QUEERMUSEU | GAUDÊNCIO FIDELIS' BRAZILIAN ART REBELLION
On a balmy March evening, Rio de Janeiro’s elegant Parque Lage became the epicenter for the artistic anti-censorship movement in Brazil. Organized by Gaudêncio Fidelis—a warm and erudite 52-year-old curator—Parque Lage’s neo-classical arts pavilion was transformed into an ad-hoc auction house, and later into a concert venue for famed singer Caetano Veloso. All proceeds from the evening were donated to sponsor the reopening of Fidelis’ contentious art exhibition, Queermuseum.
Indeed, Fidelis has inadvertently found himself at the center of the culture wars currently rattling an extremely polarized Brazil. After President Dilma Rouseff’s sudden 2016 impeachment, interim President Michel Temer appointed an all-white, male cabinet, and attempted to abolish the Brazilian Ministry of Culture. Emboldened by the government’s sudden conservative shift, some extreme right-wing political factions began waging their own war on some of Brazil’s cultural institutions. In September of 2017, Fidelis was poised to open an extensive exhibition of radical 20th century and contemporary Brazilian art titled Queermuseum.
However, the exhibit became the target of a defamatory campaign carried out largely by the ultra-right Brazilian political group Moviemiento Brasil Libre (MBL). After several weeks of protests and fake news articles deriding the supposed “pornography” and “pedophilia” on exhibit, Santander Bank (the corporate sponsor of the exhibit) shut it down.
Speaking to me from the southern city Porto Alegre, Fidelis expressed his confusion at the entire situation. “People are still having trouble understanding exactly what happened,” Fidelis told me. He was certainly right; my impression of the situation was that an exhibition of ostensibly gay and queer art was shut down by right-wing protesters for its provocative content. Yet I was very wrong. “Only about 10% of the 85 artists on display are what I would call Queer.”
The rest, Fidelis explained, were included for their contributions in queering the Brazilian art canon. Fidelis described how the show was not exclusively about sexuality, per se, but how sexuality was used—among other lenses—to examine how Brazilian artists have upended the traditional Brazilian artistic canon over the past century. “I did not include a portrait by Candido Portinari because I am saying he was gay, but because of his contributions in reimagining, reinterpreting, and queering Brazilian portraiture,” explained Fidelis. Yet the nuance of the exhibition was lost in the ensuing defamatory campaign carried out against Fidelis. Fueled by fake news articles and Twitter bot accounts, protestors descended upon Porto Alegre to demand the closure of the “perverse” art exhibit. Fidelis received more than one hundred death threats, and was obligated to hire private security.
Yet Fidelis did not back down. “I believe that the MBL and other right wing groups were not expecting such a strong Brazilian and international backlash.” After the attacks on Queermuseum—and several other art exhibitions throughout Brazil—there was sudden movement of support of these beleaguered exhibitions. “I think that when articles started coming out in The Guardian, The New York Times, El País, the MBL realized their strategy had failed.” Following the huge wave of support, Fidelis went on the offensive against his critics. Creating a nationwide anti-censorship campaign, Fidelis started giving lectures throughout Brazil and testified in front of Brazilian senate.
He and his supporters created a crowdfunding campaign to reopen Queermuseum outside of the constraints of corporate sponsorship. As of March 26, the crowd-funding campaign has exceeded its goals. Queermuseum is slated to reopen in late May in Rio de Janeiro’s Parque Lage art school. Following the hugely successful mid-March benefit, Fidelis is more optimistic than ever about the success of the exhibition.
Yet he does not share this optimism with the direction of Brazilian politics. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the current frontrunner for the October presidential election, is in a worsening legal situation for corruption charges. If Da Silva were to withdraw from the election, far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro—a Brazilian legislator who has expressed interest in execution-style killings of LGBTQ+ people—would become the de-facto front-runner. Local Brazilian politics also reflect this increasingly violent polarization.
The day before the Queermuseum benefit, Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco was assassinated by a group of armed men. An outspoken advocate for the rights of Rio’s Queer and poor citizens, Franco’s assassination is largely thought to have been carried out by the city’s police department. “Franco’s assassination was very much on everyone’s mind at the benefit,” said Fidelis. Like the backlash from the closure of Queermuseum, reactions to Franco’s assassination were fast and swift.
Within hours of the assassination, massive protests had erupted throughout Brazil, and numerous articles had been published in the international press. Despite the outpouring of grief and condemnation for Franco’s death—and the general success of the Queermuseum benefit—Fidelis remained wary. “We have no idea what Brazil is going to be like in 5 months. It could all turn out fine in the end, or, well, Brazil could soon be unrecognizable.”
Written by Miller Schulman
Photographs courtesy of of F. Zago/Studio Z.
Additional photography by Gilberto Perin