Pip brought to my attention this interesting item—controversial, naturally—of one of Rihanna’s new album covers. There is often a natural synergy between a musical artist and the artist who produces album cover art.
Roy Nachum was born in Jerusalem in 1979 and studied at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York. He now operates out of New York City. Nachum is accustomed to working in different media producing paintings, sculptures and installation art. He is fond of experimenting with human perception and in this case, blindness, it is an apt metaphor for our denial of the ills of our society.
In October 2015, the singer Rihanna revealed the name and cover art for her new album, ‘Anti’. The cover art, entitled If They Let Us, Part I, is derived from an actual image of the singer as a child—then named Robyn Fenty—shrouded in red paint. Apart from the crown—a symbol of achievement—which obscures her vision, the work is textured with Braille dots.
This cover image is meant to be a part of Nachum’s ‘Blind’ series, which focuses on the concept of opening viewers’ eyes. In addition to the symbolism, it also affords the unsighted some experience of the visual arts. His dedication was demonstrated with an experiment to be blindfolded for an entire week. The artist considers this work groundbreaking, stating that this is his most important work to date.
Rihanna was introduced to Nachum’s work by longtime fan Jay Z. and according to Nachum, there was an instant connection.
Sometimes we’re running in the world of today but we’re running after achievement, after achievement . . . The crown is oversized and covering what we’re supposed to see. We can’t see the success. -Roy Nachum in a Vanity Fair interview, 2015.
With his other works, he usually writes the Braille himself. But, in this case, it is written by poet Chloë Mitchell.
I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood. It is simply because what I want to say, what I need to say, won’t be heard. Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve. What I choose to say is of so much substance That people just won’t understand the depth of my message. So my voice is not my weakness, It is the opposite of what others are afraid of. Chloë Mitchell, If They Let Us, Part I, 2015.
Nachum created other paintings for ‘Anti’, part of his interactive ‘Fire’ series, where blinded viewers can run their hands over the canvas and the charcoal frame, which then produce visible strokes on the canvas.
I recently found the book Addicted to Mediocrity by Franky Schaeffer which reflects my feeling for Roy Nachum’s work. Schaeffer criticizes the utilitarian attitude in Christian culture, the view that the arts need to be used for religious propaganda which is rooted in a shame for appreciating beauty. But this condition is just as evident in secular culture. Why can’t Nachum just give us a picture of beautiful girl? Because that would not work for the propaganda of shame played by the Mighty Wurlitzer. I can’t look at Nachum’s image without thinking it’s some kind of child abuse propaganda, to create an atmosphere of distrust. Schaeffer quotes H.R. Rookmaaker, “Art needs no justification”. In other words, Jock Sturges does not need to justify his work by writing Braille, or gluing a photo of a crown over Misty Dawn’s eyes, or covering his photographs with runny red paint. Neither does Nachum. One should be free to appreciate the beauty God has given us without shame.
Thank you for sharing this interesting book, but I cannot help but feel that Americans are a bunch of extremists. They seem to prefer to take a position of extreme puritanism or extreme liberalism. I am not discounting the points made by Schaeffer, but I am not so sure it applies here. Indeed, Jock Sturges does not need to make an excuse to produce images of beautiful naked girls, but that is his intent. Different artists have different messages to convey and it is not always about producing radiant artistic beauty. Human beings are political creatures and artists, more than most of us, are compelled to express their feelings about the political state of their society. A child’s body is a potent symbol of innocence or the corruption of innocence. Why is it less legitimate for Nachum to use this image in this manner? I respect and appreciate the work of both artists, albeit Sturges may be the more courageous of the two. But Nachum, in his own clever way, is trying to remind us of the ills of society and Rihanna, in her cooperation, is helping him. Unfortunately, the word “propaganda” has a negative connotation used to ridicule the efforts of opponents, but it really means getting one’s message out. Yes, artists are propagandists and that includes Sturges–whether he recognizes it or not. I should also hasten to mention that blogs like Pigtails in Paint have the express purpose of conducting propaganda. Were you not aware of that? Our society, in the name of protection, is ignoring the reality of an important component of our society, namely little girls. It is Pigtails’ agenda to get people to pull their heads out of the sand and look at the world the way it really is for our mutual benefit. -Ron
I suppose you can recall the piece by Graham Ovenden of a group of blindfolded young girls. The difference with Ovenden’s work, is that iconography is consistent—the girls were blindfolded as symbolic representations of the young Justice. What I found disturbing in Nachum’s work was the runny red paint, there is nothing in his statement about being blinded by a desire for achievement to account for it. I’m sure if people were to see this image for a just second the mind would not be able to read the iconography of the crown and Braille, instead there would be a primal response to the runny red paint which looks like blood, I’m sure there would be an association with violence.
