Collection, Mission, Colonisation: Encounters and Entangled Histories from the Chaco

16th December 2021

Artists, researchers and curators from the Paraguayan Chaco are exploring the ethnographic collection from the Enxet Sur at the British Museum. These objects were obtained by the missionaries Wilfrid Barbrooke Grubb and Seymour Hawtrey at the end of the 19th century and they have never been exhibited.

This digital artist residency seeks to shed light and untangle the impact of missionizing and colonizing processes in the Gran Chaco and how contemporary artists with Enlhet, Nivacle, Guarani and Mennonite backgrounds from the region respond to its ongoing impacts.

The Paraguayan Chaco

The landscape of the Gran Chaco consists of marshy palm savannas, dry forests and sandy campos and spans Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. Currently, the Chaco is being deforested for cattle ranching and industrial agriculture at an alarming rate.

Photo of a landscape at the Paraguayan Chaco, depicting palmtrees and bushes

Bajo Chaco, Paraguay ©Photo by Ursula Regehr

Historically, indigenous people inhabited extensive territories of the Chaco relying on hunting, gathering, fishing and gardening. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Chaco was incorporated into the Paraguayan nation-state. Indigenous people were dispossessed without compensation and the land was sold to investors and settlers. Different missionary societies played a crucial role in facilitating the occupation of these lands through initiating sedentarisation processes of indigenous people.

After the arrival of Mennonite immigrants in 1927 in the central Chaco region, they also founded mission stations to resettle indigenous people who provided cheap labour for their expanding settler economy. Dispossession, wage labour and evangelization changed indigenous ways of being in the world. Today, precariousness, inequality and discrimination shape the life of indigenous communities.

The British Museum collections

There are over 600 items from different places in the Paraguayan Chaco in the British Museum’s collection. They range from elaborate beaded belts to hunting arrows, delicately engraved gourds and colourful feather headdresses. A majority of items stem from the Enxet people in the southern Chaco. They were collected by Anglican missionaries Wilfrid Barbrooke Grubb and Seymour Hawtrey at the turn of the 20th century. Barbrooke Grubb established various mission stations throughout the Chaco from the River Paraguay to the Bolivian border and received the title “Pacificator of the Indians” from the Paraguayan government. In his book An Unknown People in an Unknown Land, he describes his encounters and experiences with the Enxet, and his efforts to change their way of life.

Today, the Enxet are struggling for land restitution, livelihood and autonomy. It should be mentioned here, that none of the project participants are descendants of the Enxet groups from the Anglican mission stations. However, all indigenous participants have experienced similar processes of colonization and christianization and share similar histories and memories.


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Image of a Headdress that belongs to the British Museum collection.

Headdress ©Trustees of the British Museum

Gourd vessel ©Trustees of the British Museum

Gourd vessel ©Trustees of the British Museum

Explore part of the British Museum’s collection that come from the Paraguayan Chaco.

Gourd container ©Trustees of the British Museum
Feather head-dress ©Trustees of the British Museum
Necklace made of beetle (thorax) ©Trustees of the British Museum
Arrow bottom ©Trustees of the British Museum
Beaded necklace ©Trustees of the British Museum
Feather bracelet ©Trustees of the British Museum
Woven string bag ©Trustees of the British Museum
Sheep teeth necklace ©Trustees of the British Museum
Ostrich feathers anklet ©Trustees of the British Museum

Contemporary artists and researchers respond

Osvaldo Pitoe, Jorge Carema, Efacio Álvarez, Marcos Ortiz, Esteban Klassen and Clemente Juliuz (1972-2021) are self-taught artists. They are members of the Guarani and Nivacle language groups and live in the settlements Cayin ô Clim and Yiclôcat at the periphery of the Mennonite colony Neuland in the Paraguayan Chaco. Since the late 1990s, they draw with black ballpoint pens on paper and over the years they have developed their own styles and motifs. The new drawing practice emerged in collaboration with the anthropologists Ursula and Verena Regehr. Since the beginning, they have promoted the artists through curating exhibitions and publications in Paraguay and abroad.

