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Germany Hands Back Centuries-Old Masks to Colombia

The Ethnological Museum of Berlin on Friday handed back to Colombia two priceless masks, thought to be from the mid-15th century, that were used in Indigenous rituals.

The wooden objects are highly revered by the country’s Kogi mountain people, and their return is the latest in a string of cultural restitutions by Germany and other European nations.

How did the masks end up in Berlin?

Ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss, who was the curator of the forerunner of today’s museum, bought the masks in 1915 on an extended trip to Colombia. 

They were among some 700 objects that he gathered on the journey. 

Scholars have estimated that the masks —  referred to as “Sun Mask” (Mama Uakai) and “Great Sun Mask” (Mama Nuikukui Uaka) — are about six centuries old. 

They were used ritually in temple dances and chants in a temple and, according to traditional beliefs, they were only supposed to be handled by a “mamo,” the traditional priests of the Kogi.

They were never supposed to have been sold or acquired in any other way, but the German capital’s museums authority said Preuss wasn’t aware of this or of the age of the masks. 

Why is the handover taking place now?

The decision to return the masks follows years of talks between Berlin’s museum authority and Colombia, with an official request for their return coming from Colombia last year.

The handover took place on a visit to Berlin by Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who was joined for the event by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. 

“We know that the masks are sacred to the Kogi,” Steinmeier said. “May these masks have a good journey back to where they are needed, and where they are still a bridge between people and nature today.

“This restitution is part of a rethink of how we deal with our colonial past, a process that has begun in many European countries,” Steinmeier said. “I welcome the fact that Germany is playing a leading role in this.”

Petro celebrated the return of “these magic masks,” and said he hoped that more pieces could be recovered.

Governments and museums in Europe and North America have increasingly tried to resolve disputes over artifacts that were taken during colonial times.

Last year, Germany and Nigeria signed an accord that paved the way for hundreds of artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes to be returned. 

Those objects were taken from Africa by a British colonial expedition more than 120 years ago.

Source : DW