The characteristic landscape of the Chaco is dense thorn forests broken by sandy pampas with tall trees, low parkland with shrubs, and palm groves flooded during the rainy season.1With over one million square kilometres, the Gran Chaco is, after the Amazon basin, the largest wooded area in the lowlands of South America.
The forest is an enduring subject in the drawings of indigenous artists from the Chaco, alongside other recurring motifs like animals, trees and local subsistence practices such as hunting, gathering, fishing and sowing. These activities were the very basis of the lives of indigenous people until the Chaco War (1932-35), which ended with the expropriation of their lands and permanent contact with the colonizing society. The drawings show that the relationships between the forest and the beings that inhabit it continue to be important for the Nivacle and Guaraní peoples, even though their ways of life had been profoundly transformed over the preceding two generations as a result of manifold colonization processes. The consequence of being dispossessed from their lands was a loss of autonomy and a deterioration in their living conditions.
The artists are self-taught and have had few years of formal education. They belong to the linguistic groups of the Nivacle and Guaraní and live in the Cayin ô Clim, Campo Alegre and Yiclôcat settlements in the Gran Chaco. Based on drawings from the Verena Regehr collection by Osvaldo Pitoe, Jorge Carema, Eurides Asque Gómez, Marcos Ortiz, Esteban Klassen, Efacio Álvarez and Clemente Juliuz, this visual essay explores the critical and varied importance of the forest for indigenous ways of being in the world. It focuses primarily on the Nivacle’s relationships with animals, trees and other non-human beings and reflects on drawing as a means of non-verbal communication with a performative character which accrues greater importance in a present time marked by violent processes of colonization and mass deforestation.
Encounters and bonds between human beings, trees, animals and their owners
The Pilcomayo river, wetlands and lakes are indelibly etched in the collective memory of the Nivacle groups who inhabit it. Eurides Asque Gómez (1977-2019) depicts them in his drawings not just as human land but also as a vital place for water birds.
Jorge Carema (1967) draws the Pilcomayo river, fish and their mothers. Fortune in fishing largely depends on maintaining a good relationship with the yinôôt lhavoquei (women of the water, mother of fish). They are protective of and hold onto their children, the fish. As he draws, Jorge Carema remembers: “I used to go fishing with my grandfather and my uncle. The yinôôt lhavoquei, the mothers of the fish, show themselves when they are annoyed with the fishermen. They get angry if someone is disrespectful and does not ask for forgiveness for going after their children. They also get angry if you lose a fish that has already been killed, or if white men take fish out with buckets and throw them back in again. Food has to be looked after and you have to fish no more that you need for eating. The mothers of the fish join forces and look after their children; sometimes they let some of them go and send one to you, other times they withhold their children and hide them in their homes under the water»2Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 26 February 2018.
Like fish, all other species of animals have their lhavo’ (father, owner), whose permission must be sought before going after their children. It is he who sends animals and delivers them to the hunter. If the hunter lets a wounded animal escape or kills more than is necessary, he could incur the wrath and punishment of the lhavo’.
A recurrent motif in the drawings of Osvaldo Pitoe (1963) is hunting and gathering. Before permanent contact with the colonizing society, subsistence practices were based on the control of extensive lands, their collective use and mobility.3Until the Chaco War (1932-1935), different local Nivacle groups inhabited El Chaco, a land that extended from the middle and upper reaches of the Pilcomayo river in the west, to the Bermejo river in the south and to El Chaco central in the north (Nordenskiöld 1912).
Men devoted themselves to hunting. Among their preferred prey were peccaries, deer, tapirs, various species of armadillos and birds. “When I draw I remember my parents and what they taught me” recalls Osvaldo Pitoe.4Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 18 February 2018. “I used to go with my father to the forest to hunt. First of all, we would always see an anteater. Sometimes we were lucky and we would kill a hog or a deer, or we would come across an armadillo along the way. Whenever I go to the forest, I remember those experiences.”
The women in Osvaldo Pitoe’s drawings are gathering. Depending on the season, they fill their large bags made from caraguatá fibre with different plant foods: algarrobo husks, bush beans, berries, prickly pear figs, palm hearts, caraguatá bulbs, herbs and wild pepper. They even knew how to transform poisonous fruits like sacha watermelon and wild cassava into food by using certain cooking methods and shamanic chants. The Nivacle also knew the curative effects of certain trees and plants and used them as medicine in shamanic practices.
