The Turning of an indigenous symbol into a universal artwork
For over thirty years, German artist Wolfgang von Scwarzenfield sailed around the world in his sail boat –Pegasus. Describing himself persevering as a virtue, impatient as a weakness and full of unconditional love as his contribution for a better world, Wolfgang crossed the seas on his boat. He went through all the continents looking for stones that reflected the unique characteristics of their material, form and history. His goal was Global Stone:
…consists of the handling of ten stones, five to be placed in the countries representing each continent and the other five stones to be placed in Berlin. All the stones are sculptured, polished and inscribed. The stones remaining on the five continents are positioned so that once a year, on the 21stof June, their surfaces reflect the light of the sun back to it.Taken from Wolfgang’s webpage
Each one of these stones, from each of the continents he visited, represent the five steps that, according to Wolfgang, we have to follow to achieve peace: Awakening (Europe), Hope (Africa), Forgiveness (Asia), Love (America) and, finally, Peace (Australia). The stones have been intervened: sculpted, polished, inscribed; their original shapes have been transformed by the artist’s hands and ideas.
Although a beautiful message, therehave been some problems with that artistic concept: considered by some a she and not an “it”, the stone has been called Abuela Kueka (Grandmother Kueka), a vital and symbolic figure for the Pemón people of Bolívar State, Venezuela.
With more and more cases that contest the limits and applications of copyright on indigenous settings, such as the recent discussion on the cultural appropriation of mexican designs by designer Carolina Herrera, Kueka can be as good as a point of discussion to talk about cultural appropriation; although there are many discussed and studied cases of the appropriation of non-Western artefacts as art objects and what it implies to the artefact-producing communities from within academia, we are dealing with a difficult situation regarding Kueka. The discussion has revolved around the validity of the “recently acquired” symbolic meaning of the stone, therefore undermining Pemón’s claims on her/its retrieval. The first question we need to ask…
Is Kueka a Grandmother?
On a documentary produced by Venezolana de Televisión, Victorina Díaz states that:
…no one can say it’s just one more rock. It’s a sacred stone, it is forbidden to touch her. If anyone touched her, that person would get sick, it would rain, [it would] thundered and [there would be many] lightings… that stone, for us, is a human being; although she is rock for us she is the queen of the soil.Translation from the documentary “TV Foro completo sobre el robo de la piedra Kueka”, 2012
Sita Alfonzo takes the humanisation of the stone further, stating that “I want to ask him [the artist], why did he peel her? I ask him, why did he take her skin off?”.
Kueka is also the couple of another stone, Abuelo Kueka (Grandfather Kueka), whose presence is mentioned in the same myth than Kueka is. Victorina Díaz claims that “yes, yes, she has to go back to her place, next to her husband. Her husband is alone, he is having a hard time, that’s why she has to come back”. Antonio Pérez, interviewed for Somos Pemón, mentions that what is left of their culture is what the elders has advised them to do, such as that once married you have to keep the union between the man and the woman; for them, even if there is no legal document that fundaments this, matrimony is sacred, and as such, couples must remain together.
Sita Alfonzo describes that “Kueka would make drinks to the Captains of the bachacos and of the fishes. It is for this reason that Kueka is everyone’s grandmother, of us humans too, because she is sacred, grandiose, and in her greatness she would provide food to all of the humans”.Recent scarcity in the zone has been attributed to her absence, stating that there is a weather imbalance as it doesn’t rain nor it is dry season when it’s supposed to, and that even the recollection of termites and bachacos has been compromised.
From different interviews held with this women, statements done to the media and related articles, we gather that Pemón’s sacred stones shan’t be touched to prevent natural disasters. In one of the Pemón myths compiled by Armellada in 1988, it is mentioned the power that some stones have for hunting and fishing. The flood that killed thousands in the Vargas State, Venezuela, in December 1999, is attributed to the imbalance that occurred when Kueka was taken away. As Lucía Rivero states:
When they took her it’s when the Vargas tragedy happened and people got flooded (sic), they died, there were pests and the amount of dead, you know this. The people of La Guaira [Vargas’s Capital] rot down. When they took her she drew (sic) a lot of water out, she made it rain too much and many died. We don’t even know the amount, they were many [the deceased].Translation from the documentary “TV Foro completo sobre el robo de la piedra Kueka”, 2012
In the ancestral cosmology, everything has a reason of being which is inscribed in the myth world; breaking the balance that comes from this set of ideas can bring dreadful consequences not only to their group, but to different cultures. Space, for the Pemón and other groups, synthesises their worldview, it is an identity reference and it provides a space for the self-recognition and self-construction of the community. The characteristics or traits of the environment are valued in terms of their mythical significance, their capacity to mould behaviours, their economical importance and the possibility to gather food from it. Making direct reference to the Pemón, anthropologists Perera, Rivas and Gómez Rangel explain that the sacrality of a space could be temporal.
