Raphael Escobar at GDA / São Paulo

Raphael Escobar
curated by Germano Dushá

March 25 – May 6, 2023

Rua Barra Funda, 654
São Paulo, Brazil

All images courtesy and copyright of the artist and gallery. Photos by Julia Thompson.

‘Porte’ [‘Possession’] is the first Raphael Escobar’s solo show in ten years.

Curated by Germano Dushá, the show is the result of a research developed by the artist since 2017 that consists of a collection of photographs published on social networks of civil and military police officers displaying seizures for drug possession.

The images collected follow a specific pattern: although the seizures are justified by the possession of drugs, the publications reveal the existence of a tiny or nonexistent amount of illicit substances. What appear are objects such as pipes, antennas, chains, money in change, watches, scissors, knives, and herb grinders.

To construct the show, Escobar uses the materiality of these objects to question the police’s version of these stories.


Possession, ghost, dust and smoke 

by Germano Dushá 

A trail of white paint streaks the pavement as a testimony of the path traveled by a skater (Trajetos urbanos [urban pathways], 2011). A green awning that served customers at a bar during the day lowers itself to the asphalt at night to shelter someone who will sleep on the sidewalk (Mutualismo [mutualism], 2013). A homemade still is installed in a public access setting to provide free booze distribution (Open Bar, 2016). On the facade of a street wall a white banner with words in red defends the “right to madness” (Direito à loucura [right to madness], 2020).

In almost fifteen years of trajectory, Raphael Escobar’s work has developed from the

construction of a rich symbolic repertoire and practices that investigate and bring about links between subjectivity and society, with special interest in class relations and the dynamics between the production of social imaginary and the continuous oppression of certain marginalized groups in contemporary capitalism. Not only through language provocations, but by puncturing discourses and detouring from the mechanical operation of everyday occurrences, the artist discusses the complexities of the streets, the inherent conflicts of public space, and the tensions that permeate the abyssal inequality of the distribution of resources and violences on the social body.

In the last years, this arrangement has found its course on research, critical analysis and experimental practices regarding illicit substance production, circulation and

consumption, and the organized efforts surrounding its repression. That is, the binomial expression “drugs” and “war on drugs”. Driven by his experiences as a non-formal educator, articulator and militant in social vulnerability contexts, the artist sheds light on narratives and processes involving the criminalization of certain practices and substances. From an instruction manual that displays inventiveness and technical solutions for the fabrication of improvised smoking gadgets (Cachimbeiro¹, 2016), to a sugar and caffeine-based pill factory that manufactured “molly-looking” tablets (Placebo, 2022), Escobar’s work questions the common sense surrounding the invisible lines that separate legality from illegality, and point out the absurdity of official forces that either fiddle while Rome burns or shed blood over the thin line that separates the two.

Suggestively entitled “Porte [Possession]”, this solo exhibition includes unusual objects, resulted from the improbable arrangements of ordinary elements that are presented in all their social importance, therefore beyond their objective materiality. They are studies about the spectacle culture surrounding anti-drug strategies that have ravaged sensationalist and vampiric news broadcasts for decades, and more recently proliferates freely on social media. Therefore, they are directly related to the “art and apprehension” aesthetic – aspirational pictures taken and shared by police officers who are proud of their fundamental contributions to the safety and well-being of the population. These compositions reveal the professionalism and high efficiency of our police forces, as well as their aptitude for constructive thinking, sculptural desire and installation skillfulness. In these cases, the formal properties of the items seized by the arresting officers are being displayed, frequently arranged inventively, ready to be photographed. Pictures of creatively stacked brick weed, geometric patterns made out of rolling paper, as well as the use of bills, ammunition or snuff bullets to write out messages come into view.

Escobar focuses on the latter issue of this paradox, when there are no drugs being

seized, only potential hints of their existence or whichever phantasmagoria serves as

such. Even though carrying any of these items does not typify a crime according to the Brazilian judicial apparatus, they could be seized by the police. Antennas, coins, “tênis de mola”², golden chains and watches, as well as lighters, rolling paper and knives, none of which are prohibited by written law, unless done so by the hands that execute it. After all, in Brazil, the difference between citizen and criminal, drug user and drug trafficker, is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on who carries, who sniffs and who smokes. That is where unavoidable connections and the differences between the edges of the system lie: luxury apartments and ordinary drug dens, international financial operations and money circulation; international drug lords – many of which hold parliamentary seats – and those who operate on the visible surface, with far less or almost nothing, biting the bullet on the outskirts of the metropolises. Everything is context!

Escobar embraces the spiritual evocation of these items to tension the lines between

object and narrative, fact and fiction, utilizing them as a synthesis of the material

existence of contemporary society. Behind the magnetic strangeness of these

combinations, lies the macro panorama’s non-sense gore, all the brutal violence and

generalized absurdity that surrounds us. Each object evokes the dynamic of a society that, guided by an operational system based on an alleged rationality, impels a senseless program that is as comical as it is tragic. A shameless system, that demotes human potential to its lowest level, and won’t think twice before exempting itself from its complete inefficiency and baneful lack of logic and justice.

Apart from the objects, two photographs mounted on the rearmost wall contribute to the tradition of the Still Life in art history. They are classical landscapes that dramatically reenact the fetishes and cliches linked to the consumption of psychoactive substances, emphasizing not only accessories mobilized by recreational use, but also the atmosphere and conjuncture that surrounds it. In their chiaroscuro, these images bring out depth to a range of experiences composed of solid and subjective matter, organized in such a way that allows us to access the source of a social-aesthetic structure that simultaneously generates images and grinds people up. Thus, behold a conceptual space in which our bodies can stroll through energies and linguistic codes that shift between materiality and idea, between what there is and what escapes us – all that was, that is now a mere

specter, just a ghost. It turned to dust, it turned to smoke.

¹ In Portuguese the word “cachimbo” means pipe, while the suffix “-eiro” is an equivalent of the suffix “-er” in English, which indicates someone or something performing a particular action.

² A commonly used term for referencing notorious Nike running shoes popularized in the early 2000s for having the Nike Shox support system, which consists of a series of columns in the heels.