© Jorge Carema
Photographs of the artefacts collected by missionaries Seymour Hawtrey and Wilfrid Barbrooke Grubb in the late 19th century inspired artists from the indigenous collective “Artes Vivas” to create new works. From the interaction with the collection emerged a series of drawings in which the artists recall the historical ways of being in the world of their people, and simultaneously speak of the contemporary life of Nivacle and Guaraní communities in the Chaco. Through reflections and observations they are creating a dialogue between historical artefacts and contemporary expressions. The drawings express and reflect processes of transformation caused by colonisation and evangelisation in the 20th century.
In a non-verbal way, the drawings communicate the dispossession of their territories and the loss of autonomy. They tell of the modification of their subsistence practices, of wage labour, and the re-settlement on mission stations, circumstances which determine their present precarious living conditions. They refer to processes of conversion and forced assimilation and to the continuous experience of discrimination and exclusion.
However, the drawings also witness the strength and resilience of indigenous ways of living. They show that relationships with the forest and the beings that inhabit it, as well as their ethics of coexistence and sharing, are still important for the Nivacle and Guaraní.
The artist collective was initiated and established through a close, long-term collaboration between indigenous artists and anthropologists Verena and Ursula Regehr. Following a proposal from the Nivacle community, they organised a drawing contest in 1998 where the drawings made with black pen on paper by Jorge Carema and Osvaldo Pitoe stood out. The black and white contrasts allude to that of women’s wool textiles in the region. Over the years Clemente Juliuz, Esteban Klassen, Marcos Ortiz, and Efacio Álvarez joined the collective and developed their own motifs and styles. All the artists are self-taught and have only had a few years of formal education. They belong to the Nivacle and Guaraní linguistic groups and live in the Cayin ô Clim and Yiclôcat missions on the periphery of the Neuland Mennonite colony in the Paraguayan Chaco.
They have participated in several exhibitions and publications, including “Bosques vivos”, Bienal Sur and Centro Cultural La Moneda, Santiago de Chile (2022); “Trees”, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris (2019); “Reconfigurations: Chaco life in transition”, Museo del Barro, Asunción (2018); “symmetry/asymmetry: imagination and art in the Chaco”, Manzana de la Rivera Cultural Centre, Asunción and Colonia Neuland Cultural Centre (2011); “We, people of Cayin ô Clim”, Manzana de la Rivera Cultural Centre, Asunción and Colonia Neuland Cultural Centre (2004).
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A net for fishing on ancestral territory
Jorge Carema was born in 1967 in the Guaraní community of Pedro P. Peña. He now lives with his family in Cayin ô Clim. He works at distant ranches as a tractor driver and draws in his spare time. Through drawing, he recalls his childhood by the Pilcomayo River.
Until the Chaco War (1932-35), this area was inhabited by the Nivacle. Their territory extended from the middle and upper reaches of the Pilcomayo River in the west, to the Bermejo River in the south, and the central Chaco in the north. The subsistence of the villages at the river was based on fishing. The Nivacle and Guaraní knew different fishing techniques. In flowing water, they fished with triangular and scissor-shaped nets. In shallow waters, in the marshes and the lagoons, they used to fish from the canoe with a bow and arrow. When there were few fish, they built traps with sticks and branches, in which they could easily catch them.
“I like to draw fishing, hunting and the search for honey, which are our activities, the ones that nourish us. When we have nothing to eat, I think about fishing. Before, we used to go to the river and catch some fish, and with that we already had enough to eat. Here at the mission, there are no fish; we have to buy something or exchange something for food,” says Jorge Carema.
The artists live with their families in Cayin ô Clim and Yiclôcat, missions founded by the Mennonites in the 1950s as settlements for indigenous workers. They have grown steadily due to the arrival of displaced indigenous migrants from the Pilcomayo region. In Cayin ô Clim, there are approximately 2,000 inhabitants living on a parcel of 51 hectares and in Yiclôcat live approximately 500 people on a parcel of 16 hectares. The inhabitants depend on wage labour on the fields and in the enterprises and households of Mennonite employers. Frequently they do not even receive the statutory minimum wage for their work and their living conditions are very precarious.
