”Returns help the Kogi’s traditions and customs gain the respect they deserve.”

News from 06/16/2023

The SPK returned masks made by the Kogi people to Colombia during Colombian President Gustavo Petro Urrego’s visit with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Two wooden masks
© Ethnologisches Museum / Claudia Obrocki, Martin Franken

Until recently, the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Ethnological Museum of the National Museums in Berlin) held two masks made by the Kogi (or Cogui) people, an indigenous community in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia. They were acquired for the museum in 1915 during an expedition undertaken by ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss. Since the masks were created for ritual purposes and continue to hold great religious significance for the Kogi, the SPK resolved to return them.

“Given their special, even unique, background, the return of the masks is the right solution, one we arrived at after a period of careful consideration,” commented SPK President Herrmann Parzinger. The SPK had already been in talks with representatives of the indigenous organization Gonavindúa Tayrona and with the ICANH (Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia) for several years. In 2022, Colombia finally issued an official request for their return.

The Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Claudia Roth, also described the return as an important step and was pleased that the event had been attended both by President Petro, who had visited the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut a day earlier, and by President Steinmeier. The presence of these two high-ranking figures, said Roth, “underscores our shared determination to help the Kogi’s traditions, customs and spiritual heritage gain the respect they deserve.”

The Kogi, whose name in the Kogi language is Kágaba, made masks of this sort exclusively for use in the ritual dances and songs performed when a new temple was established. They were believed to promote spiritual healing, preserve social order, and safeguard the welfare of the community and the world. Colombia’s President Petro made a point of mentioning this in the speech he gave on the occasion of the return. The philosophy of the Kogi and their understanding of the world, he said, “still has something to say to us today, so it is all the more important that these two masks be brought back to their place of origin.”

The two masks are unusually old, lending them even greater significance. They have been dated to the mid-fifteenth century and were thus produced before the Spanish conquest of the area began. The only people permitted to handle the masks are Kogi priests, called mamos. They were always intended to remain at the holy places for which they were made and can only be passed down among the mamos from one generation to another. Purchasing the masks was not, and is not, permitted.

They were nevertheless bought in 1915 by Preuss, who was then a curator at the Royal Museum of Ethnology, the predecessor institution of today’s Ethnologisches Museum. While on an expedition to Colombia between 1913 and 1919, he amassed over 700 objects, about 440 of which are still held in the Ethnologisches Museum today. Preuss acquired the two masks from the heirs of a mamo who had died. He was not aware of their age or the impropriety of transferring ownership.

President Steinmeier, who has met twice with representatives of the Kogi during visits to Colombia, noted in his speech addressing the return: “The questions [we] Europeans face today are different from those that were asked in the time of Konrad Theodor Preuss. We must now ask, in a spirit of critical reflection, on whose shoulders Western modernity was built, and with what contradictions and injustices. And we must ask what the consequences of that are for our world today. I am grateful, Mr. Parzinger, that you are not only asking these questions but working together with many others as you seek to answer them.” The president concluded his speech with a special wish: “May these masks have a good journey – back to the place where they are used and needed, where they continue to act as bridges between people and nature.”

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