Germany returned two sacred Indigenous masks to Colombia after they were held in Berlin museum collections for more than 100 years, though questions remain about how safe the masks are for ritual use after they were sprayed with toxic pesticides.
The Kogi masks date to the 15th century and were handed over to Colombian president Gustavo Petro by German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a ceremony in Berlin on 16 June during his trip to Germany. The restitution comes after years of back-and-forth between the two countries’ governments.
“We know that the masks are sacred to the Kogi,” Steinmeier said at the ceremony, referring to the Indigenous group that lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of northern Colombia, according to the Associated Press. “This restitution is part of a rethink of how we deal with our colonial past, a process that has begun in many European countries.”
The Kogi masks were legally purchased in 1915 from the son of a late Kogi priest by German ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss, the curator of an earlier version of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. However, according to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation that oversees Berlin’s museums, the masks should not have been purchased because they are sacred, according to The Guardian.
“They are not a historical artefact, they are alive,” Arregocés Conchacala Zalabata, a Kogi representative, told The Guardian. “With the masks we perform ceremonies to connect and work with the spirit of the sun, the waters, the mountains and the world’s many species,” Zalabata said, adding that the Kogi community planned to continue using the masks once they’re returned.
However, some experts have warned a disinfectant used on the masks decades ago may be unsafe. The Guardian reported that during the 1940s and 50s, the two masks were treated with a disinfectant that has since been banned in the European Union over links to breathing problems and concerns it could cause cancer.
Rudolf Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, told The Guardian the two masks were cleaned and “detoxified” earlier this year and can safely be handled without gloves or face masks, though he added there is still “some doubt over whether they can be directly worn in front of the face”. Zalabata told The Guardian that the Zogi had not been informed of any issues with pesticides.
Last year, Germany agreed to return more than 1,000 Benin bronze artefacts held in the country’s museums to Nigeria. The objects were originally looted by British soldiers in 1897.