Editor’s Note: The following story contains material related to sexual assault. If you or someone you know is struggling, call 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org to reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

In September 2022, 31-year-old artist Mirela Cabral along with two other women filed a complaint against the Brazilian artist Rubens Espirito Santo, 53, who created the Conglomerado Atelier do Centro (CAC) over 20 years ago. What started as an informal school ostensibly founded to offer teaching and advising for young artists is now being described by some of its “alumni” as a cult.

The so-called art school functioned right in the city center of São Paulo, Brazil, enrolling dozens of students until it was forced to shut its doors following accusations aired on the podcast O Ateliê, presented this January by journalists Chico Felitti and Beatriz Trevisan. In theory, anyone could attend the Atelier, but it was mostly frequented by young people of the upper class. They were charmed by the middle-aged man who convinced them that he was an intellectual and the “Marcel Duchamp of current times,” as former students have said he described himself. They agreed to call their teacher “master” and have him refer to them as “disciples.” They wore overall uniforms labeled with working titles and they succumbed to bizarre exercises for artistic development. But was it really all in the name of art?

Rubens Espirito Santo is currently being investigated for false imprisonment and “violação sexual mediante fraude,” translated in English as “sexual assault by deception.” Chief of Police Cristiane Rocha explained on the Brazilian TV network Record that the latter allegation stems from “Rubens using students as an instrument for sexual acts by leading them to believe it was in an artistic context.”

Espirito Santo has been summoned by Brazilian police to give a statement in court four times, but his lawyers have said that he wasn’t able to attend because of sickness. A psychiatric hospital was mentioned in their justification. Two letters were published on Atelier do Centro’s digital channels in response to the accusations made in Felitti and Trevisan’s podcast. In the most recent one, posted on January 5, Rubens Espirito Santo wrote in part: “The material produced by him [Chico Felitti] includes reports from former students who accuse me of physical and psychological aggressions, which I will address throughout this text. To these students, I sincerely apologize for any excesses, though consensual, that have occurred in our relationship, which was largely marked by affection, complicity, mutual learning, and long periods of coexistence.”

The statement continues:

“At Atelier do Centro, we actually adopted a very rigorous method. We worked with small groups of artists, architects, filmmakers, and other creative professionals who are interested in radical experiences in the field of the arts. In this work context, it is natural and deliberate that conflicts and situations of confrontation arise, as provocative elements. The intense and radical coexistence that we propose can result in excesses, which I recognize may have taken place in relationships with former students, to whom I apologize once again if they felt negatively affected. I respect the criticism and pain of each one of them.”

Hyperallergic attempted to reach Espirito Santo several times for this article. The Atelier do Centro responded to our multiple email inquiries with messages that were blank except for the artist’s name. Messages sent to Espirito Santo’s WhatsApp also went unanswered.

“Psychological Kidnapping”

People went to Atelier do Centro looking for an art school, but what they found was something different. It was a place where conversations about very intimate aspects of the lives of students happened regularly. In a recording viewed by Hyperallergic, a student who was supposed to be teaching others about the so-called “RES Method” spent more than an hour making eight people discuss one young woman’s lack of confidence as she cried.

Many of the former students claim to have joined the group in a moment of vulnerability. One of them, who asked to be kept anonymous for fear of retaliation and exposure, described Rubens Espirito Santo’s conduct around students in an interview with Hyperallergic.

“He mapped out your sorrows and created an emotional bond that made you think your healing depended on him,” they said. “After that, you could no longer break that bond. He merged into you and took all your autonomy.” That same student spent years in the Atelier do Centro and claims to have been sexually assaulted, humiliated, and beaten up, alleging that Espirito Santo used his students to satisfy his sexual desires.

