Watching recent movies from Brazil about AIDS, I was reminded of the sparseness of representations of the pandemic and its devastation on the country’s gay community in contemporary art of the time. It is an absence that made the artist José Leonilson’s diaristic audio-cassette entries so intensely haunting; Leonilson documented his lovers, his coming out to his religious parents after contracting HIV and his failing health, until his death, in 1993.

We lack such immersive personal record from another crucial Brazilian artist, Rafael França, who, like Leonilson, was gay and died of AIDS when young — Leonilson was 31, França 34. The inextricability of França’s art from the history of AIDS in Brazil and the United States has been corroborated by the posthumous inclusion of his work in the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal exhibition, Speaking Out: Film and Video About AIDS (1991), and more recently in United by AIDS (2019), at the Migros Museum. But França should also be recognized as a pioneer of Latin American video art. More than any artist of his generation, he embraced video not as a side experiment — as it had been for the older Brazilian artists, who had worked primarily in other media — but for the sake of its own unique aesthetic.

Rafael França: Requiem and vertigo, installation view at Jaqueline Martins Gallery, featuring José Leonilson, “Sem título” (1989), acrylic on canvas

I first saw França’s video work this past September, in São Paulo, in the show Requiem and vertigo at Jaqueline Martins Gallery, which, since its founding in 2011, has shed light on some important under-known artists from the 1960s onward. The show wasn’t ostensibly about AIDS — although the first video on display, França’s “A Prelude to a Death Foretold” (1991), made some days before his death, showed the torsos and hands of França and his companion, Geraldo Rivello, in gentle caresses and embraces, before the names of the artist’s deceased friends floated onto and faded from the screen. But this video was also a culmination of the major themes in the second half of França’s meteoric career, cut short just as he was becoming more known — that of fragmentation. As a whole, the show vibrated with edgy discontinuity, making the glitchy technology of video and television seem like the perfect medium for capturing psychic disruption and vertigo, and, in a way, a playful, albeit oftentimes violent, toying with systemic breakdown.

Technology was França’s lasting obsession. Shortly after moving from Porto Alegre to São Paulo — to study at the University of São Paulo (USP), where he learned lithography and engraving from the artists Regina Silveira and Carmela Gross — he began experimenting with photocopy-based art.

“[Xerox] was an alternative medium that brought us together,” the artist Mário Ramiro recalls in Alex Gabassi and Marco Del Fiol’s documentary, Obra como testamento (Work as Testament, 2o21). Ramiro, França, and Hudinilson Jr. (who later became famous for his erotic Xerox self-portraits), bonded over the photocopier at USP, the seriality of their works already similar to cinematic storyboards.

In 1979, they founded the 3Nós3 collective, dedicated to site-specific interventions. They wrapped the heads of statues of statesmen in plastic bags; they cut off traffic on the city’s largest commercial avenue, Avenida Paulista, with a barrier of plastic tape — in wait for the crowd’s reaction. Though the press was sometimes quick to dismiss them as vandals or Marxist anarchists (Brazil remained under the rightwing military regime until 1985), their public actions, outside galleries and museums, echoed Brazilian artists like Hélio Oiticica, Cildo Meireles, and Lygia Clark.

Rafael França: Requiem and vertigo, installation view at Jaqueline Martins Gallery

In the ’80s, video art was still relatively new. Nam June Paik had first shown in São Paulo in 1975. Influenced by Paik, França’s first installations built on his interest in minimalism, with video monitors producing abstract forms and sculptural conglomerations. França never abandoned entirely his interest in video as an immersive environment: His archives at the Museum of Contemporary Art, University of São Paulo, include his proposal for The Video Column project (1988) — inspired by classical architecture — with 10 videos, 20 minutes each, to be shown on 200 monitors. The impact of Paik, and others such as Joan Jonas, Doug Hall, Bill Viola, was also felt when França curated Videoteca, a video art show at the 19th São Paulo Biennial, in 1987.

By then, França had settled permanently in Chicago. He’d left Brazil in 1982 to do a master’s at the Center for Advanced Studies in Art and Technology, at the Art Institute of Chicago, with a focus on computer hardware. Abroad, he’d begun experimenting with fictional narrative in a highly disruptive fashion. In “Fighting the Invisible Enemy” (1983), he makes the image of his body, captured in horizontal and vertical views, flicker so fast it’s nearly impossible to form a holistic idea of it. His sound, slowed down or played in reverse, often booms like a monstrous beast from a horror movie. The jolt of his confrontational breaking down of the fourth wall brings to mind Brazil’s 1970s Marginal Cinema.

França’s art thrived on the uncanny, as in “Getting Out” (1985), a rhythmic collage, in which the artist Maggie Magge helplessly yanks at her front door before turning on the gas, and then mysteriously escapes out the back. Experimental film had long mastered surrealist effects — think of Jean Cocteau, Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren — but video art was less ostentatiously artsy; it could be jarring, and yet, somehow, feel closer to real life.

Rafael França: Requiem and vertigo, installation view at Jaqueline Martins Gallery

Still, França’s auto-fictions can be slippery. In “Re-encounter” (1984), he cuts abruptly from the image of himself standing in the street on a gray day to him gagged, strapped in a chair, frantically rocking to break loose. Is it a memory or a fantasy? Likely both, as if time has come unglued, Lynchian fashion. When França goes up to the roof and points a gun — first at the viewer, then at his head — and fires, there’s a sense that his fictive doppelgänger might have been dead from the get-go, chronicling his own demise. In this sense, video is a psychic auto-loop, a “self-encapsulation — the body or psyche as its own surround,” as Rosalind Krauss calls it in her 1976 essay, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” in which she likens the spatial claustrophobia of video to self-reflection.

In his videos, França used fictional framing to create such reflective distance. “Without Fear of Vertigo” (1987) includes a frank talk of illness and death, yet is cloaked as a fiction that features an interview with a man who may have assisted his lover in suicide. Meanwhile, “I Have Lost It” (1984), with its jerky camera, feels like it parodies commonplace notions on psychosis. It cites snippets of text (“Lost what?” “Have you seen it?”) from Ronald David Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist whose book The Divided Self was popular in Brazil in the ’70s, influencing artists such as Lygia Clark (who eventually gave up making art to become an art therapist).    

França’s despair over friends lost to AIDS, and his own sudden decline, no doubt tinged his work with anguished urgency. The proximity of death only accentuated his longstanding preoccupations: mind and body as unshakable hallucinations, discordant, unreliable, but also infinite in their perverse playfulness. Video came into this configuration as the accessible means to catch the hide-and-seek with one’s self and eros. It was something you watched “with the lights on,” as França insisted, without pretenses of high art. In his obstinate, obsessive, agonistic lucidity, França seemed to echo David Wojnarowicz’s sentiment, expressed in the catalogue of the 1995 AIDS and art exhibition, Against Our Vanishing: “There is something I want to see clearly, something I want to witness in its raw state.”

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special edition of Hyperallergic devoted to under-recognized art histories. This article was made possible by a grant from the Sam Francis Foundation.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.