Looking Back 2017: Judith and Holofernes in Brazil

Where the fight against reactionary conservative activism in Brazil stands ahead of the 2018 presidential elections

In early November, Judith Butler was invited to Brazil by the Social Service of Commerce in São Paulo (SESC-SP) to participate in ‘The Ends of Democracy’, a seminar on the dangers that democracy faces globally at the beginning of the 21st century. Butler was asked to highlight the necessity of applying critical theory to political and social practices amid the rise of global, far-right populist movements. Even before she arrived, the American philosopher was the target of protests, threats and a petition calling for the cancellation of her talk that argued Butler ‘aimed to accelerate the process of corruption and fragmentation of our society’. The petition gathered more than 370,000 signatures. Right-wing critics were particularly incensed by what they called the ‘Gender Ideology’ of the American philosopher, an ideology ‘that disguises a Marxist agenda and promotes the destruction of the Family and [apologizes for] depraved sexual practices and pedophilia.’ On the day of the seminar, dozens of protestors gathered in front of the SESC Pompeia with megaphones and placards proclaiming slogans like ‘-ONU +Family’ (an anti-United Nations slogan). After praying, they burned an effigy of Butler dressed as a witch. This attack on Butler was not an isolated incident. Rather, the protest was part of a broader series of right-wing moves against free speech and freedom of expression since the impeachment of President Dilma Rouseff in August 2016. In 2017, democracy in Brazil has come under attack.

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Protests against Judith Butler's participation in the conference at SESC Pompeii, Sao Paulo, 7 November, 2017

Protests against Judith Butler's participation in ‘The Ends of Democracy’ conference at SESC Pompéia, São Paulo, 7 November, 2017

The threat is two-pronged. First, there’s the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), the main right wing agitator in a series of 2013 conservative protests. The movement, which once decried government corruption, has spared criticizing members of the current government (despite numerous investigations into alleged wrongdoing) and has re-positioned itself as an extremist, neoliberal advocacy group in favour of dismantling the state, with connections to the American Koch brothers. Second, there’s the rise of evangelical Christianity in Brazil. In 2008, Edir Macedo, the founder of the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God), published the book Plan to Take the Power in which he urged evangelicals to engage in politics with the objective of someday ruling the country. (Macedo had already served time in prison and is currently under investigation for money laundering, illegal importations, abuse of power and religious discrimination.)

Nearly 10 years after Macedo first published his plan, 197 of the 513 elected members of the Brazilian parliament are evangelicals. They are explicitly against racial and gender equality, abortion or euthanasia, same-sex marriage and the criminalization of gender violence, and they aim to restrict the concept of family to heteronormative couples. Under the current Brazilian government, the ruralist voting bloc has voted for the deforestation of immense areas of the Amazon, the reduction of Ecological Reserves and the violent removal of indigenous peoples at the behest of agribusiness. 

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Protests against Judith Butler's participation in ‘The Ends of Democracy’ conference at SESC Pompéia, Sao Paulo, 7 November, 2017

Protests against Judith Butler's participation in ‘The Ends of Democracy’ conference at SESC Pompéia, São Paulo, 7 November, 2017

Between the evangelicals and ruralists, the government is now in the service of the economic elite and is actively engaged in the erosion of labour rights and social security in favour of  supposed economic growth that will only benefit the wealthiest. While the government hopes to save 18 billion Reais (GBP£4.1 billion; USD$5.5 billion) per year with social security reforms, they have just approved annual tax cuts of 50 billion Reais (GBP£11.4 billion; USD$15.2 billion) for foreign oil companies willing to explore the pre-salt oil reserve (one of the largest in the world), the benefits of which were to be directed, by law, to public health and education. (Benefits these sectors have not, in fact, received.) As if a major cut to the health and education systems were not enough, government investment in those human services have been frozen for the next 20 years, until 2026.

Currently, the ultra-conservative groups behind these seismic shifts in the Brazilian political landscape have decided that the biggest threat to the nation are ideas and artworks. In October, Santander Cultural closed the ‘Queermuseu: Cartografias da Diferença na Arte Brasileira’ – an exhibition of 264 works by LGBTQ artists – after MBL-promoted protests. At the 35th Panorama of Brazilian Arts in the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, right-wing criticism forced choreographer Wagner Schwartz to cancel his performance La Bête (2017) and flee the country. Evangelicals attempted to close down Pedro Moraleida’s retrospective survey in Belo Horizonte. In each case, the same false accusations were bandied about: that the artist or artwork promoted paedophilia and the destruction of the family. 