The Spanish psychologist Margarita Barranco, interviewed by Record, explained what she perceived as a mechanism of psychological manipulation: “There are people in this kind of group who are very intelligent, but it’s their emotional part that fails,” Barranco explained. “That makes them vulnerable. Their hearts make them vulnerable. And what the manipulator does is take advantage of that situation to conquer them and have them integrate the group.” A former student who spoke to Record used the term “psychological kidnapping” to describe their personal experience at the Atelier. Defined by the American Psychological Association Dictionary as “depriving a person of the free functioning of his or her personality,” the term is sometimes used to describe “the psychological mind control attributed to cults.”

Hyperallergic obtained access to a revealing diagram constructed by students under Espirito Santo’s instruction during a class at the Atelier in 2014. Titled “Organizational Chart of the RES Method: Towards a New Stochastic Pedagogy,” the diagram is a circle divided into named parts. The word discípulo (“disciple”) in bright green directs to the moss-green words estupro (“rape”), violência (“violence”), atravessamento (“crossing”), and milagre (“miracle”). 

A diagram allegedly built during a class at Atelier do Centro (photo courtesy a former student)

“He promoted the idea that it was necessary to surpass boundaries and suspend rules to reach a new level of consciousness,” the ex-student explained, a dynamic that he said made young artists believe it was acceptable to be kicked, insulted, or sexually assaulted. If someone arrived late, they could be punished by being forced to lay naked on the floor while someone threw a bucket of water on them, the same former student alleged. Espirito Santo allegedly kept a Nazi medal in his apartment, which was accessed frequently by students; swastikas also appeared in graphics produced by the Atelier.

Dudu Farah, a former student and a witness to the legal claim, narrated one of his experiences on the podcast O Ateliê. In the middle of lunch with the group, Espirito Santo allegedly asked Farah if he believed in the school rules. After an affirmative answer, Farah claims Espirito Santo demanded that a female disciple remove her pants and underwear and asked Dudu to perform oral sex on her. He allegedly obeyed.

“That was the worst of the distressing experiences I went through there,” Farah told Hyperallergic. “In my case, the abuse was more psychological than physical, although he did slap me on some occasions.” Another former student who spoke to Hyperallergic corroborated Farah’s account.

Mirela Cabral, the artist who filed the lawsuit, spent almost three years in the “school.” She claimed in the podcast O Ateliê that in the first few weeks, she was insulted and had her hair pulled until she fell to the floor while a group of students watching her stayed still. She also said the violence escalated with time. Even though former students stated that Rubens Espirito Santo treated the richer students better than the poorer ones, and Cabral was part of the wealthiest group, witnesses interviewed for the podcast said she received the worst treatment possible. She stated that he would grab her genitals and slap her thighs. Cabral also said that Rubens Espirito Santo once asked her, in front of a group of students, whom she loved more, him or her boyfriend. “I answered that it was him, coerced,” she told Hyperallergic.

Financial Exploitation

Another important aspect of Atelier do Centro involved money. Once admitted, students would have their income and expenses analyzed by Rubens Espirito Santo so he could decide how much they should pay him. They would also be asked to work, performing tasks such as cleaning, cooking, managing the Atelier’s finances, and assisting Espirito Santo in a range of tasks, such as taking him to the doctor. Was the master literally being paid to have employees? “Look at the size of this power dynamic. He was a father figure, a teacher, a master and a boss,” a former student told Hyperallergic

Espirito Santo also came up with the idea of an “Art Collection Fund.” Students were strongly recommended to pay more than the monthly fee, which mostly varied from R$500 to R$1,500 (~$100 to ~$300), to start collecting his work. This meant that many gave an extra amount as a payment in installments to afford to buy artwork. One of the students claimed on her website, which is now offline, that she made a lifelong collecting pact with the artist in 2011. 

The list of students who have RES collections is shown in the book Technical-Virtual Learning Platform RES = Pedagogy + Visual Art + Basic Survival Concepts in a Dystopian and Insolvent Reality in Latin America, self-published by a student in September 2021. That same book also includes a list of 16 art world figures outside the “school” who own Espirito Santo’s work, including top collectors Andréa and José Olympio Pereira; journalist Evelyn Ioschpe; art critic Rodrigo Naves; Justo Werlang, the first president of the Mercosur Biennial; and founder of the SP Arte fair Fernanda Feitosa. 

