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The Curse of Nemur

The Curse of Nemur: In Search of the Art, Myth and Ritual of the Ishir

Ticio Escobar
Translated by Adriana Michele Campos Johnson
Foreword by Michael Taussig
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  • Book Info
    The Curse of Nemur
    Book Description:

    The Tomáraho, a subgroup of the Ishir (Chamacoco) of Paraguay, are one of the few remaining indigenous populations who have managed to keep both their language and spiritual beliefs intact. They have lived for many years in a remote region of the Gran Chaco, having limited contact with European or Latin American cultures. The survival of the Tomáraho has been tenuous at best; at the time of this writing there were only eighty-seven surviving members.

    Ticio Escobar, who lived extensively among the Tomáraho, draws on his acquired knowledge of Ishir beliefs to confront them with his own Western ideology, and records a unique dialogue between cultures that counters traditional anthropological interpretation.The Curse of Nemur--which is part field diary, part art critique, and part cultural anthropology-offers us a view of the world from an entirely new perspective, that of the Ishir. We acquire deep insights into their powerful and enigmatic narrative myths, which find expression in the forms of body painting, feather decoration, dream songs, shamanism, and ritual.

    Through dramatic photographs, native drawings, extensive examination of color and its importance in Ishir art, and Escobar's lucid observation,The Curse of Nemurilluminates the seamless connection of religious practice and art in Ishir culture. It offers a glimpse of an aesthetic "other," and in so doing, causes us to reexamine Western perspectives on the interpretation of art, belief, and Native American culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7309-6
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Michael Taussig

    If you want to learn something about color and feathers—from an Indian point of view—read this book. It also happens to be of service to literature, to art criticism, to the comparative study of religions, to shamanism, the practice of anthropology, and above all to the rethinking of the role of Native Americans in shaping the self-understanding of the Americas. It is a precious document, an extension of the delicacy and uniqueness of the thought it treats. It is as valuable for the way it goes about its task—an anthropology of anthropology, if you will—as for...

    (pp. xv-xviii)
    Adriana Michele Campos Johnson

    This book is a reflection on the art forms of the people who call themselves Ishir, and who are commonly known within Paraguay as the Chamacoco. Despite Ticio Escobar’s many years as an advocate for indigenous rights—he served as president of the Asociación Apoyo a las Comunidades Indígenas del Paraguay (ACIP) from 1989 to 1991, wroteMisión: Etnocidio(1988), and was recently recognized for such efforts by the Premio Bartolomé de Las Casas, awarded by the Casa de América in Madrid—this book was not conceived as an ethnographic project. Escobar baldly states this in his first sentence and...

    (pp. 1-13)

    This book was conceived not as an ethnographic project but as a reflection on the art of the Ishir of the Great Chaco region of Paraguay. In indigenous cultures, however, the aesthetic manifests itself not only in art, but in myth and ritual. For this reason, the project quickly acquired multiple intersecting dimensions whose boundaries often—but not always—blurred. This book moves through this unpredictable terrain without staking out spaces or setting down clear limits: it considers the artistic through its desire to affirm the rhetoric of myth and emphasize the effects of ritual. The artistic act should not...

    (pp. 15-63)

    I will begin before the beginning. It is afternoon in the brutal Chaco summer. A small group whose number varies, according to different versions, between seven and ten women, have fallen behind as they follow the tracks of a nomadic group that is moving the village to which they belong. They make jokes and laugh; they are young and unmarried. “They are jútoro,”¹ says Bruno. “Whores,” Clemente translates with little hesitation, offering the semantic equivalent of a term that lacks negative connotations in his culture. One of them, the narrator continues, feels the caress of a plant stem between her...

    (pp. 65-115)

    The Chamacoco are obsessed with colors. Colors dye the deepest conceptions of Ishir culture. They illuminate the backdrop of myths and set the Ishir bodies alight during ceremonies; they mark differences and conflicts; they classify, explain, and illustrate; they are signposts to places, hierarchies, states; they invoke the mysteries of geography and climate, of fauna and flora; they name the hues of blood, night, light, and fire. Colors allow for great rhetorical flexibility: they modulate discourse, emphasize figures. This is why they have such a powerful aesthetic mission. When colors place objects onstage, they exhibit and trace its forms, they...

    (pp. 117-151)

    The maximum expression of Chamacoco art takes place on the body. Feathered ornaments and corporal painting imbue the image with the weight of unlimited social content, driving it to the limits of its expressive capacity. That is to say, these arts order colors; compose, balance, and dislocate figures; act on appearances and sensible effects: they manipulate form. And they do so to signal and hide culture’s most pressing truth, the body of its first enigmas.

    The confused activity we call art consists in the effort to work forms so as to produce the most intense signification, adulterate the normal appearance...

  7. 4 THE RITE
    (pp. 153-209)

    For Rousseau the festival begins when there are no actors and society becomes its own spectacle (Duvignaud 1980, 207). The rite is, in effect, the representation of the social. Re-presentation: as it is placed onstage, costumed and masked, presented under lights and effects according to the vicissitudes of plot, society suspends its norms and divulges other aspects of itself than those conveyed daily. This transition between the time of the everyday and the “effervescent” time—to use Durkheim’s term—the time of the stage and its excess, of simulacrum and poetry, is an essential part of the ritual.

    While it...

    (pp. 211-259)

    As I have had occasion to note in previous chapters, the shamans act in another dimension than that of the gods. These planes do not contradict each other—in fact, they can intersect—but they are fundamentally different. The shamans do not busy themselves with religion and its cults and do not, for this reason, project their actions onto dimensions that transcend the human condition. On the contrary, they are dedicated to traveling the complex terrains of the human condition to facilitate the advent of the designs that shape it.

    The spaces of human experience are traversed by alien forces....

    (pp. 261-286)

    This text has wandered around an elusive theme attempting multiple, lateral, occasionally intersecting, and generally unsystematic approaches. In that spirit, my intention in this chapter is to delineate some traces that indicate the other side of the scene. I am not trying to deal here with the ethnocide of indigenous peoples: I have done so in a previous work and have little to add. Nor am I venturing ethnohistorical approximations: such attempts exceed my competency, and have been the object of admirable works by Susnik, Cordeu, and Chase-Sardi, among others. I restrict myself to transmitting various references regarding the concrete...