Investigating the Art School That Exploited Its Students, Artists Claim

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In January, Brazilian journalists Chico Felitti and Beatriz Trevisan launched the first episode of their ten-part podcast O Ateliê. It caused an immediate sensation with its tale of an unofficial São Paulo art school that, they claim, slowly morphed into a personality cult centred on the charismatic teacher and his alleged victims, the monied and young who so often feed the country’s gallery system. Yet underlying this particularly strange story are wider questions about exploitation in the art world; class and creative endeavour; the pursuit of a career at any cost; and what happens when the fetishised ideal of the outsider artist morphs into something darker. Here, for the first time, the pair recount their investigation in English.

At 10am on 26 September 2022, three people enter the Cambuci Women’s Defence Police Station, in downtown São Paulo. They are there to file a complaint. One is surprised. “I expected a grey block”, says painter Mirela Cabral, 30, the only one in the group comfortable with her name being published. Instead she found the place to be more like a sports gym, with a curved roof painted green, yellow and purple. Inside, the waiting room was just as cheerful: there is a green plastic seesaw, imitating an alligator; child-sized fire trucks and colourful plastic chairs where children can sit while their mothers, aunts or sisters might be reporting a crime. After half an hour of waiting, Mirela goes to the toilet. She comes back with a tampon in her hand. “It’s free in the bathroom”, she whispers to her friends. She pulls a set of coloured pens from her bag and starts drawing on the padded white square wrapper. Before being called by the clerk, she pictures the police station’s plastic chairs on the soft white background.

Mirela, with the two other women, are there to denounce a man who was her teacher. The three were students at an art school called Ateliê do Centro, run by Rubens Espírito Santo, which occupies a building a few steps from Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic Copan building off the downtown Praça da República. At the Ateliê, they will tell the police, they suffered psychological, physical and sexual violence and financial exploitation. Mirela will tell the police that her thousand days at the art school was like joining a sect.

Mirela’s story, and that of her co-accusers, is documented in our Portuguese-language podcast O Ateliê, which has followed the case since early 2022 when the artist made her allegations public. The founder of Ateliê do Centro says no crime was committed at the school, though he does not deny the scenes described by the twenty former students we interviewed.

Ateliê do Centro has existed for 20 years, with the children of millionaire businessmen, the offspring of some of the greatest art collectors in the world and those of renowned artists passing through its doors. One ‘disciple’, as the pupils were referred to within the school and in its literature, has been going daily for 13 years. While the majority of its students came from affluent families, there were also ones from more modest backgrounds – one interviewee told us that he had two jobs while attending the school, but that the income of one job went straight to Espírito Santo. There were fees for each student, but these varied from individual to individual from R$1000 (£155) to R$3000 (£465) a month, with many students reporting spending a great deal more.

Mirela started at the school in 2016 when she was 24 years old. She had graduated in cinema and was already supporting herself as a TV commercial producer. A friend asked if she knew about the downtown alternative arts school. She didn’t, and went to visit. She came up with the idea of making a documentary about that man, stocky and corpulent, who had a following of young people around him, who styled himself o mestre (the master). But she fell in love with the place, and a few months later she resigned to dedicate herself completely to the classes and practical experiments.

The painter claims that she always wanted to be an artist, but that her decision came at a delicate moment. “I arrived there weighing 48 kilos, I was beginning to have anorexia”, she says. Espírito Santo told her that she would have to spend a week eating inside, using her hands instead of cutlery. “He said it was to get me back in touch with food.” Another former disciple claims that she was considering suicide when she entered the school, and another woman says that she joined the Ateliê after losing a relative and going through a divorce. All claim they were manipulated in a moment of fragility.

Mirela Cabral, The Fall (a queda), 2022, oil and embroidery on linen, 170 x 250 cm. Photo: Damian Griffiths. Courtesy the artist and Kupfer, London

The studio’s logic is similar to that of a boarding school. The rules are strict. Every day, Espírito Santo sent an email to the students with a list of tasks. Mirela found some of them strange when she arrived. In a booklet that explains how the Ateliê method works, there are more than fifty commandments. Some of them seem to be linked to professional skills: ‘Rule 1 – every disciple is obliged to speak English, German and French’. Others are more focused on bodily issues than artistic ones: ‘Rule 24 – wash using hot water’, or ‘Rule 42 – female disciples are prohibited from wearing flesh-coloured underwear.’

Within her first days at the school, Mirela claims she was called a “puta burra” (a “dumb bitch”), and other insults. A few weeks later, while she was sitting in a conversation circle, she says Espírito Santo pulled her hair until she fell to the ground. About ten other disciples, who were standing around, watched the scene in silence. “I was hurt, but at the same time, everyone around me was there doing nothing, like it was the most normal thing in the world. So I kind of soaked it up. Because I wanted to be a part of something, you know?” To take part in this course, she paid R$1,500 (£233) a month, plus money for Espírito Santo’s personal expenses, such as cigars and purchases she made from the supermarket for the master’s house.

More aggression occurred, she alleges, as she got deeper and deeper into the curriculum. She took aesthetics classes but then cooked lunch, served at noon sharp, with the other students. She also took on homework assignments, which at Ateliê were called ‘artistic reports’. One was a photo shoot. In it, Mirela appears without a shirt, wearing a blonde wig. Another female disciple also has synthetic bobbed hair and a bare torso. In the photos, the two lick a can of condensed milk and then kiss each other with tongues. Mirela says that there was no physical attraction, and that the photos were a task given by the master. “Does this look like abuse?” she asked at a meeting with her lawyer in September 2022, raising the photos.

In addition to getting legal assistance, Mirela has won the support of former colleagues throughout past year. The first person willing to witness her stories is Dudu Farah, a young businessman who studied with Mirela. Farah confirms Mirela’s account. And he says that he himself was the victim of abuse at the Ateliê. One day, in the middle of lunch, he was asked if he believed in the school rules. He replied yes. “Then Rubens said to a female disciple: ‘So, lower your pants and sit in front of him.’” There’s a crowd present, eating lunch, to which the woman is alleged to have taken her trousers and underwear in front of. “He turned to me and said: ‘Dudu, suck her.’” The artist obeyed. “It was incredibly embarrassing. It lasted three seconds, but I think in my head and her head it must have been like three hours, you know?”

Another artist, who spent years at the school, claims that she witnessed Espírito Santo heat a craft knife over a fire and threaten to mark the skin of a disciple who had questioned him. The student jumped up and said “No I can’t handle that”. The scene was confirmed by six people. And there is evidence of other violence that occurred. Mirela still has the scar on her arm from a cross she says Espírito Santo made on her and at least a dozen students, using a penknife from his collection. There are videos of him cutting a disciple’s arm. As the blade travels through the flesh, she stays still.

Twelve former disciples anonymously described cases of aggression. A young woman claims she left the school after witnessing a scene that she has never been able to forget. She says she saw a new student get thrown to the ground by Espírito Santo. “When I see him, he starts kicking her, he kicks her a lot and she has her little hand on her head, like, protecting herself and crying at the same time and he kicks, kicks, kicks…” The witness says that Espírito Santo then tripped over the student he was attacking, recasting the scene in reverse: “Then he gets up with a limp… And then he sits in the chair and starts to cry. And when he starts to cry, a mood is created. Everyone sat in silence, looking at each other. The master is crying, the master never cries.” According to her, Espírito Santo then said, for the whole group to hear: “Look what you did, man. Me bringing you love, and for an act of love, look what you do to me, man. I broke my wrist for you.” The student, who was still on the floor, was left unassisted, while the other disciples went to help their teacher.

Source: artreview