The Art World’s Silence

Mirela Cabral, the ex-student who spoke out about her experience at the Atelier do Centro, told Hyperallergic that she is “paying the price” for going public with her allegations.

“I didn’t want the whole story to be about me, but I ended up being the underlying theme because I was the only one who accepted being exposed,” Cabral said. “Rubens [Espirito Santo] said that they don’t work in the shadows, but they do. There is a pact inside the group and everybody was coerced not to say what happened in there. Until someone broke the silence, they didn’t know what really went on.”

Looking through comments on social media channels, however, it is rare to find statements about Espirito Santo by Brazilian cultural figures. The podcast has reached 4 million people, but the art world is silent. Why would this be the case? Is it because they believed Rubens Espirito Santo when he said in a recorded interview that the Atelier had nothing to do with art, therefore vindicating the art world of any responsibility? Is it because they don’t care? Or is it because they agree with Brazilian art critic Fabio Cypriano, who said Espirito Santo has no relevance in the circuit and it was the naivety and fragility of students that allowed the artist to maintain Atelier do Centro for more than 20 years?

But Espirito Santo and even Atelier do Centro did have recognition in the art world. Besides being represented in important private collections, he had exhibitions in public and private art institutions and galleries in São Paulo. “I don’t believe they were unconnected to the art system,” Brazilian curator Ana Carolina Ralston said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “They were integrated in it, so much so that there was a gallery that represented Atelier do Centro.” Ralston was one of the artistic directors of that gallery, Emma Thomas in São Paulo, which held an exhibition of works by members of the group in 2019 and presented some of them at the SP-Arte Foto fair. The since-shuttered gallery was owned by artist Marcos Amaro, who took classes with Espirito Santo years earlier. (Amaro did not respond to our request for comment.)

Ralston would have been one of the curators of the exhibition Méthodo at the Atelier do Centro, but after visiting the studio, she refused the job. “It was clear that there was abuse there, but we didn’t know the extent of the violence,” she said.

Some students interviewed by Hyperallergic cited another factor that contributed to them staying at the Atelier do Centro: the fact that the father of one of Espirito Santo’s students was José Olympio, CEO of J. Safra Bank in Brazil.

“I was captured by this,” said a former member of the group who asked not to be identified. “Rubens would say: ‘I don’t know if you are aware of this, but her father is the biggest art collector from Latin America, he is São Paulo Biennial Foundation’s president.'” Olympio’s daughter, Anna Israel, is the same artist who has a lifelong collecting pact with Espirito Santo and was in charge of teaching students about his method until the school shut down this year. José Olympio and Anna Israel did not respond to Hyperallergic’s requests for comments.

“I’m terribly involved with the art system because I have a student, the one who has been here the longest, that is the daughter of José Olympio,” Espirito Santo said in a voice recording of his interview with Chico Felitti and Beatriz Trevisan, shared by them with Hyperallergic. When the two journalists sent a reporter undercover as a potential student to CAC in August of 2022, Rubens Espirito Santo also made sure to mention this.

In investigating this story, Hyperallergic spoke to university professors, curators, gallerists, and artists from São Paulo’s art scene. Those conversations made it clear that most people knew who Rubens Espirito Santo is, but they might not have known the extent of the violence that went on in Atelier do Centro, as Ralston pointed out. Now that formal allegations have been made by three women, supported by five witnesses in the lawsuit and journalistic investigations that conducted over 40 interviews, can the art world stay silent? Should it?

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Luana Fortes

Luana Fortes is a Brazilian cultural journalist and contemporary art curator, currently working as a Graduate Intern at the Getty Research Institute. She has worked previously in Brazil as a chief-reporter...

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