The Paraguayan Chaco
The Gran Chaco is a dry forest that spans Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia that is being deforested for dairy and meat farming at an alarming rate.
Historically, the Paraguayan Chaco has been used by the government to settle debts by selling land to foreigners. For example, following the Paraguayan War (1864-1870), which pitted Paraguay against the Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, the government accumulated substantial national and international debt. As a result, Indigenous lands in the Chaco were appropriated and sold to Anglican interest groups, and missionary activity was leveraged to provide stability for the buyers of these lands, who sought to rent them out.
Similarly, early in the 20th century, the Paraguayan government sold more Indigenous land to the Mennonites, with the first of these Anabaptist pioneers arriving from Canada in 1927. The Central Chaco region now has one of the highest concentrations of ethnic Mennonites in Latin America.
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.
These were amassed by Anglican missionary Wilfrid Barbrooke Grubb at the turn of the 20th century. Barbrooke Grubb established various mission stations throughout the Chaco from the River Paraguay until the Bolivian border and was known as the “Pacificator of the Indians” by the Paraguayan government. His books demonstrate his perspectives on local Indigenous Peoples that were informed by ideas of racial hierarchy.
A majority of items stem from the Enlhet peoples in the northern Chaco who are trying to re-appropriate the land given away to missionaries by the Paraguayan government to continue their traditional hunting practices and preserve their way of life.
Explore part of the British Museum’s collection that come from the Paraguayan Chaco.
Contemporary artists and researchers respond
The Centre invited two Indigenous artists Osvaldo Pitoë (Guaraní) and Jorge Carema (Nivacle), who are founders of a collective of self-taught Indigenous illustrators who have coined a unique style using pen and paper. They have been invited to create artistic responses to the British Museum’s collection.
Many from the collective also carry out low-paid work in Mennonite hospitals and schools and therefore have only been able to dedicate themselves part-time to this project. In addition, we invited the artist and printmaker, Miriam Rudolph, who was raised in the Mennonite community in the Paraguayan Chaco but who is now based in Winnipeg, Canada and is critical of the Mennonite occupation of Indigenous lands.
Rudolph has decided not to create a response to the collections as she is not from a descendent community, but instead a reflection on colonial incursions onto Indigenous land and the role of the Mennonite community in further dispossessing Indigenous communities today.
In addition to these artists, the Centre found it important to invite direct descendants from the Enhlet community such as designer and photographer Lanto’oy’ Unruh who through his photography is trying to document for his community traditions and worldviews that are being lost, but also trying to show its beauty outside of the Chaco.
In addition, Hannes Kalisch, who is a member of the Enlhet community, is doing research on the British Museums collections so as to visibilise the Enlhet language and culture within Paraguay.
©Advance by Miriam Rudolph
©Dispossession by Miriam Rudolph
Miriam’s printing process
© Kelvana aknayvoom negelya’maasemalhka (A Mother in the Race Games) by Lanto’oy’ Unruh
© Lha’makma entavaan (With the Grandchildren) by Lanto’oy’ Unruh
© Enlhet kelyepsetma akvomlha sésamo (Employee, sesame kilos annotator) by Lanto’oy’ Unruh
© Seema’ akyaskama alaahak ayenmelhma COVID-19 (The Grandma comes to vaccinate against COVID-19) by Lanto’oy’ Unruh
© Nentamhaykam sésamo (Sesame Worker 1) by Lanto’oy’ Unruh
© Aptamhaykam sésamo (Sesame Worker 2) by Lanto’oy’ Unruh
Adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this project has been adapted to a digital format and to facilitate their artistic production in their own territorial context while establishing transnational relationships. Although working online has become ubiquitous within the global north, it is not as widely accessible elsewhere in the world.
For example, Pitoë and Carema both live about 30km from their nearest internet access, which is through an intermediary. Sending images from the collection back and forth, this group of artists and researchers are currently undergoing their artistic and research work.