Notwithstanding, there is a challenge for the Pemón people of Venezuela: it is difficult to balance the objectives of biological conservation and social development inside an institutional framework based on their beliefs and values inside the governance of other actors, such as the National State. The indigenous territorial delimitation proposed by the 1999 Constitution of the country is still on hold for numerous reasons, and the removal of the stone does not only seem to attack their symbolic world but their self-determination and even their recognitionas a part of the Venezuelan people.
Is Kueka just raw material?
The removal of the stone happened in 1998 when, according to Raúl Grioni, director of the Cultural Heritage Institute of Venezuela, it was “legally donated” by INPARQUES. As a National Park, Roraima should have been protected from this and/or other kinds of extractive activities by national institutions.At the moment in which the stone was being taken from Roraima to Santa Elena de Uairén there was an indigenous protest on the highway against the construction of power lines that were meant to connect with Brazil. Once the Pemón protesters saw the cargo that was in the vehicle they made it stop, to make sure the stone would not be taken further.
A commission from the Senate –called National Assembly after the 1999 Constitution– sent a letter to the German embassy questioning the removal of the stone, but the process continued until Kueka was taken out of Venezuela some months after it was stopped next to the highway. According to Grioni, there were some negotiations and corrupt activities that allowed the “donation” to occur, and that the legal document that the artist shows as a permission is not actually legally binding.
In the same programme which Grioni was invited to talk at, TV Foro, they show an interview conducted by their team –specifically for this programme– to Wolfgang, and he claims that:
No one has ever spoken about this [the Kueka myth]. The event (sic) is to put the two things together: this myth, because it exists –I am not going to deny that–, but, to put it on this stone, that’s made up.Translation from the documentary “TV Foro completo sobre el robo de la piedra Kueka”, 2012
Due to the problems that arose, Wolfgang requested the aid of anthropologist Bruno Illius, who has worked with the Pemón since 1993, to answer certain questions regarding the Kueka controversy –such information is available on the artist’s webpage of Global Stone in German and Spanish in an unofficial article.For this, Ilius claims to have used not only the opinion of competent colleagues, known literature of Pemón myths and different videos that circulate freely online –from which he questions the translations–, but interviews conducted in 2011 to people from the Gran Sabana of Mapaurí and of Kumarakapay, the two closest towns from where the stone comes from.
He also interviewed people in Santa Elena de Uairén –a small city in the Bolívar State near the border with Brazil and Guyana–, where politicians and other officials of the regional government reside. These are some of the questions Ilius addresses to and answers on the document uploaded:
- Are there any stories, legends or myths about the stone. If affirmative, if it is related with the origin of the Pemón people, and if it is seen as the petrification of one of their ancestors. He believes that the confirmation of any of these tales could make Kueka qualify as sacred.
- Is the stone is made of jasper. If affirmative, if such particular stone is sacred for the Pemón.
- If it is allowed to touch sacred objects.
- If, for the Pemón people, the stone possesses a “high cultural value”.
- Who are they talking about, when they –in different videos referenced– refer to “the Pemón” and if their culture, dignity and identity has been under attack.
- Who are the individuals protesting for the return of Kueka to Venezuela.
On his brief conclusions, Ilius states that the stone has nothing to do with Pemón’s religion or myths, and that the stone does not refer to any ancestor of the group. He states that the stories he heard on the videos are either made up or not related to this stone couple, and that there are some issues with the translation from the Pemón language to Spanish. Ilius explains that there is a “correct” version of the ancestral myths of the Pemón in a movie produced by the Ministry of Culture with the National Council of Culture, in collaboration with two professional and recognised Venezuelan “ethnologists”. Unlike the other videos he quoted, Illius considers that this one is based in a deep, knowledgeable research. Nevertheless, such video only talks about one myth, which is the origin of their main cultural heroes.
He also states that no Pemón refers to the stone Kueka, that there are proofs of Pemóns that touch it and that they can’t even distinguish the materials of different minerals and stones –as it was questioned if jasper is a sacred material or not for them. In the end, Illius considers that the fundaments of the petition, based on the analysis of the videos and the interviews done by him, for the return of Kueka, are an “intentional fraud”.
