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Why Brazil's Freewheeling Image Doesn't Match Reality


People who study Brazil often point out this contradiction. The country is known for its sensuality, its beaches, bikinis, but Brazilian society is at its core religious and conservative. NPR's Philip Reeves has been seeing signs of this as artists who push boundaries around sex and gender face backlash.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The Museum of Art in the city of Sao Paulo is one of the world's great galleries. It recently launched an unusual exhibition, called, "Stories of Sexuality." Alini Gonzales came here to see it.

ALINI GONZALES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "It's extremely important that this is happening right now," says Gonzalez, who's a musician.

GONZALES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Because intolerance in Brazil is growing." Some works in the show are sexually explicit. The museum knew this would cause a huge outcry. For the first time in its history, it imposed an age restriction. Outside, people lining up to buy tickets are all adults. Under-18s are not allowed in. The exhibition's about many different forms of sexuality expressed through art in many different ways. Nudes by Degas, Picasso and Renoir hang alongside Robert Mapplethorpe photographs from the 1960s. Silvana Belini has just come out of the exhibition...

SILVANA BELINI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Which she found subtle and sensitive. "The ban on under-18s is ridiculous," says Belini, who's a law professor.

BELINI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Brazilian kids often lack sex education. Belini thinks they need to learn more about sexuality. After several tense weeks, her argument has prevailed. The restriction's been lifted, yet Brazil's so-called culture wars continue full throttle. In Brazil these days, artists and institutions who explore themes of sex and religion risk attracting street demonstrations and relentless online abuse. These campaigns are dominated by an organization called the Free Brazil Movement.

ESTHER SOLANO: They are very young people, and they know how to speak by social media. They know how to communicate with people.

REEVES: Esther Solano is a sociologist at the Federal University of Sao Paulo who tracks the Free Brazil Movement. Solano says it's run by right-wing activists who see these campaigns as a way of winning popular support. With 2.5 million Facebook followers, the group should not be underestimated, she says.

SOLANO: It's a huge risk because they are attacking fundamental rights, the right of speech, the right of the sexual orientations.

REEVES: Kim Kataguiri, coordinator of the Free Brazil Movement, insists the movement's not interested in censorship.

KIM KATAGUIRI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "It just lobbies for ordinary Brazilians," he says, "who care about what happens to their taxes and want to protect their kids." That argument does not wash with many within Brazil's artistic community. They say their right to free speech is increasingly threatened. In a nation that less than 35 years ago was under military dictatorship, this matters.

LETICIA GELABERT: Here it's written censorship never more because we already had censorship back in the days where we had a dictatorship.

REEVES: Leticia Gelabert is talking about a slogan scrawled across her back. She's in Rio de Janeiro at a protest outside that city's Museum of Art. Gelabert's a ballet dancer. Right now, though, she's squatting on the road painting a banner attacking Rio's mayor, who's a bishop in an evangelical church. She's angry with the mayor for stopping this museum from holding an exhibition with gay, lesbian and transgender themes.

GELABERT: It's a public museum, our museum. And everybody has different religions, different ways of feeling art.

REEVES: This same exhibition, called "Queermuseu," was shut down in southern Brazil after a campaign against it led by the Free Brazil Movement.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting in foreign language).

REEVES: Some of the "Queermuseu's" opponents are here.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting in foreign language).

REEVES: "No to pedophilia," they chant. They see art that tackles such themes as a threat to children who might see it. The protestors include Luiz Augusto Meier.

LUIZ AUGUSTO MEIER: (Through interpreter) We think using art to change children is a crime. It's an abuse of the vulnerable.

REEVES: This controversy and others like it is highlighting the issue of intolerance in Brazil, a country that's so often seen from outside as a freewheeling place of Carnaval, samba and sex. Brazilians often say that image doesn't actually match reality.

GELABERT: That's very strange how the body's seen here and how other cultures see us because we don't have this freedom, actually.

REEVES: The ballet dancer, Leticia Gelabert, again.

GELABERT: That's the way they sell us, as a tourist place. This is the image. It's something that sells.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.