The Kueka Stone A Venezuelan Indigenous Group Battles Berlin

The rock is an integral part of the "Worldwide Peace Project," an artwork on display in the German capital. But an indigenous group from Venezuela says the holy boulder was stolen from them and are demanding its return. With Hugo Chavez backing their plea, the issue has caused friction between Caracas and Berlin.

In central Berlin, right behind the Brandenburg Gate, lies a red sandstone boulder. It weighs 35 metric tons (77,000 pounds), looks like a stranded whale and comes out of Venezuela's Canaima National Park. It was brought to Berlin over a decade ago by 78-year-old German artist Wolfgang Kraker von Schwarzenfeld.

And that's not all. Schwarzenfeld has brought together all manner of gigantic objects and monoliths, which now lie scattered in the Tiergarten, Berlin's large central park. He calls his artwork the " Global Stone: A Worldwide Peace Project ." Each block has a "sister stone" somewhere else in the world.

Each stone is sculpted, polished and positioned so that once a year, on the 21st of June, their surfaces reflect the light of the sun to intermingle with one another, Schwarzenfeld says. The light reflected from the stones will supposedly then travel "around the world to meet their sister stones, at high noon in Berlin." Likewise, each stone represents "the five steps toward peace": Africa is hope, Asia is forgiveness, Europe is awakening and Australia is peace.

The stone from Venezuela represents the Americas and, ironically enough, love.

'Give Kueka Back!'

It is a pretty and harmless looking stone. No one would guess that this boulder has damaged German-Venezuelan relations. Indeed, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's eccentric president, is demanding that the stone be brought back to its native land -- soon, before winter starts.

The stone, they say, is a sacred object to the Pemon, an indigenous people living in Venezuela's Canaima National Park. "Schwarzenfeld kidnapped it," says Héctor Torres, director of Venezuela's Cultural Patrimony Institute (IPC). Venezuela's foreign minister invited Pemon representatives, culture officials and sympathizers to an event to show their backing of the effort to repatriate the stone. In late July, President Chávez had a message delivered to Georg Dick, Germany's ambassador to Venezuela, in which he demanded: "Give Kueka back!" That is what indigenous people's call the stone. It means "petrification."

Forced Apart

A romantic drama is behind the affair. When it was still back in the national park, Kueka stood next to an even bigger boulder. Both of them are believed to be parts of a giant stone block that was split in two by a lightning bolt 50,000 years ago.

"They were a couple," says Melchor Flores, the head of the village of Mapaurí, a Pemon settlement near where Kueka once stood. Flores leads his visitor to Lucía Rivera Flores, his great aunt, who has wisps of gray hair and a wrinkled face.

Flores recounts the story of Kueka. Thousands and thousands of years ago, she says, a young man from Mapaurí fell in love with a girl from the Macuxi tribe, which is now found in Brazil. Macunaima, the supreme god of the Indians, forbade them from getting married -- but their love was too strong. "As a punishment," Flores says, "Macunaima turned them both into stone."

Since then, she claims, the Pemon people have worshiped the boulders as "Grandmother" and "Grandfather." Flores explains that couples would always ask the boulders for permission before getting married.

"The two were inseparable," Flores continues -- that is, until Schwarzenfeld came along. The artist insists that he "didn't know that (Kueka) meant so much to the Indians."

Kidnapping Grandmother

The adventurous artist lives a good 8,500 kilometers away from the Pemon people. He is a tall man with a snow-white beard and hair. Most days he can be found in a stone quarry in Bautzen, a town in the German state of Saxony. There he just finished polishing a 12-ton block of black granite, which is meant to be the crowning achievement of his career.

It was 1997 when Schwarzenfeld's boulder search brought him to South America. Nature-conservation officials pointed him to Canaima National Park, where he came upon Kueka. The Indians demonstrated as the boulder was loaded onto a flat-bed truck. Rafael Caldera, Venezuela's president at the time, couldn't have cared less about the protests of the native peoples.

Lucía Rivera Flores claims the sky was filled with lightning bolts the night after Kueka's was taken away. One night, she says, the oldest of the village elders had a dream in which a bearded man appeared to him and asked where his wife was. "Then it was clear to us that the German had kidnapped our grandmother," Flores says.

Cultural Imperialism or Propaganda Coup?

For a long time, the Indians fought in vain for Kueka's return. But then Chávez adopted their cause and labeled Schwarzenfeld's deed an example of cultural imperialism. The government had colorful leaflets printed saying "Enapök köwai apatase'dak," meaning "Grandmother, come back to your place" in the language of the Pemon people.

Talks with German government officials went well, though, and cultural officials ensured Torres that only logistical issues stood in the way of the boulder's return. Indeed, the Venezuelans want to head into the Tiergarten with cranes and flat-bed trucks in the next few weeks. And, in return for Kueka, the Venezuelan government has already said it will deliver four new stones to Germany.

Though that would seem to be a good bargain for Germany, Ambassador Dick tries to temper people's optimism. "The stone is part of a unified artwork," he says. "We have to consult with everyone involved."

Schwarzenfeld denies having stolen Kueka, citing the export license he ordered online. He also has the support of some ethnologists. Bruno Illius, an ethnologist who has studied Pemon culture, says that studies of Indian history have found that they do not have sacred relics. Instead, he says: "The fight is a propaganda coup for Hugo Chávez."

Schwarzenfeld says he would be willing to polish and position the "Grandfather" stone, now lying undisturbed near the border with Brazil, so that "he can communicate with his wife."

Translated from the German by Josh Ward
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