Diferença na Arte Brasileira (Queermuseum: cartographies of difference in Brazilian Art) in August 2017, in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul state. Conservative groups, such as the MBL (Free Brazil Movement), created a crusade of protests against the exhibition on social networks, accusing the works of being apologists for zoophilia and pedophilia, of blasphemy against religious symbols, as the newspaper El País reported at the time.

The exhibition had about 270 works and included several Brazilian artists, such as Lygia Clark, Cândido Portinari and Adriana Varejão, who addressed sexual diversity, LGBTQ+ and gender issues. The curator, Gaudêncio Fidelis, even received death threats.

Because of the social impact generated, the observatory team considers the case within the framework of attacks on artistic freedom in the country.

Thais Seganfredo, editor at Nonada and co-creator of the platform, maintains that censorship, when it comes from a company, as in the case of the bank responsible for the space where the exhibition was held, prevents people from accessing the works of art or artistic inventions. Therefore, it is of public interest.

“Power, in cases of censorship, is used to curtail the artistic freedom of cultural workers,” says Seganfredo.

Cases in Brazil

One of the cases mapped by the observatory is that of the m.a.n.i.f.e.s.t.a show by the Cia de Dança Palácio das Artes (Palace of the Arts Dance Company), linked to the Clóvis Salgado Foundation, a state organ of Minas Gerais, canceled by order of the state government. The show opened in November 2022 and should have reopened on March 15, 2023, but the project was closed. The director of the company, Cristiano Reis, was fired.

The work is a collective creation of the dancers and was inspired by the “Pau-Brasil Manifesto,” by the writer Oswald de Andrade (1890–1954). In an interview with the newspaper O Tempo, dancer Marise Dinis criticized the decision and said that she already had a signed contract for the 2023 performance.

“I have one question left: why was something that generated so much interest, that had such an incredible impact, canceled? For me, it is an affront to the dance company, which fought and fights hard to survive and maintain itself,” she told the newspaper.

The Clóvis Salgado Foundation stated that “with the availability of new budgetary and financial resources, [the show] can be revived.” Romeu Zema, governor of Minas Gerais, is a supporter of former president Jair Bolsonaro.

Denise Dora, a lawyer specializing in art censorship cases, explains that, after 2016, “an organization of the conservative sector is observed in Brazilian society.”

“The major movements of censorship of exhibitions were discussed before the 2018 elections. The Queermuseu episode in Rio Grande do Sul, also the persecution of the Gospel according to Jesus Christ, Queen of Heaven [starring a trans actress], all occurred in 2017 and 2018,” she remembers.

An investigation by the observatory shows that at least 14 artistic works that portrayed Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro councilor murdered in 2018, were vandalized or shut down between 2018 and early 2023. The cases occurred in the states of São Paulo, Paraná, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Ceará, and Rio Grande do Norte. In most, Marielle's face was scratched or defaced, and the censoring agents were anonymous. There were also phrases that reproduced hate, misogynistic, lesbophobic and racist speech, as well as phallic objects.

Cultural work

Even with more progressive governments, censorship can continue, Dora points out. “The criminalization of street artists, who make graffiti, produce funk music, participate and produce poetry slam rounds, especially artists who live on the outskirts of cities, is combined with racial discrimination, discrimination against poverty, that has always existed; it never stopped existing.”

Capoeira, for example, a mixture of dance, music and martial art, is a cultural expression typical of enslaved people in Brazil that was criminalized until 1937. If a person was found practicing capoeira they could have ended up in prison for up to six months. It still continues to be discriminated against. Recently, Nonada showed cases of censorship and cultural appropriation of practices by evangelical groups, which has worried capoeiristas in different cities in the country.

Although affirmative actions appear timidly in public announcements and incentive laws, those who are not part of the dominant circles continue to be excluded. Bureaucracy and language difficulties are some of the main complaints.

In addition to facing censorship, cultural workers also face job insecurity in the sector. According to data from the Itaú Cultural Observatory, 2.7 million people who work in the cultural sector in Brazil are informal, that is, they do not have a formal contract or guaranteed labor rights.

Although the creative economy makes up 3.11 percent of Brazil's GDP, which is greater than the automotive sector, it does not translate into better living conditions. Low salaries, financial insecurity, and dependence on tenders and financing are factors that cause uncertainty regarding the future of Brazilian artists. The blockade of artistic practice is also an obstacle to the possibilities of decent work.

In addition to the state, private companies also act as censors. “When they stop sponsoring, they stop financing; they also act in favor of censorship. That was the case of Santander Bank, which withdrew an exhibition after a public demonstration against a work that was considered as attacking morality and good customs,” says Dora.

The aforementioned case occurred with Queermuseu. The financial institution agreed with the protests against the works, even after the exhibition was approved and inaugurated. The bank alleged that the works exhibited did not observe the symbols and beliefs of it and were not in accordance with the organization's worldview.

Another case that includes a private company was the cancellation of the performance of singer Bruno Camurati in June 2022. His appearance at the Halleluya gospel music festival was canceled without explanation days after the singer declared he was gay on his social media. Shalom Events, the company responsible for the festival, did not give any explanation.

The observatory is funded and is integrated with the work of the Nonada site, explains Seganfredo. “I think that the initiative to track cases of censorship as an observatory is somewhat difficult because public and private agents intervene in art censorship in Brazil. And that is a very complex network to face,” he points out.

“I think we must be very attentive and alert, and mobilize forces to guarantee the rights of artists are manifested, regardless of who is in the government,” says Dora.

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