Abundance is a recurring motif in Osvaldo Pitoe’s drawings. The dry forest, sandy land and the palm savannah provided an abundant and well-balanced diet, as well as the raw materials for making everyday objects (Regehr & Regehr 2019, Regehr & Regehr 2011).
The appearance of constellations of certain stars like Pleiades, Orion and Venus in the night sky foreshadow the end of the dry season. With the first rains, the Nivacle begin to sow crops.5The groups in the area of Pilcomayo sowed their crops in the flood plains, where the soil is damp and produces several crops a year. On the other hand, the groups who lived in the interior of Chaco usually planted crops during the rainy seasons in small clearings in the forest, or in sandy soil. Osvaldo Pitoe recalls: “My mother was always working in her cerco (enclosure), sowing, hoeing and planting sweet potatoes, watermelons, corn, beans, pumpkins. She went there every day with my sister to look after it. Whenever someone came to visit, she used to say: ‘let’s go to my cerco, to get you something’, and she would give them whatever was ready to harvest at the time.”6Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 18 February 2018. The peoples of the Chaco fished, hunted, gathered and planted crops to share. Shared food and reciprocity was the foundation of the close, symmetrical and lasting relationships in family circles (Regehr & Regehr 2018: 34).
Living together in an animated world
The drawings of Marcos Ortiz (1952) explore deep into the dry forest. The dense scrubland is a habitat and refuge for animals. “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” explains Marcos Ortiz.7Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 16 February 2018. His precise characterization is grounded in the attentive observation and perceptiveness of the hunter: his patient watching of different bodies and movements of the animals, detailed knowledge of their habits, their habitats and their preferences.
In his drawings Efacio Álvarez (1988) visualizes not just the relationship between hunter and prey, but the whole life cycle of the forest: to eat and be eaten. It is thanks to hunting and consumption of meat that vital strength, energy and fertility circulate between living beings. Therefore, all beings are mainly defined according to their position in a network of relationships between eaters and eaten, between hunters and prey (Descola 2011 : 421). In his drawings, seriemas are hunting vipers.
A jaguar is seen hunting seriemas or stalking a deer (drawings 9 & 10). As the largest predator, the jaguar is believed by the Nivacle to be a person. “If a hunter comes across a jaguar” according to Efacio Álvarez, “he has to go around it, and so the jaguar will stop and look at him. Then the hunter can talk to the jaguar and say to it: ‘To me we are equal, we are both persons.’ The jaguar will listen to him and then signals with its tail that he will not fight with the hunter.”8Conversation with Verena Regehr, 25 May 2018.
Encounters with animals like the jaguar or with non-human beings like an lhavoque or an lhavo show us that the beings who inhabit the forest have the same life force and that they share a similar interiority; in other words, the ability to think, will, action, sensibility and communication. Animals and spirits, similar to human beings, have their own social life in their collectives. However, humans and non-humans are basically distinguished by their bodies and habits. The practices of hunting and gathering, as well as those of shamanic rituals and chanting, are based on interdependence and communication between humans and non-humans.
Myths and legends also tell us that the papu p’alhac (ancestors) have a human character. They tell how these primordial humans were transformed for various reasons—love, revenge, punishment, etc.—into their present form as animals, trees and plants (see stories in Chase-Sardi 1981).
The drawings show an animated world in which the category of ‘person’ is not limited to human form and embodiment. In consequence, in graphic representations one cannot perceive a separation between external ‘nature’ and human ‘culture’, like in ‘Western’ thinking. Rather, all living beings are part of a whole, and inhabit the world together, closely bound to one another.9These ontological positions, which, on one hand postulate the “metaphysical continuity” of beings and, on the other, the “physical discontinuity”, are what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2002 : 308) called “perspectivism” and Philippe Descola (2011 : 206) called “animism”.
The shaman as mediator between humans and non-humans
For the Nivacle, relationships with non-human beings are mainly determined by hunting and its rituals. The preservation of human life is based on the appropriation and consumption of non-human persons. Animals and plants which have to be killed for self-support deserve to be treated with respect. Subjects (animal persons) are transformed into objects (in edible meat) by means of rituals or special cooking processes.10Compare Descola (2011: 498) and Kohn (2013: 119) with regards to similar processes in the Amazon.
Non-fulfilment of these principles disturbs the fragile balance between beings, giving rise to fatal threats, conflicts and illnesses. In these cases, the shaman must intervene. The shaman is a specialist in rituals whose task is to mediate in the relationships within the human collective, as well as between humans and non-humans.
