»No es arte.« Tayrona and Kogi Heritage
project, 2009–2016, Colombia, Germany, Netherlands, UK

„No es arte.“ is an interdisciplinary research group founded in 2009 by Christoph Balzar and Hanune Shalati. It revolves around the harsh critique of the world of Western museums and the capitalist art market by the Kogi people from Colombia. The Kogis are the descendants of the Tayrona. Anthropologists widely consider them the traditional owners of the famous Tayrona gold works, many of which are presented in European, North and South American museums. Dignitaries of the Kogis point out that archaeologists and tomb raiders took those alleged „museum objects“ from sacred sites against their ancestors’ will and that those objects are still part of their religious tradition.

In their language, they call them „sewa,“ which is a synonym for „my beloved“ on the one hand and „holy/sacred“ on the other. From the perspective of the dignitaries of the Kogi people, the so-called mamas, they are not merely artworks elaborately crafted out of gold but beings who desire freedom and obeisance in the form of offerings. In a museum, sewas are described as „locked up and spiritually malnourished…“ (Mama Shibulata in: Geo Magazin, 4/2007). The Kogis‘ criticism of their sewas being in museums can be summed up as follows: „No es arte.“

left: Pre-Colombian Tayrona goldwork or a symbol of the sun deity „Haté Sé“ in the artificial lighting of an art gallery vitrine; ca. 800 A.D., tumbaga, 12,0 cm x 8,0 cm x 3,5 cm; right: the sun speaks as “Haté Sé“ to those who carry him

In 2007, a delegation of the Kogis officially requested the restitution of the sewas presented at the Museo del Oro in Bogotá. The museum staff denied this request and argued that Tayrona gold works are a world heritage. Only a museum would be an appropriate and safe keeping place for them. The Kogi mamas’ request for repatriation of the sewas was declined. In 2009, Christoph Balzar and Hanune Shalati organized the restitution of comparable sewas to their traditional owners from the Kogi people. They identified genuine Tayrona gold works at a prominent archaeological gallery in London and legally purchased them with the financial support of the art collector Werner Dohmen. The repatriation process was supervised by the Kogis‘ political representative body Gonawindua Tayrona (Santa Marta, Colombia) and accompanied on their behalf in Europe by the NGOs Nabi Nunhue (Pasto, Colombia) and SKOP (Stichting Kleinschalige Ontwikkelingsprojecten; Nijmegen, the Netherlands).

In 2010, several Kogi mamas consulted oracles to find out what would have to be done for the sewas that were purchased in Europe. Since sewas usually come in pairs and embody dualistic principles in harmony, they could only return to their traditional sacred sites if they were reunited with their specific partner sewas beforehand. Since their partners couldn’t be found in the portfolio of the London-based gallery, though, the project team assumed that they were lost or possibly even destroyed. It is well known that a significant part of the Tayrona gold works was melted down during colonialism; henceforth, an alternative solution for reuniting the Tayrona sewas with their partners had to be found. Together with the Dutch NGO SKOP and the Colombian project Nabi Nunhue, the Kogi mamas came up with a plan: A few years earlier, they had collected approximately €40,000 in donated old gold as a material for establishing the foundation of a future guild of Kogi goldsmiths (project „Gold for the Kogi“). In 2007, and for the first time in many centuries, a team of specialists consisting of Kogis and people of European descent made a new golden sewa with parts of that old gold. It depicted the spirit of the frog („mukui sewa“), symbolizing new life and a new beginning, thus demonstrating the deep connection between the Tayrona tradition and the contemporaneity of the Kogi people.

This team helped the project „No es arte.“ by forging and invoking new partner sewas for the repatriated Tayrona sewas from London. Those Kogi sewas were modelled after photographs of historical Tayrona exhibits at the Museo del Oro. For example, a sewa of the sun called Hate Sé was reunited with his sewa of the earth mother Haba Sé. Although the mamas currently have to learn the practical aspects of working with gold anew and use non-traditional but modern tools and techniques, they refer to their spiritual traditions that build the ceremonial framework to invoke sewas. During the Spring equinox of 2015, the Tayrona sewas were eventually reunited alongside sewas created by Kogis and people of European descent. High-ranking mamas brought them to a secret-sacred site hidden high up in the vast mountain regions of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. For the public and the project team, their story ends there. What remains, though, is a unique form of feedback: Many Kogi mamas consider Europe with her colonial history and present „under the influence of toxic masculinity“ or, in other words, the patriarchal mind. Against this backdrop, following the mamas‘ oracles, their team of goldsmiths forged and invoked another sewa of the earth mother Haba Sé in 2013. This sewa, the divine feminine, was sent to Europe to help create equilibrium. She is currently under the stewardship of the research group „No es arte.“ until a suitable public keeping place is found.

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