Jorge Carema remarks: “Sometimes I find a job for just one or two weeks. From one job to the next we live with very little. If they come looking for me, I go with an employer; if there is no work, I stay at home and draw”.
Bow and arrow for hunting
Osvaldo Pitoe was born in 1963 in the Guaraní community of Pedro P. Peña. He lives with his family in Cayin ô Clim. Drawing has become his main source of income, but if he doesn’t have enough money, he works as a day labourer in the Neuland colony.
A recurring motif in his drawings is hunting and gathering. Before permanent contact with the colonising society, subsistence activities were based on the collective use of extensive territories and a mobile way of life.
In his drawings, men hunt with bows and arrows; among their favourite prey are peccaries, deer, tapirs, various species of armadillos, and birds. The women gather and fill their large bags of caraguatá fibre with algarrobo husks, bush beans, berries, prickly pear figs, palm hearts, caraguatá bulbs, herbs and wild pepper, depending on the season. The dry forest, the sandy campos and the palm savannah provided an abundant and balanced diet.
Osvaldo Pitoe remembers: “When our ancestors went hunting and found a deer, they shot with arrows. If a (fire) weapon is used it makes a lot of noise. Then all the animals nearby get scared. Instead, the arrow makes no noise when being shot. They also didn’t have dogs. They used to go by themselves because if they had a dog and something was there, and it barked, the animals would get scared. That is why our ancestors used bow and arrows.”
The tobacco pipe and its relationship with shamanic practices
Shamanic practices and healing rituals are part of the worldviews of the Chaco people. In cases of disturbed balance, illnesses, conflicts or fatal threats, the task of the shamans, who are ritual specialists, is to mediate relationships within the human collective, as well as between humans and non-humans. According to the Nivacle, only the tôiyeej (wise, powerful, shaman) has extraordinary awareness and special powers. Through his songs and the smoking of tobacco, he has access to the world of non-humans and can communicate with them.
“Sometimes, I see people bringing a sick relative to the shaman. The shaman and his companions sit next to him. One shaman alone does not have enough strength to face what causes the disease; several healers have to work together. Shamans do not smoke without purpose; they smoke the tobacco pipe to initiate healing. When they smoke, they can see what is wrong, what is harmful, what makes a person sick. Missionaries and preachers do not like the shamans and the ways they heal, they say the shamans do not have faith in God”, says Osvaldo Pitoe.
The utility and beauty of calabashes
Clemente Juliuz was born in 1972 in Campo Alegre. The source of inspiration for his drawings and paintings was the forest. He portrayed animals, bees and insects. With his works he expressed his concern about deforestation and the extinction of animals. He passed away in 2021 prematurely through an accident.
For the Chaco people, the forest and the gardens provided food, as well as raw materials for the manufacture of everyday objects. Calabash receptacles and bowls from the collection of missionary Barbrooke Grubb inspired Clemente Juliuz’s last works.
“The calabash is a fruit that grows in different sizes and is very useful. The Nivacle cut it in half to make bowls and ladles. My parents and grandparents used them to serve broth made from game. When I was a child, I was taught that the calabash is very useful”, remembered Clemente Juliuz.
The calabashes in the collection are decorated with incisions and pyrography. They show that drawing is not a new phenomenon in the Chaco. Before colonisation it was used as a technique to embellish artefacts. In historical artefacts and textiles geometric designs are predominant as schematic and stylised representations of animal hides and skins, as well as plant structures. From the end of the 19th century, however, drawings characterised by figurative representations of plants, animals and human beings emerged.
Wires and padlocks: experiences of dispossession and exclusion
Efacio Álvarez was born in 1988 in Yiclôcat, where he lives to this day. In his series of drawings, he depicts experiences of dispossession and exclusion. The land and forest that constituted the basis of life and autonomy for the Chaco people are no longer accessible to them today.
