The Colombian Artist Behind the Headless Rihanna Statue Was Inspired By Conquistador Art

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Rihanna came face-to-almost face with a giant cardboard cutout of herself in Berlin on Thursday. Dressed in lime green separates, Riri imitated her cutout’s pose during an Anti tour stop in the city. The piece – created by Colombian artist Juan Sebastián Peláez and titled Ewaipanoma – is on display as part of the Berlin Biennale until September 18. Peláez’s work has become one of the most popular of this year’s exhibition – likely because it lends itself to being photographed. Obviously, that’s what Rihanna did when she saw a version of herself in that large a scale, but the art installation is much more layered than that.

Peláez colossal cut-out reimagine Rih as an Acéfalo – the headless creatures that European explorers said lived across the Americas and the Caribbean. Their faces were on their chests. After visiting the Americas, European explorers like Sir Walter Raleigh created fear and asserted dominance through these racist, dehumanizing depictions that served merely to other indigenous populations. “By putting a face in someone’s chest, you are saying that he has no rationality, that he is a beast,” Peláez told 032c. “They are not like ‘us,’ so we can do whatever we want with them. So Columbus travelled to America and discovered a bunch of chauffeurs. It’s like animals. Animals have no ‘neck’ that clearly separates their logic from their body. This is an image and an idea that’s been used for hundreds of years.”

And though it doesn’t always look like an Acéfalo, it’s a characterization that’s lingered. It’s something Peláez experienced in his own lifetime. At two years old, his family moved from Colombia to Miami. There, he learned about Colombia mostly through movies and cartoons. Captain America introduced him to Mati, an indigenous character from South America. “He was from ‘The Amazon’ and that meant that he was like my cousin,” he said. “And it was weird because he had the worst powers. He never killed anybody. He was just like the chauffeur for the other cool fighters. And he had a monkey on his shoulder.”

From that cartoon, he got a totally incorrect idea of Colombia. By the time his family moved back when he was 12, he was surprised that there were cars and buildings in his native country. “And I was surprised that people couldn’t talk to animals,” he said. “So that’s when this whole idea started. I finished school there and started my arts degree, and it was always a thing I came back to. The image of headless people comes from way back.”

By looking at today’s celebrities, he flipped the script on Acéfalos. He picked stars with ties to the Caribbean and Latin America – such as Ricky Martin, JLo, Falcao, Sofía Vergara, and of course Rihanna – and portrayed them the way a European might have 500 years ago. As 032c points out, the piece also serves as commentary on the unfair way celebrities are viewed: all body, no mind.