Artist To The Popstars Roy Nachum Talks Blindness and Blindfolding Rihanna

Photo: @roynachum on Instagram

Moving to New York from his birthplace of Israel ten years ago to study at Cooper Union, artist Roy Nachum’s fascination with blindness has captured the attention of everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Jay-Z, and now, the princess of pop, Rihanna.

Nachum opens up about collaborating with the Barbadian singer on the artwork for her forthcoming album Anti, convincing her to blindfold herself and add fingerprints to his paintings, which also feature Chloe Mitchell poetry in Braille, making the work accessible to the visually impaired, and encouraging people to touch the “finished” product, making the work interactive and giving it continued life.

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Photo via @roynachum on Instagram 

You and Rihanna just revealed her album art. How did you start working with Rihanna?
Rihanna approached me after seeing the work with Jay-Z and Ty Ty [Smith] in a private collection. Then I got a phone call from her to do the album art. She came to L.A. and we had an amazing connection.

You are from Israel, correct?
I’m from Israel but have lived and worked in New York for the last ten years. I have a studio in Soho and a studio in Jersey City.

What brought you to New York?
 I studied at Cooper Union, and the city is full of inspiration.

What inspired the album cover for Anti?
Rihanna saw my work in the private art collections of Jay Z and Ty Ty. She reached out to me and we immediately connected, we talked about ideas, life and art and seemed to share a clear idea of what we wanted to do from the start. I worked on ideas and sketches until we had something we both felt was perfect. First layered with sculpted Braille poetry, the oil painting depicts a young Rihanna with a gold crown covering her eyes and a black balloon strung tightly to her wrist. The crown is a symbol of power and success making people “blind”, obscuring true values. The balloon lighter than air embodies the possibility of escape and the human need to transcend physical reality.

How did you go about creating this specific cover?
When I paint I don’t think about what I see, I think about life and with the cover I didn’t think about it as a album cover I thought about it as a painting. In paintings that incorporate Braille, I begin by building up the surface of the white canvas with sculpted Braille poetry. On top of the Braille layer I paint in oil. For this painting I used photos of Rihanna as a child for reference and worked to create a painting that would capture her as she was. Painted in multiple intersecting views, her eyes are obscured by a gold crown and she is holding a black balloon. This is the first album cover to incorporate physical Braille.

How did you learn Braille?
I write and read Braille – I taught myself.

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Photo via @roynachum on Instagram

How does the album cover art tie back to your larger art practice?
I am a painter, sculptor and installation artist, but work primarily with large-scale oil paintings. My work experiments with human perception and explores the boundaries between the visual and the non-visual. The subject with a crown obscuring his or her eyes is a recurring image in my work, it represents mansí blindness caused by displaced values and desires. 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. 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 to extended communication to people who are Blind but is also a vehicle for sighted viewers to explore their own existential apprehensions, a metaphor for how our view of the world or understanding of values is often obscured by our ambitions and desires. 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.

Tell me about the Fire paintings for inside the album inlay?
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 marks. The messages and poems in Braille are intended to evoke sensations in the blind viewer or participant parallel to those felt experiencing a painting through sight.

For Anti, I created a triptych 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.

Why do you call the paintings Fire?
I call them Fire because of the burning frames – the gold detail frame – I burn it until it becomes charcoal.

Who are your other celebrity fans?
Jay –Z, Swizz Beats, Justin Timberlake, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Did you work with Kanye West as well?
With Kanye, I went to see his work – a collaboration he did with Naomi in Art Basel.

You also designed Rihanna’s single covers?
For the single covers – I got the images from them [Rihanna’s team] and I wrote in Braille on the pictures.

What are you working on now?
I’m coming back to New York – going back to the studio, thinking. I have a new show very soon and those paintings are very complex so that’s time consuming.

Where were your previous exhibits?
I don’t create art for a space, I just create art so it happened to be that my last few shows were in random spaces with Nahmad Contemporary Gallery, kind of like a pop-up.

I don’t create art for the space; I create art for the art. That marriage is very cool.

Back to your work with Rihanna, is the poetry in the art by Chloe Mitchell or Rihanna?
Chloe, Rihanna and I sat together in the studio talking about the concept and explaining the vision. Rihanna worked with Chloe on the poetry for the album’s front and back cover and I wrote the poetry for the three Fire paintings inside the album.

What is next for you?
I am about to finish an oversized sculpture in TriBeca that I am very excited about and I’m doing another installation on Bond Street.

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