Restitution of Kogi Masks from the Ethnologisches Museum

Ethnologisches Museum

The collection of the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin included two masks from the indigenous Kogi (also spelt Cogui) people from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta northern Colombia. They were acquired for the museum in 1915 during a research trip by Konrad Theodor Preuss. In light of the fact that these objects have ritual functions and continue to be of great religious meaning to the Kogi, the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) decided to return them. The masks were handed over at a press event during a visit by Colombian President Gustavo Petro Urrego to German Federal President Steinmeier on 16 June 2023 at Schloss Bellevue in Berlin.

The Meaning of the Masks

Among the Kogi people, who refer to themselves as the Kágaba, masks such as the two that have now been returned were always produced for the occasion of the founding of a temple. They were made for ritual use in dancing and singing. In the religious beliefs of the Kogi, this serves to promote spiritual healing, to maintain the social fabric, and also benefits the wellbeing of their people and of the entire world. Only a mama (a Kogi priest), is permitted to interact with the masks. Because they are to remain at the sacred site permanently and are only ever passed down from one generation of mama to another, their sale has always been impermissible.

The masks represent mythical ancestors and natural phenomena, and according to the beliefs of the Kogi, enable the wearer to assume their perspective. The wearer gains an insight into the world of these mythical ancestors and forces of nature, which can be seen as human beings through the masks. Since the mask enables the wearer to then be seen by these mythical beings and forces as one of their own, he is able to act as one of these mythical beings and can enter into contact with them on behalf of the Kágaba.

Due to their age, the two masks from the Ethnologisches Museum (V A 62649 and V A 62650) are of particular significance. They were dated to the mid-15th century, meaning they were fabricated before Spanish colonisation. They are made of wood and are referred to as “sun mask” (Mama Uakai) and “large sun mask” (Mama Nuikukui Uakai or Malkutše).

On the Provenance of the Preuss Collection

The two Kogi masks were acquired by Konrad Theodor Preuss in 1915, who was an ethnologist and curator at the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde (Royal Museum of Ethnology), the predecessor to the Ethnologisches Museum. During a research trip to Colombia between 1913 and 1919, Preuss gathered together more than 700 objects, of which some 440 remain in the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum. The rest were lost during the war. The true focus of his research, however, was the oral traditions of the peoples he visited.

As part of this trip, Preuss also spent several months with the Kágaba. Working together with multiple mamas, he recorded myths and songs in the language of the Kágaba, and published them in 1926 in a German translation. In addition to this, he put together a small collection of Kogi objects, 80 of which have been preserved to this day. Preuss  acquired both masks from the heir of a deceased mama, “thanks to this fortunate opportunity”, as he writes in his 1926 book Forschungsreise zu den Kágaba (Research Trip to the Kágaba). At the time, he was unaware of both the age of the masks and the impermissibility of their sale. You can find further information on Konrad Theodor Preuss and his collection in a virtual exhibition (German only) hosted by the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library).