Finally, from the interviews done in 2011, he elaborates on the idea in which the stone was later used to make “politics”, and that the stone means nothing to the Pemón. One of the interviewee claims that if the German had given something back to “the community” as a payment there would have been no further problems.
But is it an artwork or sacred stone?
On his webpage, the artist describes how the conversations went with the indigenous when they didn’t allow the vehicle to keep going through the highway, and how it was stopped next to it. At first he claims that the Pemón protesters wanted some monetary retribution for the withdrawal of the stone. Afterwards, he describes a meeting he had with some Pemón, in which he describes that he said that “…this stone, situated in an exhibition place in Berlin, will achieve more for the claims of your people than staying as one stone among many that are the same of the Gran Sabana”. He also believes that that’s exactly what happened, as his idea of peace is not the absence of conflicts but to promote the consciousness of such conflicts to solve them.
In this way Wolfgang, as a “Western connoisseur”, gave himself the important task of giving meaning and a significance to the artistic object produced; this is understandable if he thinks about the stone as an individual –his– art piece, but as he believes their claims could be true, and that “the cause” would resonate more from Berlin, he is taking agency from the indigenous, indirectly arguing that they are less well equipped to perform this task of claiming their own rights.
Objects, of both “art” and “culture”, are susceptible to the appropriation of others. It is mentioned by Eleuterio Franco how strangers to the community would come and offer them benefits and that these strangers wouldn’t comply with their word. After some time, they came to the conclusion as a community that when there is any kind of work –referring specifically to governmental projects– going around the area where the communities are, the indigenous populations have to be consulted about them. This also applies to the removal of Kueka. In this sense, the scandal revolves around the dispossession, appropriation and corruption of the indigenous principal good in the contemporary cultural conjecture: their identity.
The qualities of the stone may or may not relate directly to this myth, and perhaps the myth has been a convenient invention. Even if it was, we have to stop associating myths with the static, timelessnessand past-oriented, as they can also make a reference to archetypical moments of rupture, contrasted between a before and an after. They can answer to something wider, and reconceptualize the boundaries between material and immaterial, agency and entitlement; as anthropologist H. Geismar says:
…we might focus on “the ways in which relationships to objects can recognize boundaries” of entitlement (Myers 2004: 6, emphasis added) and how property relations are able to embody divergent concepts of entitlement and redefine the borders between ideas, places, and regions of political authority.Geismar, H. “Copyright in Context: Carvings, Carvers, and Commodities in Vanuatu”. American Ethnologist 32 2 (2005)
The Kueka case has some elements in common with the Ayers rocks in Australia. The preservation of a distinct ethnic identity or, in both cases, of land rights associated with identity:
….depends on the ability to prevent one’s practices from being reproduced or appropriated by outsiders.Harrison, S. “Identity as a scarce resource”. Social Anthropology 17 3 (1995)
As an identity symbol –and as inalienable possessions–, identity often depends on the maintenance of an exclusive association with a distinctive set of symbolic objects, and preventing others from acquiring it.
Even if we believe that the Pemón would have not made a problem out of Kueka’s removal if Wolfgang would have given some kind of payment for it, we can also draw a parallelism between such group and the Kopinaet (copyright) in Vanuatu, analysed by Geismar: “A carver must pay, through various types of ritual practice and, increasingly, with money, for the rights to both produce (carve) and circulate (sell) Kastom images”.
The still in discussion area of indigenous copyright
From this final discussion, we can affirm that the recent invention or actual existence of the myth surrounding the Kueka stone could be considered irrelevant. Although there is an obvious political usage of the stone’s controversy, stating that it responds to selfish and capitalist interests –which contrasts the Venezuelan Government’s discourse–, the claim of the Pemón people may have a clearer and direct relation with land claims, an attempt to maintain their identity as a group and, in the end, the necessity of revisiting indigenous copyright policies. We might have to expand the notions of national and international legislations about indigenous copyrights, to assure that indigenous groups can actually be protected from Western inappropriate appropriation. We don’t have to only consider the appropriation of their symbolic artefactual elements, but even of potentially sacred materials.
The terms “art” and “culture” have been constantly imposed to the non-Westerns, and it is here where the problem lies. The concept of materiality is necessary to embrace the subject-object relations; and to keep in mind that the material property of things are always in flux, and that they are differentially experienced depending on different places, landscapes, historical contexts and the relationship between people and things embedded in the material world. It is critical to observe the relationships between the local understanding of the objects –or in this case, “raw” materials–and human action; and the secrecy, of what happens with regulation and classification of the new forms.