SÃO PAULO, Brazil — A controversy has erupted in Brazil after organizers of an art exhibition on gender and sexual diversity caved to pressure from conservative groups and canceled the show — rekindling a political firestorm that gripped the country last year when the country’s first female president was impeached.
The offending images in the display — Queermuseu, or Queer Museum — included a baby monkey snuggling in the Virgin Mary’s arms, sacramental wafers with the words “vagina” and “tongue” written on them and naïve-style portraits of smiling children spray-painted with tags like “transvestite” and “gay child.”
Critics — some of whom had also demanded the impeachment of the president — accused the artists of promoting pedophilia and child pornography. Rowdy protesters harassed museumgoers outside and inside the exhibition and posted a video that was seen by more than 1.4 million viewers on Facebook.
On Sunday, Santander Bank unexpectedly closed the exhibition, which is at its cultural center in the southern city of Pôrto Alegre, a month ahead of schedule. The curator found out when a friend of his sent him a text message.
“I was completely taken by surprise,” said the curator, Gaudencio Fidelis, in a telephone interview. “It is not normal for an institution to give into pressure like this.”
“It’s never happened in Brazil, not even during the dictatorship,” he added, referring to the brutal military dictatorship that ended in 1985. “It sets a bad precedent.”
In Brazil, private and public banks and other companies are some of the biggest investors in culture, many of them financing museums, artists and films.
The cancellation reverberated across the country, feeding into the broad political feud that exploded during the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, pitting her supporters against the man who replaced her, Michel Temer.
The country’s top artists were already wary of Mr. Temer’s close ties to the evangelical lobby in Brazil’s Congress, and one of his early actions — to appoint an all-male, all-white cabinet, and to eliminate the Culture Ministry — did not help, even though the ministry was quickly reinstated.
Also, Mr. Temer has continued to actively court religious conservatives in Congress to help push through his economic initiatives and protect him from a corruption investigation.
Many artists have rallied to Ms. Rousseff. During her impeachment trial when she was accused of breaking budgetary laws, many musicians and artists who had resisted the dictatorship took a stand against Mr. Temer for what they said was an “institutional coup d’état.”
At the Cannes Film Festival last year, the cast of the Brazilian film “Aquarius,” including Sonia Braga, held up placards on the red carpet denouncing the “illegitimate government” and urging people to “save Brazilian democracy!”
A couple of months later, the new government’s Oscar committee rejected “Aquarius” as Brazil’s candidate for best foreign-language film – prompting accusations of political retaliation.
Santander’s explanation for the cancellation of the show fueled the controversy.
“We heard the protests and we understand that some of the works at the Queermuseu disrespected symbols, beliefs and people, which is not in line with our vision of the world,” the bank said in a statement.
The Free Brazil Movement — one of the same groups that organized huge demonstrations demanding Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment — declared victory. “Santander used public money to finance an exhibition with pedophilia and bestiality,” the group said on Facebook. “Brazilian society organized to reject that. That is a boycott that worked.”
On Tuesday afternoon, protesters gathered outside Santander’s cultural center demanding that the exhibition be reopened. They ended up clashing with the police. Signatures on a petition supporting the exhibition topped 60,000, and numerous opinion articles denouncing censorship and attacks on artistic expression appeared in local publications.
The regional district attorney for children’s issues, Julio Almeida, seemed to support the exhibition. “We saw the art and there isn’t any pedophilia,” he told journalists in Pôrto Alegre. “There are some images that could be characterized as sexually explicit. But from a criminal viewpoint, there is nothing.”
The exhibition, which opened on Aug. 15, included more than 263 works of art from 85 artists, including Candido Portinari, Alfredo Volpi and Lygia Clark.
The paintings of children tagged “transvestite” by the artist Bia Leite set off some of the strongest reactions. “We, L.G.B.T., were once children,” she responded in an interview with the UOL news site. “I am totally opposed to pedophilia and the psychological abuse of children. The goal of this work is just the opposite.”
The curator said the exhibition was the first in Brazil to embrace the “queer perspective.”
It might still find a new home in the city of Belo Horizonte, where the secretary of culture is a former minister from Ms. Rousseff’s government. He has received a proposal to put it in a municipal museum.
“I’m smiling on the idea,” said the secretary, Juca Ferreira, in a telephone interview. “If we allow the censorship of art, it will be a huge step backward. We lived with it during the dictatorship, so we know it has to be cut out at the root.”
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