The repatriation of stolen artworks is a critical step in the eventual achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. On the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Mexican government demanded (not for the first time) the repatriation of Moctezuma II’s feather headdress from its current home in the Weltmuseum Wien in Vienna, where it has remained since 1721.

Quetzal-feather headdress in the Weltsmuseum collection. Image courtesy of Visiting Vienna.‌ ‌

The headdress has not resided in Mexico since the 16th century. It is the last headdress of its kind, as the Spanish mercenaries and missionaries destroyed any other evidence of the Aztec religion. The Moctezuma headdress is a symbol of both high royalty and spiritual power. It is crafted from gold and iridescent quetzal feathers, as well as a variety of other tropical birds from Central and South America.

Famed for their feather craftsmanship, Aztec craftsmen were commissioned by the Spanish to create featherworks honouring Christianity because of their exoticism and beauty. The headdress that is today held in Vienna is one of the few remaining original featherworks and is the last feather “crown” in existence.

Several Latin-American activists have expressed their support for the Mexican government’s request. In 2020, contemporary artist Amanda Piña was invited to collaborate with the Weltmuseum. Feeling strongly that her piece should make reference to the museum’s colonial history, she created Penacho-Ritual, a performance in which Piña reenacted the traditional Aztec human sacrifice ritual wearing a mock headdress.

Penacho-Ritual by Amanda Piña. Image courtesy of nadaproductions.

Piña’s targets were the directors of the principal museums in Vienna. “Penacho Ritual is a homage to all repressed, transformed and lost perspectives of the different people of this world,” explains Piña.

Throughout the course of her performance peace, the long-dormant Aztec gods come to life and the Weltmuseum is transformed into a Mexica-Temple. Piña calls on a traditional Aztec spirit, demanding the return of Moctezuma’s headdress. “The ritualized sacrifice of high-ranking representatives of the Museum is an attempt to restore the cosmic order,” Piña’s website reads.

Last month, two Mexican activists took matters into their own hands and hacked the Weltsmuseum’s audioguide to alter its description of the feather headdress. Documentary maker Sebastián Arrechedera and publicist Yosu Arangüena brought the modified audioguides into the Weltmuseum and swapped headsets in the bathroom over the course of a few days.

The altered audioguide features Aztec descendant and civic activist Xokonoschtletl Gómora describing the museum’s patronage of the headdress as “a consequence of the European looting of the historical heritage that is exhibited in various museums on that continent … The history written by Hernán Cortés speaks of an emperor who prostrated himself at his feet, but the truth is that it was an invasion that exterminated an entire civilization.”

Gómora recording audio for the infiltrated audioguides. Image courtesy of Pledge Times

Discussions surrounding the headdress often contend that Moctezuma II gifted his headdress to Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortés, but the truth is quite the opposite. In reality, the emperor was executed — his possessions forcefully seized — before the Spanish exterminated the Aztec people and culture.

Arrechedera (left) and Arangüena outside the Weltmuseum in Vienna. Image courtesy of Pledge Times.

Repeated requests from Mexican politicians to return the Aztec emblem have been consistently denied. After a two-year long investigation conducted by the Weltmuseum, the museum ultimately claimed that the headdress was too fragile to be moved and therefore could not be returned or even loaned temporarily to the Mexican government. Mexican citizens enjoy free admission to the museum as a “courtesy”.  

Learn more about Amanda Piña’s work here and about the Weltmuseum here.

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