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Venezuela Demands Return Of Mythical Boulder From Germany

The Global Stone Project in Berlin.
Frank M. Rafik
via Flickr
The Global Stone Project in Berlin.

The 35-ton boulder commands attention. The whale-shaped rock was brought to Berlin from Venezuela in 1998 by German artist Wolfgang von Schwarzenfeld who inscribed it with the word love written in seven languages. It's a work of art that sits in Tiergarten park.

But during the past few weeks, the boulder has become the subject of an international dispute.

The local Pémon Indians claim the rock was taken against their will and that they were warned by their ancestors that if they touched the boulder, it would unleash mother nature's fury. Now, the Venezuelan government has taken the natives' side and has formally asked Germany to return the rock.

The Guardian reports:

"Von Schwarzenfeld has spent the past 15 years on his Global Stoneproject, collecting pairs of stones from all five continents, sculpturing, polishing and inscribing them. The 79-year old artist, in a claim supported by the study of a German ethnologist, said it was only after he showed an interest in the stone and with much effort shipped it down the Orinoco, to the coast, across the Atlantic and to Germany, that the Pemón started raising any objections.

"'This project is self-funded and is not driven by commercial interests,' Von Schwarzenfeld said. 'But it has suited some people to say that an imperialistic white German artist stole it and won't give it back. First they claimed it was jasper, and when tests proved that was not the case and that it was in fact worthless sandstone, someone invented a story about its holy origins eight years later in the hope it could be claimed back.' Von Schwarzenfeld said he had received death threats from those calling for the stone's return."

Venezuela's Institute of Cultural Heritage paints a very different picture. They call the rock "Grandmother Kueka" and they say it was removed illegally from the Canaima National Park.

The institute put together a six-minute video wherethey talk to some in the Pémon community. In the video, the Pémon say their ancestors said there were two stones to begin with. A long time ago, they say, a man and woman from different tribes began a forbidden love affair. When an wise grandfather found out about it, he sentenced them to live forever in an embrace and turned them to rocks. The woman became the "Grandmother Kueka" rock. The Pémon were warned if those rocks were disturbed there would torrential rain and lightning and wind.

One woman they talk to in the video said when Von Schwarzenfeld came for the rock she was "too old to complain."

"And they don't understand my language," she said. But she told her daughter to object. She did, she said, but the men "showed her a lot papers" and told her they had permission.

According to El Diario de Guayana, a local paper, Venezuela's attorney general confirmed that Von Schwarzenfeld had received permission from the administration of Rafael Caldera. But "it violated the regulations that protect" the national park.

The Guardian reports that Germany's foreign ministry said it is trying to reach an "amicable settlement."

Venezuela's state television reports that on June 21, the Pémon people are planning march to the German Embassy in Caracas to demand a return of the rock.

"(Von Schwarzenfeld) used the armed forces and at that time we were scared of the military. They took advantage of that to walk over us and over our culture and wisdom, because to us wisdom comes from our ancestors," Melchor Flores told state TV.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.