In his drawings, Esteban Klassen (1969), the grandson of a shaman, represents pôtsej (jabiru) and yi’yôôj (jaguar), implicitly referring to their shamanic meaning: they are the lhavtoi (helpers and guardian spirits) of the shaman, who possesses the t’acchaai (chants) through which he is able to invoke them.
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.11See the story of Toya’a Alberto Gómez in Regehr & Regehr (2004: 56).
In Chaco, as in South American lowlands in general, the jaguar is associated with the shaman. According to the Nivacle, only the tôiyeej (wise powerful shaman) has extraordinary awareness and special powers. Through his songs he gains access to the world of non-human beings and can communicate with them. “If he sings to the yi’yôôj (jaguar), he can send it to eat a person or to kill an enemy. The yi’yôôj is very powerful and dangerous”, says Esteban Klassen.12Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 23 February 2018. The shaman also possesses the ability to metamorphose, in other words he can ‘dress’ in the body of an animal or spiritual being without losing his humanity.
Disturbed balance and threatened coexistence
According to indigenous beliefs, dreaming of a jaguar means danger, struggle and death. At present, processes of violent colonization and mass deforestation affect and alter the coexistence of human and non-human groups in El Chaco (Regehr & Regehr 2018).
The drawings of Clemente Juliuz (1972-2021) engage with current problems: mass deforestation, forest fires, air pollution caused by smoke and dust and the extinction of animals. “There are less and less animals all the time, and we are afraid that they are being exterminated. They are being driven out by deforestation. When I see how they are clearing scrublands for grazing, I am worried. Animals need the forest to live in, and they have to flee but they have nowhere to run to.”13Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 19 February 2018.
In his drawings Clemente Juliuz represents various species of bees, whose honey has always been an important source of food for the Nivacle. “Every day we are seeing bulldozers clearing vast areas of forest” he says, “felling trees, destroying beehives and honeycombs, evicting the bees. The people who send in the bulldozers don’t think about honey. But for us honey is a remedy.”14Conversation with Verena Regehr, 25 May 2018.
As a result of mass deforestation and the widespread use of agrochemical insecticides, wild bees are fast being wiped out in El Chaco. The disappearance of bees is a warning sign that indicates the disturbance of the balance in the relationships between humans and non-humans and that the reproduction of life is under threat.
Broad swathes of Chaco are being deforested in the name of economic expansion and the dominant paradigm of ‘production’, ‘development’ and ‘progress’. At the current moment, over 1000 hectares of forest are felled every day for livestock farming and industrialized agriculture.15Diario Ultima Hora, 6 May 2018, Paraguay: “Satélite de la NASA muestra gran deforestación en el Chaco”.
Drawing and remembering: the importance of forests
At the present time, marked by loss and destruction, drawing and remembering life in the forest is more important than ever. In an extremely precarious situation, the drawings refer to the presence of abundance, diversity and the beauty of the forest.
They show us that the world and life are brought into being through multiple interactions and interweaving of humans and non-humans. At the same time, they also evoke the vulnerability of the forest, threatened by human activities. In our conversation, Clemente Juliuz said that he draws in order not to forget: he wants to remind us that trees and forests are essential for survival and for human prosperity.16Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 08 October 2019. Efacio Álvarez underscores: “Animals cannot live without the forest. They will die. We too are suffering the effects of mass deforestation.”17Conversation with Verena Regehr, 11 March 2019.
The drawings, similar to relaying stories and myths or carrying out rituals with creative energy, also have a performative character: they revive and update logics and principles that forge references for a respectful coexistence of humans and non-humans. In a new visual language, they communicate in a non-verbal way. “This new expression”, according to Ticio Escobar (2012 : 126) “expresses the possibility of various cultures to draw, once and again, the contours of reality in order to outline its forms in accordance with the challenges that history proposes or imposes and on the basis of a memory stubbornly insistent on protecting the enigma of the line.”
Drawing as art practice in a precarious situation demonstrates not only the resilience and latent presence of indigenous ways of being in the world. It also holds out the possibility of becoming a crucial means of voicing political demands and transformations, of recovering spaces for articulation and self-representation, as well as for the fight for indigenous rights and for the restitution of land.
We wish to thank the artists Osvaldo Pitoe, Jorge Carema, Eurides Asque Gómez, Clemente Juliuz, Marcos Ortiz, Esteban Klassen and Efacio Álvarez, who taught us through their creativity, works and stories. We are encouraged by our shared experiences, projects and friendship. We owe a special debt of gratitude to Ticio Escobar for his support and his critical comments which helped us to hone the argument of this essay.
