Ask artist Roy Nachum how an Israeli from Jerusalem became the artistic muse of pop and rap stars Rihanna, Jay-Z, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Kanye West and Justin Timberlake, and he doesn’t give a straight answer.
“My work experiments with human perception and explores the boundaries between the visual and the non-visual,” said Nachum in an email response. “I see my work as an ‘eye opener,’ and question: if what we see is what we think we see.”
He’s not the first, of course. There’s a long-standing tradition of artists and musicians working on collaborative efforts. Think Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, and of more recent vintage, Lady Gaga and Jeff Koons.
Nachum is one of the latest, and his work, “If They Let Us, Part I,” has become the braille-covered artwork for “Anti,” the latest album from Barbados-born musical celeb, Rihanna.
The cover, which shows Rihanna as a young child with a golden crown covering her eyes, the string to a black balloon held in her hand while her upper body is enveloped in a wash of red paint, is covered with Braille dots.
It’s part of Nachum’s “Blind” series, something he’s been working on for the past few years as a way of extending his communication with those who are visually impaired and as a vehicle for sighted viewers to “confront their own existential apprehensions,” he wrote.
“Sometimes in order to see you need to close your eyes,” he said.
Nachum spent a week blindfolded while working on the piece. The Braille is also a tangible aspect of Nachum’s oil paintings, a part of his work that begs to be touched, something he encourages, he said.
“I encourage people to touch and interact with my work, I feel it keeps the work alive and breaks the barrier between viewer and ‘sacred object,'” he said.
It seems to harken back to something he said in the Time Out interview last year, remembering when he was a kid admonished by an Israel Museum guard for touching a work of art.
What’s clear is that Rihanna — as well as her cohort of musician friends — feels the same way about art. Nachum said that Jay-Z’s manager and best friend, Tyran ‘Ty Ty’ Smith, introduced Rihanna to his work one night at her studio while she was working on new music for the album.
Rihanna then reached out to Nachum and the two began discussing ideas and art, and shared a clear idea of what they wanted to do for her new album.
According to Nachum, he and Rihanna “immediately connected” on his philosophy and artistic concepts.
Nachum first worked on ideas and sketches, using photos of Rihanna as a child for reference and aiming to create a painting that could capture her essence. The crown, he said, is a symbol of power and success that often render people blind, obscuring true values.
Perhaps that explains why Nachum isn’t fazed by his collaboration with the rich and famous. Not any longer.
“My artistic process doesn’t change depending on the project,” wrote Nachum, “it depends on the medium I am working with, whether it be sculpture, painting or installation.”
The 34-year-old, who lives in New York’s SoHo with his wife, according to a 2014 article in Time Out Israel, didn’t come by his celebrityhood easily.
He went to New York on a Bezalel exchange program, and loved the Big Apple so much that he decided to stay. He enrolled in Cooper Union, but graduated penniless because he refused to work, he told Time Out, and only wanted to devote himself to his work.
Eventually, he found himself selling his paintings on the street, and sold a piece to the owner of the TAO nightclub in Las Vegas. From there, word spread to Jay-Z, his manager Ty Ty Smith, Kanye West and others.
As a painter, sculptor and installation artist, Nachum primarily works with large-scale, oil paintings. He never planned on doing an album cover, and instead looked at the paintings he created as works that would be incorporated in Rihanna’s work.
He also said that his Israeli background doesn’t necessarily enter his artwork, as his pieces don’t specify any particular culture.
“I work to create great art, new work that hasn’t been done before,” he said. “My works are personal and reflect my inner thoughts and self.”