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Vast blown-up images of swollen hands, sweaty brows and firm handshakes fill Sofia Borges’ studio. Her latest exhibition, “Corpo a Corpo”, centres on a congressional session in Brasília, the Brazilian capital, when, camera in hand, she captured her country’s leading politicians in action.
“My work is usually very philosophical,” says the award-winning visual artist. “But recently I was invited to explore the actual scenario of national politics.”
Ms Borges, 34, grew up in the interior of the state of São Paulo and divides her time between its sprawling financial metropolis and Paris, the French capital, to create large-scale canvases.
In February 2017, she was invited to visit the national congress, having been commissioned alongside five fellow artists by the Moreira Salles Institute (IMS), a non-profit philanthropic arts institution in Brazil, to create works that explored social conflicts for the opening of a new space.
The art installations went on show to the public from September to December 2017. The exhibition has since moved to Rio de Janeiro.
Describing the parliamentary sitting where a virtually all-male, all-white set of MPs jostled last year to elect new senate leader Eunício Oliveira, Ms Borges calls it “horrible theatre” and an example of where power in Brazil now lies. To be a traditionalist is back in vogue and Brazil’s lurch to the right is a hot topic of discussion in the already turbulent political debate in the country.
Art is one area coming under scrutiny and attack. Last September, rightwing activists gathered outside an exhibition titled “Queermuseu”, or Queer Museum, in southern Brazil, demanding that warning signs be placed outside the display of 270 artworks saying they “promoted paedophilia” and “pornography”.
The exhibit was sponsored by the art institution Santander Cultural, funded by Santander, the Spanish bank. A public campaign to close the exhibition was launched and, in the city of Curitiba, bank branches were vandalised.
São Paulo events were to excite further controversy, with a production of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, by British writer Jo Clifford, staged in the city’s leafy, and liberal, neighbourhood of Pinheiros. The character of Christ was performed as, and by, a transgender woman.
The critics also came out in force last month in Brazil’s northern city of Belem. A painting, by visual artist Gidalti Moura Jr, depicting alleged police brutality against street children — a recurring theme of discussion in Brazilian social affairs — and on display in a shopping centre, was removed after following a Facebook protest led by rightwing groups. They included members of the military police.
“We’re living in a time of perhaps the greatest social polarisation in recent Brazilian history,” says Fernanda Feitosa, founder of SP-Arte, São Paulo’s annual international art fair, and wife of Heitor Martins, president of São Paulo Museum of Art — better known as Masp.
Ms Feitosa believes that small but increasingly vocal groups such as the libertarian Movimento Brasil Livre, or Free Brazil Movement, are using a time of national political fragility to divide the country, spurred by the popularity of social media.
Masp’s recent exhibition on the history of sexuality had a record number of visitors. Nothing untoward happened, Ms Feitosa says, adding that Brazil’s constitution gives parents the right to decide whether a cultural activity is suitable for their child.
So far, R$1m (£204,000) has been collected to reinstate “Queermuseu”, the biggest online voluntary fund raised in Brazil through crowdfunding.
Jochen Volz, director of the Pinacoteca, one of São Paulo’s most prominent art museums, says the recent conservative wave is “not about art”, but is using art and culture. “Education and culture once again seem to be an easy target; museums and schools are held responsible by far-right groups for a so-called moral collapse,” he adds.
Fabio Cypriano, an art critic for nearly two decades for the daily Folha de São Paulo newspaper, sees the backlash as a result of the dismantled legacy of the Socialist Workers party (PT). The left-leaning PT government’s monumental downfall in 2016 has encouraged Brazilian traditionalists to express their criticisms, he says.
Under 13 years of PT rule from 2003, Brazil experienced an unprecedented period of economic and social improvement that caused rightwing views to fall out of fashion. But a decade in, as economic growth stagnated, wealthier people, long disgruntled by the better conditions for the poor, began speaking out.
In the grittier centre of São Paulo, artist Jota Mombaça is preparing to give a presentation at Sesc 24 de Maio, the newly refurbished 13-storey arts centre.
Ms Mombaça, 27, a black performance artist who was born and brought up in the relatively poor north-eastern coastal city of Natal, has become a leading critic of the far-right. One way to confront the rightwing groups, she says, is “to write about them” and “better inform people”.
Ms Borges concurs. Collective groups, artists and others need to mobilise, she says. She will be among a group of artists who will curate part of October’s São Paulo art biennial, the second oldest in the world after Venice.
The decision to allow artists to curate the exhibition in Brazil and have full autonomy is perhaps a reaction to the recent conservative wave and, Ms Borges says, it is giving artists a strong voice over what to present.
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