With right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro in power in Brazil, many artists fear for democratic values in the country. Helio Fervenza spoke to DW about censorship, responsibility and the specter of dictatorship.
Visual artist Helio Fervenza teaches at the art institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul Art in Porto Alegre. His works have been presented at the Venice Biennale art shows, in Sao Paulo and Amsterdam.
Like so many artists in Brazil, Fervenza is worried about political developments in his native country. He told DW about the significance of art, widening censorship and art's responsibility in society.
DW: Brazil is rich in culture, from carnival to folk music and literature. How significant is contemporary art in museums, especially now that President Jair Bolsonaro has shut down the Culture Ministry?
Helio Fervenza: He and his political cronies are not interested in art. But even before that there was little support from the ministry. For me, art equals access to knowledge about the world, because through the eyes of art you see the world from new perspectives. You become more aware and you see things differently. This kind of art has not been recognized in society, it was a process that took time. Not every type of art gets an immediate reaction, but in the long run, it triggers a new way of thinking in society. So what's happening in Brazil at the moment — the government's inconsiderate way of dealing with art — is very bad.
Can art help advance Brazilian society?
At this time, no one is thinking about the cultural development of society; certainly the government isn't. That is reflected in a large section of Brazilian society, which is really sick. Quality doesn't matter, it's all just about money: Can you make money with art or not?
That's the Brazilian story of capitalism. Hardly anyone wastes a thought on how art can take us forward or change our view of the world — especially not the politicians. To the contrary, even classic types of art are not promoted. Just look at how few people go to exhibitions — it's not about art, it's always about profit.
From 1964 to 1985, Brazilians lived under a military dictatorship. The arts were repressed, and many artists went into exile. Is the current attitude toward the arts based on those years?
Absolutely. Several politicians, especially Bolsonaro, have openly expressed their admiration for the military dictatorship. They paid tribute to the torturers' actions. Brazil has never grappled with that era and few have been brought to justice. That entire 1980s repressive bureaucratic apparatus still exists; the oligarchs are still powerful. All of this is resurfacing like a specter, after just a few years of a democratic opening.
Many Brazilian artists are worried about censorship. Is this something artists who are not pro-government are about to face?
Absolutely. Once again, censorship is omnipresent, maybe not like it was during the military dictatorship, but you can feel the pressure from several sides in different ways. They'll say you're hurting religious feelings, for instance. There was massive rioting at some exhibitions. Artworks targeting current politics were removed. Often curators or museum directors veto exhibitions, while curators who do not toe the government line have been repeatedly threatened. Some curators were summoned to report to the National Congress to justify exhibiting works that were considered offensive. This has nothing to do with democracy.
The world has changed under presidents like Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bolsonaro. Does art bear the responsibility of facing new challenges?
Not only art — we all have to face new challenges. But, of course, art has always critically reflected the course of history. In everyday life, we often don't even realize what is happening around us or we don't grasp the global context. Art has the ability to make reality visible and to give us an overview. It has not always been easy for artists. They have worked under abysmal conditions, but they managed. And they have a lot to say about social and political contexts.
Is that an issue German and Brazilian artists address in the Goethe-Institut exhibition "The Power of Reproduction"?
Absolutely. Some works are explicitly dedicated to current political conditions; they show that the dictatorship is still somehow present in Brazil. It is frightening and scandalous that the current government is resurrecting this era. The exhibition aims to make visitors aware of these developments.
How are artists responding to the current situation in Brazil?
I have been very involved with the phenomenon of time this past year: I picked some important dates in Brazilian history, like the 1964 coup, the beginning of the dictatorship and the fall of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. I mixed these dates so it is not clear whether these events have already taken place, or are about to happen. At the moment, there is a lot of debate about the current political developments, and people wonder whether we are not living in the past again. With my work, I'm reacting to this debate.
I also play with the word "democracy" — I alienate it artistically to the point where you can hardly read it anymore — evidence that we no longer know what democracy means and how to identify with it. And that's something we all have to work on.
After its first showing in Porto Alegre, Brazil, "The Power of Reproduction," a collaborative exhibition between Brazil and Germany, is now on show at the Goethe-Institut in Leipzig until March 23, 2019.