With Kogi masks, Colombia wants more ancestral treasures to return home

The Kogi Kágaba masks on display the Bellevue Palace in Berlin. Photo: Cancillería

When Colombian President Gustavo Petro visited Berlin on June 16, his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, presided over a ceremony at the Bellevue Palace to mark the repatriation of two ancestral masks that belonged to the Kogi people.

Carved from wood in the mid-15th century and used in rituals by the ancestral people, the so-called Kágaba masks were taken out of Colombia by the German ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss (1869-1938) during the early 20th century to be safeguarded by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, an institution that oversees and manages a vast array of museums, libraries, archives, and research institutes. It was established in 1957 to preserve and promote Germany’s cultural heritage.

Given the importance of the Kogi’s sacred artifacts and their means of connecting with the natural world and spirits of the world’s highest coastal mountain range—the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta—the issue that the masks were preserved with chemicals to prevent wood decay from beetles and microbial infestations was not raised at the ceremony but was confirmed by Rudolf Parzinger, president of the Foundation. “The masks were indeed contaminated with chemicals (…) and we still have some doubts over whether they can be directly worn in front of the face,” he said.

The return of the sacred masks to a community that does not have the means to protect their antiquities from the humidity of a high-altitude rainforest, nor from the threat of illegal traffickers in historical artifacts, did not deter the Colombian Government from reclaiming two items from Preuss’ vast collection of Pre-Columbian objects from the Tayrona, Kogi, and other indigenous groups. Preuss’ objects were central to research on indigenous culture, language, ritual, and way of life in pre-colonial Colombia.

“The Kogi community will decide what will happen to the masks. I would like a museum in Santa Marta, but that’s just an idea, and we have to wait for the Kogi’s idea,” stated Petro. Parzinger, who oversees the famous Museum Island in Berlin – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – as well as the Altes Museum, Neues Museum, Pergamon, and Alte Nationalgalerie, also agrees that the destiny of the masks belongs to the Sierra Nevada. “Whether they go into a museum, a temple, or are used in rituals, that is up to the Kogi.”

The masks, which will be almost impossible to see for outsiders, are at the heart of a larger government objective to repatriate the country’s patrimonial heritage housed in museums and private collections. The task of identifying archaeological and anthropological items is the responsibility of the Colombian Foreign Ministry- Cancillería – through its Embassies around the world.

The objects are then handed over to the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and Natural History (ICANH). So far this year, the country has repatriated 625 items, an average of 50 per month. “We have a protocol in place to transport these objects, to ensure their conservation and safety, as well as their preservation once in the country,” stated Elizabeth Taylor Jay, Vice-Minister for Multilateral Affairs of the Foreign Ministry.

“The majority of the objects will stay in the collections of museums nationwide,” she told El Tiempo. Among the objects recovered this year from foreign governments—including Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the US, and France—are representations of the pre-Hispanic Tayrona, Quimbaya, Calima, Sinú, and Nariño cultures. The works are made from bone, stone, precious metals, or seashells.

Under Colombian law, it is illegal to export the country’s patrimonial treasures, and travelers caught with pre-Columbian items face heavy fines and the confiscation of the goods. With the return of the Kogi Kágaba masks, the Colombian Government now wants the German Government to hand over 35 stone statues belonging to the San Agustín culture, which Preuss took out of the country after World War I.

The statues, as tall as 3 feet and estimated to be 1,000 years old, are on display in the German capital, and others are in storage at Berlin’s Ethnological Museum. The San Agustín collection of “supernatural” statues is the largest outside Colombia, and the distinctive attraction of the San Agustín Archaeological Park in southern Colombia.