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German museum returns centuries-old ritual masks to Colombia

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Two invaluable ritual masks from the indigenous Kogi people of the mountains of Colombia from the collection of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin were returned on Friday.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro joined German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a ceremony in Berlin to mark the handover of the sacred objects.

"This return is part of a rethinking of how to deal with our colonial past, a process that has begun in many European countries," said Steinmeier, who added that Germany has played a leading role in that process.

Ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss acquired the centuries-old pieces from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in 1915 and brought them to Berlin.

Colombia officially requested their return in 2022.

Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Ethnological Museum, said the decision to return the masks was reached after careful consideration.

The masks have a "special, virtually unique background," Parzinger said.

According to scholars, the wooden masks date from the mid-15thcentury. They are referred to as "Sun Mask" (Mama Uakai) and "Great Sun Mask" (Mama Nuikukui Uakai) and were to be used ritually in dances and chants in a temple, according to the museum.

Petro said that the Kogi and other indigenous people live in harmony with nature and that "these cultures can teach us a lot."

Democracy is based on diversity and the return of the masks helps preserve these differences, Petro said. The Colombian president suggested the possibility of building a museum in the Kogi region of Santa Marta.

According to traditional beliefs, only a mamo, a tribal priest of the Kogi, is allowed to handle the masks and they are intended to remain permanently in the sacred place.

The masks were not intended to be sold or acquired. Preuss, the ethnographer who brought the masks to Berlin, described their acquisition from the heir of a deceased mamo as a "favourable opportunity." — dpa

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