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Art Against Injustice: The Scream of the Enxet Tribe

SNA (Asunción) — In 2005 and 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the government of Paraguay to return the lands belonging to two indigenous groups. One of them was the Enxet community. Its members had lived for two decades on the side of a road after being expelled from their traditional lands. However, despite the favorable outcome in the courts, they had to continue waiting. It would take eight long years before the restitution of their lands was granted.

In fact, their land had been expropriated by the government in the last years of the twentieth century. It was yet another episode of the colonization process of the Chaco region which had begun between 1885 and 1887. The Paraguayan state ordered the sale of public lands, facilitated by the participation of Anglican missionaries, who, together with other famers and the military, spearheaded the colonization. This occupation culminated in the 1950s with numerous cattle ranches being established, many owned by Anglican settlers.

The indigenous population, dispossessed and displaced, had to relocate to marginal places, thus weakening the symbolic interaction with their land and, therefore, their historical memory. For the Enxet people, the relationship between nature and culture is framed by the places where they once lived freely, their subsistence based on hunting, gathering, and fishing.

The indigenous population, due to the extensive system of production used in the Chaco, continues to be exploited by the landowners. The Uruguayan artist Diego Schäfer, resident in Paraguay, was invited to collaborate with Amnesty International in an art project aimed at giving more exposure to the plight of the Enxet community. It was hoped that more visibility could help to bring the authorities to abide by the resolution of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

To that end, Diego moved to the Chaco where he lived with families of the Enxet ethnic group for four months. He personally experienced the hardships caused by living on the edge of a dangerous road. There, the artist began by taking photographs, from which he elaborated a series of portraits. Diego Schäfer in his series of works titled The Enxet Scream tackles a number of diverse cases of abuse ranging from rape to forged identities.

The portrait of “Celeste” shows a girl with striking blue eyes, which are not seen in any other child of the Enxet race, bringing forth a delicate subject which raised many an eyebrow. The Chaco ranch-owners are often of German, British, or Polish ancestry. “Celeste” is at best the product of casual sex between a Westerner and a native woman, or most probably the result of rape.

“It was a delicate subject but I felt compelled to point it out,” says Schäfer.

“The Chieftain” portrays a man of a certain age who posed wearing his rather large, round spectacles. Schäfer painted on the lenses the reflection of the stolen land that lies imprisoned behind the barbed wire. Sadly, the chieftain passed away before his people were permitted to return to their property. His eyes forever fixed on the unreachable dream of justice.

In another portrait, that of an old woman, we see an identity card conspicuously placed that suggests an identity fraud. In order to collect subsidies from the government such as old age pensions, the Enxet needed to apply for IDs and other documents. However, they did not know the year they were born, and often their newly issued identity cards showed dates that contradicted their chronological age.

“There was a kind of mafia that purposely led them into registering with wrong dates, and with demeaning names,” explains Schäfer.

In accordance with Paraguayan laws, natives must change their ethnic name for Western ones. As a result, repeatedly they were bullied into accepting family names such as Mussolini. In the painting titled “Mussolini,” the artist visually narrates how a simple man came to end up with such a historical surname. Hence, this Enxet man is wearing a hat similar to those worn by Benito Mussolini. This image metaphorically denounces the ill-treatment that the indigenous people suffered in regards to their right to a proper identity as a legal person.

Agrotoxics are a fixture in their lives as we see in the image of a small girl carrying a plastic container full of water. These drums originally contained agrotoxics, therefore when we apply the black light over the canvas the drawing of a skull appears. Another instance that makes evident the abuses they are suffering, in this case we see how their right to clean water is neglected.

When presented with the depiction of a father bottle feeding his baby, Schäfer tells us, “The father is the representative of the tribe during negotiations with the government, the most fluent in Spanish language. His main ambition was for his son to grow up, happily, in his own land. That thought made him burst into tears, and in that moment his son, started to cry loudly. The boy was suffering from a painful viral conjunctivitis, very easy to catch when living in such inhospitable conditions. I was very sad to see the anguish of the father facing a situation that made him feel so helpless.”

“The Adolescent” is a work through which he pointed out the rite of passage from adolescence to womanhood. Traditionally, there were a number of ceremonies performed that included face painting which were gradually being lost due to the dismemberment of their society. This work attempted to vindicate the right of the young woman to celebrate her coming of age in accordance to her culture.

The role of animals in the daily life of the Enxet is not forgotten either. Schäfer was impressed by two thin, loyal dogs that followed their owners deep into the hostile territory to help them hunt for food. He was impressed by the courage of these animals. The artist decided to place them in a pose that will simulate a coat of arms or a heraldry, that’s why the French Royal Lily appears next to the dogs. The metaphor consists of imagining a heraldic symbol made up of these skinny, hungry dogs which nonetheless demonstrate great nobility.

Perhaps the most hopeful image painted by Schäfer is the basket weaver. She is the only remaining craftswoman of the tribe who still makes some kind of a dignified living despite her circumstances. When the ultraviolet light is applied on the canvas we realize that she is weaving her wares not out of fiber but out of wire as a sign of protest.

In February 2014, in Asunción, an exhibition unveiling the series of Enxet portraits was inaugurated. It claimed to make visible the invisible. According to Curator Osvaldo Gonzales Real, the images produced by Diego Schäfer, in addition to denouncing human rights violations, also represented an interesting aesthetic achievement. The works’ artistic process included drawing, chiaroscuro, and final shading, using black and white as a metaphor for the “invisibility” in which the protagonists are sunk.

The message of the work is not appreciated with a first look: the artist used a type of paint that reacts under the effect of ultraviolet light. Three months after the end of the exhibition, the Congress of Paraguay and President Horacio Cartes restored the land in litigation to its original inhabitants. Diego Schäfer was able to celebrate the triumph of justice with his friends of the Enxet community. Art helped to ward off continued injustice.

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