‘Every Artist Who’s Not a Lunatic Is Concerned’: Brazil’s Art Scene Struggles to Find a Unified Response to Political Turmoil

The country's leading art fair, SP-Arte, has taken extra steps to avoid confrontation.

Brazilian flags for sale during a protest outside police headquarters in Curitiba, Parana, Brazil. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images.)

São Paulo’s annual gallery night on Monday was full of more excitement—and anxiety—than usual.

On the eve of the country’s premier art fair, SP-Arte, the popular gallery Vermelho presented a sexually explicit, almost pornographic exhibition by artist duo Maurício Dias and Walter Riedweg. The show was an act of defiance against the right-wing activists and evangelical politicians who last year waged a relentless campaign against the country’s artists, museums, and galleries.

At another gallery, Casa Nova Arte, artist Gian Spina plastered a wall with a blown-up photograph of someone vandalizing a mural that depicts a monk teaching the bible to indigenous children—a clear confrontation of the religious right.

Both openings were peaceful, and the far-right activists who had threatened and protested the work of artists and dealers late last year were nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, one of the country’s most controversial recent exhibitions, “Queermuseum: Cartographies of Difference in Brazilian Art,” which closed early at the Santander Cultural Center in Porto Alegre following violent protests from conservative activists, is now scheduled to be re-staged in Rio de Janeiro—and at least so far, there are no signs of trouble.

It’s been six months since the height of the far right’s assault on Brazil’s cultural community. And while overt threats, intimidation, and censorship have subsided, the fear of imminent danger and violence has been replaced by political instability. Amid the uncertainty—and at a time when all eyes are on Brazil for the country’s leading art fair, which opened yesterday—the local art scene has struggled to formulate a unified response.

Two recent incidents have contributed to the instability. Last month, Rio de Janeiro’s only black councilwoman, Marielle Franco—who took on Rio’s corrupt police officers—was killed in a drive-by shooting. Brazilian authorities have said that the bullets that killed her came from police ammunition stocks, according to the Washington Post.

Then, last Saturday, mere days before the opening of SP-Arte, the country’s popular former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sentenced to 12 years behind bars on corruption charges. Lula, as he is known, was a front-runner to challenge incumbent populist Michel Temer in the country’s October presidential election. His jailing leaves Brazil’s socialist Worker’s Party without a viable candidate.

The recent turmoil has divided the Brazilian art scene. While dealers and other market professionals have adopted an upbeat tone (and generally declined to take an explicit political position), artists and institutional leaders warn that the precarious political situation may have repercussions for the cultural sector.

Offering a note of reassurance, SP-Arte’s director Fernanda Feitosa told artnet News: “This is the 14th edition at all the previous editions we had provocative works, including naked performances, and nothing happened. This is a country that is actually very open-minded.”

Nevertheless, the fair, which runs through April 15, is taking extra steps to avoid any potential confrontation. For the first time, it has provided exhibitors with optional warning labels that they can hang in their stands to alert visitors to any explicit content. (Notably, this reporter did not see any dealers availing themselves of the labels on the fair’s opening day—but there was not much provocative art to be seen, either.)

Speaking ahead of the fair, Julia Brito of São Paulo’s Luciana Brito Gallery did her best to assuage lingering doubts. “I don’t know if Lula’s arrest is going to reflect on sales or not,” she said. “I know financially it has been very good. The day he was sent to prison the [stock] markets we’re booming.”

As dealers adopt a cautiously optimistic tone, wealthy Brazilian collectors are trying hard not to attract scrutiny. During a press viewing at his exhibition space in central São Paulo, the collector Pedro Barbosa invited journalists to ask “any questions not regarding politics.”

Artists, on the other hand, have been more candid about their anxieties. “One of the uses of art is to create polemics,” São Paulo-based artist Vik Muniz told artnet News. “You infuse the discourse with active discussions about what is going on. This is good when it’s something that is positive, but what happened here is different,” he said, referring to the far right’s recent pressure on the country’s art scene. “It was absolutely, exclusively for political purposes.”

Fernanda Brenner, the director of São Paulo’s arts non-profit Pivô, went further, telling artnet News that a populist triumph in the next election could be disastrous for the art scene.

“We don’t know who to ask for protection anymore. Every artist who’s not a lunatic is concerned about how unfair the situation is and the conservative movement that’s growing by the day, especially with the election approaching,” she said. “If this guy [far-right populist Jair] Bolsonaro wins, we are all screwed, the cultural field is going to suffer an immediate impact—I’m terrified of persecution.”

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