Venezuela and Germany Are at Odds Over an Artist's Use of a Sacred Sandstone Boulder

Venezuela and Germany Are at Odds Over an Artist's Use of a Sacred Sandstone Boulder
The artist Wolfgang von Schwarzenfeld stands with the 35-ton Kueka stone
(Courtesy Getty Images)

Although it was brought to Germany to be part of an art project on the theme of global peace, a 35-ton sandstone boulder is now at the center of a growing international controversy. The Venezuelan government and the Pemon Indian tribe are claiming that the rock, which was taken to Berlin by a German artist in 1997, should be returned to its native land.

Raúl Grioni, president of the Institute of Cultural Inheritance of Venezuela in Caracas, believes that the rock is sacred and that it was stolen by the artist, Wolfgang von Schwarzenfeld, for his "Global Stone" project in Berlin's Tiergarten park, the Guardian reports. "We ask that the German government start repatriating the sacred stone, [and] our foreign affairs minister will submit an official demand in the coming weeks," Grioni said in a statement. "I don't suspect the artist of having had bad intentions, but we find the lack of response very arrogant."

With Pemon Indians protesting outside its embassy in Caracas, the German government may now be ready to begin negotiations. According to AFP, Andreas Peschke, a spokesperson for the German foreign affairs ministry, said at a news briefing that "in order to facilitate a possible handing back of the stone and at the same time protect the interests of the artist, the foreign ministry has made relevant proposals for an amicable agreement."

Some Pemon Indians maintain that according to legend, a woman considered the tribe's grandmother was turned into this boulder by an angry god after having forbidden relations with a man, the grandfather, who was also turned into a rock. They claim that the two sacred stones are inseparable and that their separation is the cause of various natural catastrophes during the last decade, including deadly mudslides and floods in 1999, according to Der Spiegel. "Our grandfather has spoken to our elders in dreams and asks that his wife be returned," Melchor Flores, an activist for Indian property rights, told the Guardian. "He can't live without her."

According to Reuters, the 79-year-old artist maintains that he removed the rock from Canaima National Park with the authorization of former Venezuelan president Rafael Caldera and that he has documents that prove it. The artist also rejects the idea that the rock has any sacred value. "This project is self-funded and is not driven by commercial interests," Von Schwarzenfeld told the Guardian. "But it has suited some people to say that an imperialistic white German artist stole it and won't give it back." According to the AP, the artist believes that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has created the controversy in order to win support from the Pemon Indians before elections in October, and Bruno Illius, an ethnologist who studies the tribe, expressed the same opinion to the Guardian.

This article appears on ARTINFO France.