Efacio Álvarez explains, “When the Mennonites (settlers) arrived, they took the land from our ancestors who did not know how to defend their land. The immigrants appropriated the land and fenced everything off with wire. So now we are left with very little land. Today the land is full of fences put there by the Mennonites and they forbid us to cross them. Here we see a gate, which is closed with a padlock. It is the rule of the Mennonites that says that it is forbidden to enter or cross.”
He stresses that exclusion, discrimination and violence are part of the daily experiences of the indigenous population. “I drew two women who went to get wood to make fire and cook. When they crossed a fence surrounding a pasture with cows, the rancher came and chased them out. The settlers take care of their cows and always think that indigenous people want to hunt them. He is threatening them (with a weapon), to scare them and make them leave.”
The forest and wild animals: motifs for graphic representation
Marcos Ortiz was born in 1952 in the Maka community of Chaco’i. At Yalve Sanga he attended school until sixth grade. For many years he has lived in Yiclôcat, where he learned to carve Palo Santo wood. In 2013 he joined the artist collective.
Peccaries remain his main motif, both in his drawings and in his sculptures. “With their piglets, the peccaries walk in herds through the forest and look for something to eat. They like the fruits of the columnar cacti, the algarrobo husks and the bush beans. Today they also come to eat on the peanut plantations. Others go hunting them; I just go to watch them. I observe the peccaries and, after some time, I have their image in my mind,” explains Marcos Ortiz.
At the missions, living conditions are very precarious due to underemployment and lack of work. The mechanisation of agribusiness in the colonies since the 1980s contributed to insecurity and uncertainty in the labour market. For the artists, drawing is their main source of income. That is why Marcos Ortiz emphasises the economic dimension of drawing. “People like my drawings. When tourists come, they buy the most beautiful drawings. Drawing is my job, it gives me money. If I don’t sell drawings, I don’t have anything to eat. I don’t work for a Mennonite employer; I just draw. It’s a job I can do at home.”
The jabirú and the jaguar: two animals with shamanic meaning
Esteban Klassen was born in 1969 in the Nivacle community of Cayin ô Clim and lives in Yiclôcat. His father gave him his Mennonite surname; he had adopted it from his employer. Due to the lack of wage labour, he made carvings of Palo Santo wood since a young age, and in 2011 he began to draw.
He prefers to draw motifs with shamanic meaning. He represents pôtsej (jabirú, large stork) and yi’yôôj (jaguar), which are auxiliary spirits of the shaman. In his drawings, he alludes non-verbally to his grandfather’s songs and shamanic knowledge.
Pôtsej is a fanaaj, water bird. His double, the aquatic-spirit bird (fanaaj uj), is the master of the rains. When the drought becomes unbearable, older women and men address fanaaj uj with their songs and ask him to send his children, the ducks and geese, with storms and water.
In the Chaco, as in the South American lowlands generally, the jaguar is associated with the shaman. Through his songs, the shaman can communicate with non-humans. He can talk to them, and can metamorphose, that is, he can “dress” in the body of a spiritual being or an animal species without losing his humanity. A tôiyeej who wants to harm someone or seeks revenge transforms into a jaguar; a shaman who possesses the song of the jaguar can also send it to kill an enemy.
Esteban Klassen comments: “My ancestors used to sing and dance. They had the songs of the ôjôclos (birds). In their time there were powerful tôiyjes (shamans). They drank niôtsich (fermented beverages) and sang, they kept singing all night and sometimes the next day too. My father was a native of the Pilcomayo area and had been a good hunter. He knew these songs. But he no longer wanted to sing them and he told me, ‘My son, don’t sing like the grandparents, our ancestors. My son, don’t dance; you just have to work. Now we have missionaries and we study with them. To prevent problems, you just have to study and work well.’ This is what he taught me.”
Shamanic practices – not only practices with negative effects, but also healing rituals – were prohibited and suppressed in the processes of Christianization and conversion of the Chaco people by various missionary societies, which considered them to be “the work of the devil” and “sin.” In this context of forced assimilation, Esteban Klassen and Osvaldo Pitoe transmit shamanic knowledge and practices through drawing.