Chase-Sardi Miguel. 1981. Pequeño Decamerón Nivacle. Literatura oral de una etnia del Chaco Paraguayo. Asunción: Ediciones Napa.
Descola Philippe. 2011 (2005). Jenseits von Natur und Kultur. Mit einem Nachwort von Michael Kauppert. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag (Moldenhauer Eva, Übers.).
Escobar Ticio. 2012 (1993). La Belleza de los otros. Arte indígena del Paraguay. Asunción: Servilibro.
Kohn Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think. Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
Nordenskiöld Erland. 1912. Indianerleben, El Gran Chaco (Südamerika). Leipzig: Albert Bonnier.
Regehr Ursula and Regehr Verena. 2019. “Living with Trees: Drawings from the Gran Chaco”, in: P. É. Couton (ed.), Trees, exhibition catalogue. Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, pp. 76-83.
Regehr Ursula and Regehr Verena (comp.). 2018. Reconfiguraciones – Vida chaqueña en transición. With photos by Fernando Allen. Exhibition catalogue. Asunción: AGR.
Regehr Verena & Regehr Ursula (comp.). 2011. simetría/asimetría: Imaginación y arte en el Chaco. With photos by Fernando Allen. Asunción: AGR Servicios Gráficos S.A.
Regehr Verena & Regehr Ursula (comp.). 2004. Cayin ô Clim Lhavos. Nosotros, Gente de Cayin ô Clim. Dibujos de Eurides Asque Gómez, Jorge Carema y Osvaldo Pitoe. Asunción:Imprenta Q R.
Viveiros de Castro Eduardo. 2002 (1998). “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism”, in: Lambek Michael (ed.), A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion, p. 306-326. Malden (Mass.): Blackwell Publishers.
Ursula Regehr – Biography
Ursula Regehr is an anthropologist who works as a curator at the Museum der Kulturen Basel. Since the late-1990s she has collaborated with indigenous artists. She is an associate researcher at the Institute of Social Anthropology at the University of Bern. Her PhD dissertation focuses on the reconfiguration of indigenous forms of representation in manifold colonisation processes in Chaco.
Verena Regehr – Biography
Verena Regehr-Gerber is an anthropologist based in Chaco, Paraguay. Since 1966 she has promoted the revitalisation of indigenous forms of expression through the Artes Vivas non-profit project. Together with her daughter Ursula and indigenous artists she organised a number of exhibitions in Asuncion. She is currently collaborating with indigenous communities for land restitution and the protection of the environment, with the NGO Espacios in Paraguay and with a Swiss association and foundation for indigenous communities in Chaco.
- 1With over one million square kilometres, the Gran Chaco is, after the Amazon basin, the largest wooded area in the lowlands of South America.
- 2Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 26 February 2018.
- 3Until the Chaco War (1932-1935), different local Nivacle groups inhabited El Chaco, a land that extended from the middle and upper reaches of the Pilcomayo river in the west, to the Bermejo river in the south and to El Chaco central in the north (Nordenskiöld 1912).
- 4Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 18 February 2018.
- 5The groups in the area of Pilcomayo sowed their crops in the flood plains, where the soil is damp and produces several crops a year. On the other hand, the groups who lived in the interior of Chaco usually planted crops during the rainy seasons in small clearings in the forest, or in sandy soil.
- 6Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 18 February 2018.
- 7Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 16 February 2018.
- 8Conversation with Verena Regehr, 25 May 2018.
- 9These ontological positions, which, on one hand postulate the “metaphysical continuity” of beings and, on the other, the “physical discontinuity”, are what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2002 : 308) called “perspectivism” and Philippe Descola (2011 : 206) called “animism”.
- 10Compare Descola (2011: 498) and Kohn (2013: 119) with regards to similar processes in the Amazon.
- 11See the story of Toya’a Alberto Gómez in Regehr & Regehr (2004: 56).
- 12Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 23 February 2018.
- 13Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 19 February 2018.
- 14Conversation with Verena Regehr, 25 May 2018.
- 15Diario Ultima Hora, 6 May 2018, Paraguay: “Satélite de la NASA muestra gran deforestación en el Chaco”.
- 16Conversation with Ursula Regehr, 08 October 2019.
- 17Conversation with Verena Regehr, 11 March 2019.