The SDCELAR has invited the indigenous artist collective from the Chaco to create responses to the collection of missionary Wilfrid Barbrooke Grubb at the British Museum, who collected mostly from the enxet and other peoples from the linguistic family enlhet-enenlhet. The artists use digital photographs of the artefacts to trigger memories of their use and meaning as passed on by their grandparents. On the one hand, some of the artefacts have led to a dialogue about the violent experiences of loss, dispossession, re-settlement on mission-stations and the devaluation of artefacts associated with their own practices and rituals.

On the other hand, encounters and exchanges with members of the colonizing society have resulted in creative adaptations and new art practices. The emerging series of drawings will be described in a visual essay by Ursula and Verena Regehr. Based on conversations with the artists, they will explore the implications of processes of colonization and conversion on indigenous ways of being in the world.

© "Corona" by Osvaldo Pitoë

© “Corona” by Osvaldo Pitoë

The Centre also invited the artist and printmaker, Miriam Rudolph, who was raised in a Mennonite community in the Paraguayan Chaco, but who is now based in Winnipeg, Canada. Through her artwork, she explores the colonial history of her roots. As an indirect response to the collection, Rudolph is creating an artist book that explores the complexities of colonization of the Chaco through delicately layered etchings and diverging narratives of history from Anglican missionary, Mennonite, and Enlhet perspectives through text.

01.'Remembering' by Miriam Rudolph

01. ‘Remembering’ by Miriam Rudolph

08. 'Exploitation' by Miriam Rudolph

08. ‘Exploitation’ by Miriam Rudolph

In addition to these artists, the Centre found it important to invite direct descendants from the Enlhet-Enenlhet community, among whom Grubb worked. Lanto’oy’ Unruh, who belongs to the Enlhet community, has joined the project. He has been creating digital art and oil paintings for more than ten years. Moreover, he documents through photography the current life of his community. His aim is to promote in his community the value of their own way of living, and also to show their beauty outside the Chaco.

Furthermore, Hannes Kalisch, member of one of the Enlhet communities is doing research on the British Museums collections so as to visibilise the Enlhet language and culture within Paraguay. Both are active members of the Instituto Nengvaanemkeskama Nempayvaam Enlhet.

© Lanto’oy’ Unruh

© Lanto’oy’ Unruh

Adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this project has been adapted to a digital format. The collaboration of the artists is based on digital photographs from the collection at the British Museum, which have been sent by the Center to the Chaco and to Canada.

This facilitates the artistic production in local environments, while establishing transnational relationships. Although working online has become ubiquitous within the global north, it is not as widely accessible in the Chaco. This online exchange is a new format for the participants of the project and while challenging at times, it has also offered a new way of working and engaging with content.

Publications related to women’s and maternal health with Wixárika communities by the author of this exhibition


Gamlin, Jennie B. (2013)
Shame as a barrier to health seeking among indigenous Huichol migrant labourers: An interpretive approach of the “violence continuum” and “authoritative knowledge”
Social Science and Medicine 97 75-81

Gamlin, Jennie B. (2023)
Wixárika Practices of Medical Syncretism: An Ontological Proposal for Health in the Anthropocene
Medical Anthropology Theory 10 (2) 1-26

Gamlin, Jennie B. (2020)
“You see, we women, we can’t talk, we can’t have an opinion…”. The coloniality of gender and childbirth practices in Indigenous Wixárika families
Social Science and Medicine 252, 112912

Jennie Gamlin and David Osrin (2020)
Preventable infant deaths, lone births and lack of registration in Mexican indigenous communities: health care services and the afterlife of colonialism
Ethnicity and Health 25 (7)

Jennie Gamlin and Seth Holmes (2018)
Preventable perinatal deaths in indigenous Wixárika communities: an ethnographic study of pregnancy, childbirth and structural violence BMC
Pregnancy and Childbirth 18 (Article number 243) 2018

Gamlin, Jennie B. and Sarah J Hawkes (2015)
Pregnancy and birth in an Indigenous Huichol community: from structural violence to structural policy responses
Culture, health and sexuality 17 (1)