Wagner Schwartz, La Bête, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: the artist

Wagner Schwartz, La Bête, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: the artist

Wagner Schwartz, La Bête, 2017, performance view. Courtesy: the artist

Even after the Ministerio Publico Federal (the Federal Prosecutor Bureau) declared that no crime had been committed in any of the above-mentioned cases and issued a technical note clarifying that nudity and representations of sexuality are permitted in cultural and artistic exhibitions, the consequences continue to unfold: the state of Espirito Santo has passed a law prohibiting the exhibition of photographs, texts, drawings, paintings, films and videos containing nude scenes or references to sexual acts in public spaces; city councilors of the state of Rio Grande do Sul are currently trying to ban books in public libraries that, they argue, expose children to ‘permissive ideologies, [detrimental] to the formation of character.’ The Brazilian Parliament has initiated a Parliamentary Investigative Commission into the curator of ‘Queermuseu’, Gaudêncio Fidelis, who has been threatened with a warrant by the supreme court judge Alexandre de Moraes if he does not comply.

While the House Representatives and the judges of the Supreme Court conduct alarmist investigations into artists and their legitimate practices, Brazil leads the world in the murder of transgendered people, the murder rate of women is the third highest in the world, and child labour has risen to 2.7 million reported cases. Meanwhile, the advice from the World Bank is for the privatization of Brazilian public universities and health services.

'Queermuseum: Queer Tactics Toward Non-Heteronormative Curating', Santander Cultural, Porto Alegre, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Santander Cultural

'Queermuseum: Queer Tactics Toward Non-Heteronormative Curating', Santander Cultural, Porto Alegre, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Santander Cultural

'Queermuseum: Queer Tactics Toward Non-Heteronormative Curating', Santander Cultural, Porto Alegre, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Santander Cultural, Porto Alegre

Shaped by its colonialist and slave-trade past, Brazil remains a fragile example of the fight against democracy occuring on a global scale by capitalist elites. The 2018 elections will be a fierce battleground between internal and external threats. Cambridge Analytica – the data company deeply involved with Brexit and the Trump campaign – has just landed in Brazil, and has already stated its ‘small government’ strategy will be simultaneously focused on the northeast of the country and the ‘C’ class, two traditionally left-leaning voting blocs in Brazil. The dream of the American libertarian economist James McGill Buchanan has become global. Through a combination of evangelical ruralist-capitalists populating an illegitimate government, along with the fear of automation and big data, the tools and strategies of the 2018 political elections will perpetuate the current discourse of hate and violence. 

If Judith Butler is seen as threat for fighting for basic freedoms and equality, we must condemn the violation of rights and denounce right-wing populism. The survival of our democracy can only be guaranteed by a proliferation of ‘Judiths’.

Read statements by Fernanda Brenner, Lucia Koch, Jonathas de Andrade, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz and Renata Lucas responding to the recent spate of censorship in Brazil here.

Main image: Protests against Judith Butler's participation in ‘The Ends of Democracy’ conference at SESC Pompéia, São Paulo, 7 November, 2017

Daniel Steegmann Mangrané is a Barcelona-born artist living and working in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Previous solo exhibitions include ‘(Paisaje de posibilidades)’, Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, Columbia, and ‘Did not want to have human form, human flesh or human matter’, The Green Parrot, Barcelona, Spain, (both 2016). His current show ‘A Transparent Leaf, Instead of the Mouth’ runs at the Serralves Museum, Porto, Portugal, until 7 January 2018.

Michelle Sommer is an architect, researcher and curator. She completed his PhD in History, Theory and Criticism in 2016 focusing on exhibition studies. She is currently a faculty member at the Parque Lage Visual Arts School and is a post-doctoral researcher at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. In 2017, she was a co-curator of the exhibition ‘Mário Pedrosa: on the affective nature of form’ at Museo Nacional Centro de Artes Reina Sofía, Madrid.

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