Meet the Israeli Artist Behind Rihanna's New Album Cover

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Rihanna and Roy Nachum at the MAMA gallery event introducing his designs. “He’s a genius," she gushed. "He sees things beyond the surface.” Credit: AFP

At Los Angeles' MAMA Gallery last Wednesday, Rihanna revealed the cover of her newest album, “Anti.” The occasion was the glittering opening of an exhibition of seven new oil paintings by Israeli artist Roy Nachum, all of which he created for the Barbados-born singer's eighth album, he told Haaretz.

Nachum, 35, was born in Jerusalem. He studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, and at Cooper Union in New York, and has been based in New York's Soho neighborhood for the past nine years.

Among other recent works, he has created a series called "Fire" that incorporates poetry written in Braille. A triptych of paintings from this series was created with Rihanna for her new album.

In general in the last few years, Nachum has perhaps become best known for being a sort of in-house artist for the hip-hop scene, as well as for a long list of other celebrities and well-known art collectors. Now he can add to his resume a warm recommendation from Rihanna.

“He’s a genius," she gushed. "He’s an artist, and he sees things beyond the surface.” 

What other performers and artists have you worked with in the last few years?

Roy Nachum's artwork on the cover Rihanna's 8th studio album – Anti.Credit: Roy Nachum

Nachum: “Many musicians, celebrities and prominent art collectors collect my work, such as Jay Z, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Jessica Biel, Leonardo Dicaprio, Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz and many more."

Rihanna heard about Nachum through Jay Z’s right-hand man, manager and close friend, Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith. Working in a studio together one morning at four o'clock, their conversation turned to art and Smith told her about a work by Nachum that he had recently bought.

How did Rihanna get to you – what is the connection between the two of you?

“Jay Z and Ty Ty both collect my work. Ty Ty introduced her to my work at her studio while she was working on new music for the album. She then reached out to me and we started discussing ideas and art. We shared a clear idea of what we wanted to do from the start.”

The pop and hip-hop industry is waiting with bated breath for the new studio album from Rihanna. It is her first album since 2012, when she released “Unapologetic,” which included her huge hit "Diamonds." She had put out six albums in the previous seven years – almost one a year every autumn. There were rumors during the past few years of other albums, which ended up being shelved, and any hint, image or tweet about her sparks over-the-top, wild and exaggerated reactions from her fans.

This year, Rihanna produced three new clips, which just served to exacerbate the excitement and impatience: “FourFiveSeconds” in January; “Bitch Better Have My Money” in March; and "American Oxygen" in April.

So when RiRi, as she is known, invited members of the press, selected fans and a few celebrities to last week's event introducing the artwork by Nachum for her new album, everyone expected her to perform a song or two from it – or at the very least to announce its official release date. Instead, she passed out red blindfolds and the crowd was asked literally to feel the canvases featuring poetry in Braille by Chloe Mitchell, who was also on hand.

Black lipstick, black balloon

The highlight of the evening came when Rihanna entered the gallery, wearing high heels and black lipstick, with a drink in her hand. As the crowd applauded, cellphones rang and photographers snapped away, three workers on a ladder revealed a huge canvas that had been covered. Rihanna admitted to the crowd that she preferred this design over all the other ones created for her album covers throughout her long career.

“The painting created for the album cover," the artist explained in an e-mail to Haaretz, "depicts a young girl with a gold crown covering her eyes, and a black balloon strung tightly to her wrist, painted in multiple, intersecting views, expressing that the ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder. The child whose vision is obscured by a crown represents man’s blindness caused by displaced values and desire.

"While the balloon, lighter than air, embodies the possibility of escape, it signifies the human need to transcend physical reality. The back cover features an oil painting of the same young girl seen from behind. Both paintings have a layer of sculpted Braille poetry,” said Nachum.

What was the reaction?

“We have been working on [the design for] the album for almost a year, and it’s finally out. I think we are both really, really happy with the results and feedback from people.

“My most radical work to date is the 'Fire' series. These experimental paintings are collaborative works executed with the participation of people who are blind. Each solid canvas textured with Braille poetry has a frame that I burnt to charcoal. As my unsighted collaborators ran their fingers from burnt frame to sculpted Braille, evidence of their actual physical contact left a trail of painterly marks. The messages and poems in Braille relief are intended to evoke sensations in the blind viewer or participant parallel to those felt [by] experiencing a painting through sight,” he explained.

"For Album 8, I created a tryptich of 'Fire' paintings with collaborator Rihanna, an experiment opposite to my previous works with 'Fire.' Rihanna, a sighted subject, was blindfolded and left to experience the painting through touch, leaving behind remnants of her physical interaction with the work.”

Nachum stressed that his "art experiments with human perception and explores the boundaries between the visual and the non-visual. I see my work as an eye-opener. I test the viewer’s inner vision and examine if what we see is what we think we see. As part of my process in creating these works, I blindfolded myself for a full week – sometimes in order to see, you need to close your eyes. I have been working with Braille for the past few years; it not only allows me extended communication [with] people who are blind but is also a vehicle for sighted viewers to explore their own existential apprehensions."

The artist added: "I encourage people to touch and interact with my work, I feel it keeps the work alive and breaks this barrier between viewer and sacred object."

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