Last spring, Israel-born artist Roy Nachum tied a blindfold over Rihanna's eyes and watched her slowly approach three card-table-size canvases while the songs from her new album played throughout his New York studio. The world didn't know it yet, but these white canvases, covered in Braille poetry, would become part of the artwork for Anti, the megastar's forthcoming follow-up to 2012's Unapologetic. As the music pulsed, Rihanna's fingers traced the outline of the first canvas, spreading charcoal ash from the burnt remains of its ornate golden frame wherever she touched and creating the triptych "Fire, Part I" through "Fire, Part III." "It was very personal," Nachum recalls. "It was very interesting to see how a person who doesn't read Braille would touch the work. Her flow started out very simple, and by the time she got to the third one, it became very emotional."
A graduate of the Cooper Union, Roy Nachum has been working with Rihanna for a little over a year to create the album cover and artwork for Anti. The pair premiered their collaboration in January with the single artwork for "FourFiveSeconds," which featured the song's title in Braille, a central theme in Nachum's work. Upon its release, Anti will become the first album ever to be released entirely in Braille, without text or liner notes in the packaging. "I've had musicians reach out to me to do an album cover, but the energy was really right with Rihanna," says Nachum. "We had such a good connection. We were thinking the same things. She's a true visionary."
Nachum is no stranger to pop royalty; he's been friends with Justin Timberlake for close to a decade. ("He supports my art and is actually one of the first people to collect my work," Nachum says of Timberlake.) But it was Jay Z who ultimately linked Rihanna with the artist for the Anti project, after the singer admired a piece appropriately titled The Crown — from Nachum's 2011 series "Color Blind" — hanging in the rapper-mogul's Roc Nation office.
Nachum and Jay Z met at an event where the artist was showing a few pieces of his work, and the two got to talking. "He just bought them," says Nachum, who has also sold work to celebs including Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys, and even Leonardo DiCaprio. There is currently a waiting list for people hoping to own a Nachum original.
The Anti album cover is taken from Nachum's painting "If They Let Us, Part 1." The image features a mesmerizing photorealist interpretation of Rihanna as a little girl in Barbados, holding a black balloon ("a metaphor of escaped reality," according to Nachum), and with a crown covering her eyes (" ... a symbol of power and success, which blinds people to the real values and important things in life"). The title of the piece is taken from a Chloe Mitchell poem addressing one of the main themes in Rihanna's work — being powerful yet misunderstood — which Nachum translated into Braille on the canvas.
"After we met, we talked about what I wanted visually, what would make me the happiest girl in the world," said Rihanna at the artwork's official unveiling earlier this month. "This is my favorite album cover ever."
"I believe art holds the power of communication, and working with Braille in my recent work has allowed me to extend that communication to people without sight," says Nachum, who learned to read and write Braille more than seven years ago in order further experiment with concepts of human perception. "Sometimes you need to close your eyes in order to see." Taking his statement to heart, Rihanna was game for the process of being blindfolded in order to create the triptych for the album's inner booklet.
"I'm honored to do it with her," says Nachum of the collaboration that led to the final Anti package. "She's a true visionary and a fantastic, brilliant artist."