Germany: Health risks may result from Germany’s return of sacred Kogi masks to Colombia
By Ahmad Hadizat Omayoza, Mamos Nigeria
Although Germany has given Colombia two indigenous Kogi wooden masks, it has acknowledged that wearing the sacred artifacts in ceremonies may pose a health risk due to the fact that they were treated with toxic pesticides while in German museums.
At a ceremony in Berlin on Friday, the masks, which date to the middle of the 15th century and have been in ethnological collections in Berlin for over a century, were given to Gustavo Petro, the president of Colombia.
Steinmeier praised Germany’s “pioneering role” in the movement to return items acquired by European museums in colonial contexts, describing the move as “part of a rethink of the way in which we treat our colonial past.”
The Kogi masks were legally purchased by the German ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss from the son of a deceased Kogi priest in 1915, more than a century after Colombia gained independence from Spain, in contrast to many other items that are the subject of restitution claims.
However, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s museums, has come to the conclusion that the Kogi artifacts should never have been sold in the first place due to the masks’ sacred status.
A Kogi representative stated, “The Kalguakala [masks] are of the utmost importance to us as they are sacred.” They are alive, not historical artifacts. We use the masks in ceremonies to work with the spirit of the sun, the waters, the mountains, and all of the species in the world.
However, due to their contamination with hazardous substances, researchers warn that many items in Western museums should only be restituted with a serious health warning. The container containing the two Kogi masks was repeatedly sprayed with 1,4-dichlorobenzene, a disinfectant whose use in mothballs has been banned in the European Union since 2008 because it can cause breathing difficulties and is suspected of causing cancer. This practice was common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to protect organic materials like leather and wood from infestations from silverfish, clothes moths, and wood beetles.
The question of where the items that were acquired by their national museums during the colonial era will now increasingly take center stage as European governments, including Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, take steps to return them.
Concerns have been raised that bronze objects from the former kingdom of Benin that Germany brought back to Nigeria in December have since been given to the head of the former royal family of the Benin Empire by presidential decree. This raises the possibility that the objects will end up in a private collection rather than being displayed in a new museum for West African art that Germany is co-funding.
President Petro made the following remarks later on Friday: A ceremony of restitution is what we want to do. The masks’ fate will be decided by the Kogi community. I’d like a Santa Marta museum. But that is a concept. We should see what thoughts they propose.”
The German side was insistent that the Kogi people would receive the masks and decide what would happen to them. Parzinger stated, “That is up to the Kogi whether they go into a museum, into a temple, or whether they are used in rituals.”