One of the first artworks visitors encounter at a new exhibit at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, in Midtown, is a sculpture made of twisted bed sheets by Brazilian artist Igor Vidor. They are tied together and hang from the ceiling, forming a makeshift rope of the kind prisoners use to escape in old films. A keen observer will notice that the sheets are covered with wine colored stains – blood. They were used to cover the bodies of people killed in the slums, or favelas, of Rio de Janeiro, often by the police. The artist collected them when he lived in Vidigal, a favela where killings by the police and between drug trafficking gangs are common.
The sculpture is part of an exhibit called Against Again: Art Under Attack in Brazil, which features works from dozens of Brazilian artists of different generations. The pieces on display range from video installations and photographs, to paintings and sculptures. The exhibit focuses on themes of censorship and authoritarian rule, drawing parallels between the period of military dictatorship in Brazil, which lasted between 1964 and 1985, and the present. The initiative came from Brazilian academics in New York, who see echoes of the dictatorship in the Brazil of today. Since the election of Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, a cultural war has gripped the country.
“The exhibit came out of a concern for the rise of Bolsonaro and censorship of the art and cultural fields in Brazil,” says Tatiane Schilaro, one of the curators.
Under Bolsonaro’s administration, funding for the arts has been slashed or diverted to projects more in line with the president’s ideology. One of his first acts as president was to abolish the Ministry of Culture, the main source of funding for the arts in Brazil. “You now have to rely on private funding, which is basically non-existent in Brazil,” says Schilaro.
Numerous direct or indirect acts of censorship by the federal and local governments, as well as the judiciary, have occurred since Bolsonaro took office. The first notable incident happened in early 2018, when an ad for Brazil’s nationally owned bank was pulled because it featured people of various gender identities. Bolsonaro is especially hostile to members of the LGBTQ community, having once said in an interview that he would “rather have a dead son than a gay son.”
Earlier this year, the man chosen by Bolsonaro to be the country’s secretary of culture, Roberto Alvim, was forced to resign after putting out a video in which he laid out his plans for the future of Brazilian art by quoting Joseph Goebells, the Nazi propaganda minister.
“We’re coming from a period when our rights were secure,” says Lilia Schwartz, a professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo and Princeton University. “Now those rights are in question, and freedom of expression is being curtailed.”
It is in this climate that the exhibit at the Shiva Gallery was put together. Some of the artworks on display were censored in Brazil at some point in the past or present, and all touch on themes that the Brazilian right is hostile to, such as gay rights, indigenous rights and criticism of the police.
Vidor’s sheet sculpture, entitled Teresa, for example, alludes to the brutal tactics of the Brazilian police, which kills more people per capita than any other police force in the world. The artist is now in self-exile in Berlin, after having received numerous credible death threats in October of last year. Nine of Vidor’s friends have been killed by the police, he says. “I have no childhood friends left.”
In Rio alone, the police kills on average five people a day. The situation has worsened since Bolsonaro took office. Police killings grew by 18 percent in 2018, and again in 2019 by the same amount. The current administration has also been pushing for a law that would further exempt police officers from culpability when they kill on duty.
Another work, by Sonia Andrade, is on display for the first time since 1978 after it was censored during the dictatorship. At the time, Andrade placed hundreds of mousetraps throughout the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. Instead of cheese, the traps held cards with religious imagery on them. Some held military-style medals that Andrade had earned for achievements in Catholic school when she was younger. The installation was up for a few days until, one morning, all the mousetraps were mysteriously gone. Andrade was never told what happened to them. Now the work has been recreated, albeit on a smaller scale. “It’s not too much to remind people of what happened in the past,” Andrade says.
Bolsonaro is a vocal admirer of this past, often going out of his way to praise members of the military accused of killing and torturing dissidents during the dictatorship. The exhibit serves as a somber reminder that Brazilian democracy, at only 35 years of age, rests on an unstable foundation.
Against Again: Art Under Attack in Brazil runs through April 3rd at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery. 860 Eleventh Avenue, New York