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JUNE 22, 2012 9:00AM

Venezuelan Indios demand return of sacred stone from Berlin

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 Kueka Stone

Stone of contention: The "Kueka Stone"

THE TIERGARTEN, A VAST public park in the center of the Berlin, which is otherwise known as the city’s “green lung” and an oasis of peace, has become a point of contention between the German government and the native Pemón tribe of Venezuela. It seems that the historic park, which is already bristling with monuments, also contains the sacred Kueka ("Grandmother") Stone, which the Indios claim was illegally moved to Germany in 1999. Now they're demanding it back.

The red, whale-shaped, thirty-ton stone forms part of an art project by the Austrian artist Wolfgang Kraker von Schwarzenfeld. “Global Stone Project” unites one stone each from five continents. On his website, Kraker explains:

All the stones are sculptured, polished and inscribed. The stones remaining on the five continents are positioned so that once a year, on the 21st of June, their surfaces reflect the light of the sun back to it. The light reflected from these stones travels in a frequency of 16 minutes around the world to meet their sister stones, at high noon in Berlin. There, between the five continental stones, the reflected sunlight draws five invisible straight lines. I expect the viewer to participate in the peace process by making a free decision to join these invisible lines using his active imagination, to create a circle as a symbol of united mankind. The pairs of stones from the continents represent the five steps towards Peace: (Europe) Awakening, (Africa) Hope, (Asia) Forgiveness, (America) Love, and Australia (Peace).

 Global Stone Project

The "Global Stone Project" in Berlin's Tiergarten park. The polished red Kueka Stone ("love") is visible in the left foreground

According to the Pemón Indians, 100 of whom gathered in front of the German embassy in Caracas yesterday in full native dress, the stone was removed from Canaima National Park illegally. They have been protesting the action ever since. Krakas himself claims that he requested the stone in good faith and was given it as a present by then-President Rafael Caldera.

Of all the millions of stones in Venezuela, what’s so special about this one? The Pemóns claim that the divine rock represents one of a pair of petrified ancestors from ancient mythology. "Grandmother" is so holy, their spokespeople say, that it must not be touched or even looked at, let alone removed and shaped by a European artist. It plays a dynamic role in the natural order of things and influences the weather. Now that it is gone, they say, their culture has been compromised and their region has suffered from extreme flooding.

This sounds impressive enough – rather like a sort of South American Stonehenge, or Stone of Scone – but not everyone is buying it. German ethnologist Bruno Illius from the Free University’s Latin American Institute has investigated the matter, coming to the conclusion that the story is scarcely the jungle wildfire its supporters claim and is more like a few yards of smouldering astroturf. In fact, according to the interviews he has conducted in the villages immediately surrounding its point of origin, the story is known only to about a dozen Pemón activists, most of them from outside the area, whereas 99% of the tribe have never heard of it. The stone may not have been "special" at all before Krakas laid his eyes on it. Illius suspects political and financial interests behind the campaign. One possibility the locals suggested to him on a recent visit is that the Chavez regime is using the Indians to make political hay against European imperialists and also score a few points against the pliant former Caldera government. Illius also learned that local tour guides earn handsome tips by taking tourists to the rock’s former site and relating its sad story.

Whatever the truth of the matter, in a statement to the demonstrators German ambassador Georg Clemens Dick apologized for the incident and assured the demonstrators that as far as he is concerned, the stone can come home tomorrow.

And how about the Berliners? I suspect we’ll welcome the stone’s departure, assuming we notice it at all. It gives us that much more space to picnic and play soccer. The Kueka Stone incident could set a precedent, however: The Egyptians have been itching to get their famous Bust of Nefertiti back ever since a rogue German archeologist nabbed it from the Amarna excavation site back in 1912. Regardless of the merits of the case - and the Egyptians have both the law and basic common sense on their side - it will take more than a hundred Indios dressed in feathers and waving bows and arrows to spirit her out of the city.

 Bust of Nefertiti

The Bust of Nefertiti, the showpiece Berlin's Eyptian Museum, c. 1350 BC




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The things that result from unintended consequences.
If it didn't have significance before, it certainly does now. ... Venezuela was my adoptive homeland for 10 years, and I lived in the country's southern region, not far from the Pemóns' ancestral homeland. Canaima is one of my favorite places on earth, and a very spiritual place. The stone is a tangible symbol of European colonialism, and, as you know, that scar hasn't healed after 500 years. R.
Thanks for your input! Holy or not, I don't think I'd be happy if some European artist came by and hauled off a chunk of my home region for a gratuitous project, gift or no gift.
No argument there, Kate, but it sure is convenient just to ride the train two stops and walk over to the museum rather than book an expensive flight to Cairo!
Just to add a point of logic here with wry humor infused:

It is said the stone is so holy that no-one must touch it, or even look at it.

Hmm. This has got me wondering two things:
How do they know it's gone?
How do they know the rock in contention is the rock in question?

I mean, if you're not even supposed to look at it, then you don't really even know what it looks like, right? And if you can't touch it, how in the name of all that's holy (including that rock) are you going to get it back to it's resting place?

I can only offer that if only a dozen or so Pemon Indios actually knew the story at all, then they must have cheated and looked, thus making them heretics, right? They violated the tenet of it's holiness, thus reducing it to mere rock status.

Problem solved.

Or am I missing something here?

Good points! Actually, that's what the Latin America scholar discovered when he went down there to investigate: He found different versions of the supposed legend, and learned that a variety of stones in the area were associated with the story. Moreover, the stone's "twin," i.e. the second allegedly sacred stone in the legend, was likely going to be hauled off for road-building purposes with nary a peep from the locals. So the stone story is all a little too tidy to believe.

True, the principle of the thing is bad enough. Believe me, my sympathies are with the Pemóns, and yet I'm fascinated at how this story shows how "sacredness" is created. Rather like what Eric Hobsbawm calls "the invention of tradition."