The other thing that struck me is that we are told that the photos are of Rihanna when she was a child, but the photos don’t look like the cute pictures a parent would take, they look more like banal medical photos. I’m suspicious because I find it very unlikely that there would be front and back photos of the girl in the same dull stance. In fairness to Nachum, he was working for a record company; the company very well may have controlled the production and added the runny red paint to the image. I know from my experience with working people, that people often will want to change an artist’s vision. Actually, there was a photo by Nachum of an elephant I liked, but it was covered with the same damn red paint.
When I speak of propaganda, I don’t use it casually as you do. The proper definition is “information that is often biased or misleading”, so it’s not just the expression of ideas but rather has hidden agendas that only one who deconstructs the text will see. When you say that artists are propagandists and that Pigtails in Paint is conducting propaganda, you are not thinking critically. I find no hidden ideas with Sturges or Pigtails in Paint. Actually, you guys at Pigtails are very upfront, it’s obvious that you like images of beautiful naked girls.
I find errors in the rationality of how many perceive culture which is accounted for within the critical social theory of Jürgen Habermas. According to Habermas, a variety of factors resulted in the eventual decay of the public sphere, including the growth of a commercial mass media, which turned the critical public into a passive consumer public; and the welfare state, which merged the state with society so thoroughly that the public sphere was squeezed out. There are some artists like Sturges whose work has not been compromised by capitalism that should be defended, but that’s not the case here. You make the mistake of defending Nachum’s work’s as if it were the expression from an individual in the private sphere, when it is a commercial image in the public sphere. To Pip’s credit, I recall his criticism of Jill Greenberg; he wrote “This is a clear-cut example of the skewed priorities of the West. I feel that Greenberg may frequently get a pass on this because of her feminist credentials.”
The passive consumption of images is a focus of critiques by the Frankfurt School, Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard. The media is a tool of pacification which stupefies subjects and alienates them from actual human activity. Instead of talking to the girl next door, the postmodern male can only download pics from the web. Debord is known for his work Society of Spectacle, he found an integrated spectacle developing in the West, “the spectacle’s iron heel”. Debord described a unified world of Orwell and Huxley, a perfection of the art of propaganda. The best example of the integrated spectacle I know of is child pornography. In Judith Levine’s book, Harmful to Minors she quotes the LAPD’s R.P. Tyler bragging that,”The government had shellacked the competition, he said; now law enforcement agencies were the sole reproducers and distributors of child pornography.” According to Levine child pornographers are almost exclusively the police.
The terms puritanism or liberalism in my experience have seemed to have lost meaning. The liberalism which is reflected on Pigtails in Paint, I think I am correct to say, reflects the ideology humanism which actually has its roots in Christianity. Sturges’ book Life-Time speaks of his extended family, we can look at each other and appreciate the beauty of a nude girl because we are of the family of humanity. The new liberalism which I see appearing in contemporary work reflects post-humanism which has its roots in feminist Marxist studies—images of women. Therefore girls are seen as oppressive texts, even when Sally Mann photographs her children, feminist theorists would object to her seeing the world “though male eyes.” While its true that pornography does treat a person as object, not all images of females are oppressive texts. This view reflects a complete lack of understanding of storge. Christian did a great post on his site on the different kinds of love.
When I was in art school, I almost fell for this propaganda. I began a huge drawing of a group of nude blindfolded women before a firing squad, like Franciso de Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808. But I stopped myself and questioned the propaganda. I realize that I may have overreacted to Nachum, but maybe not, I should listen to the album. Debord said,”The spectacle’s function in society is the concrete manufacture of alienation.”
I will not address each of your ideas specifically, but try to answer in a nutshell. First of all, it should be understood that Pigtails presents the portrayal of little girls and is not necessarily a venue for discussing the merits of the art. Many people have expressed their like or dislike for a particular piece or post, but what has that accomplished? Nachum was presented here for his striking use of a child’s body in his album artwork.
It is difficult to compare anyone to Ovenden, since he has been so courageous and has his finger firmly on the pulse of young girl iconography. There are certainly many reasons that Nachum might be deceptive. Because his work is commercial and public, he must observe certain constraints. Most people would find no reason to doubt where the child’s image(s) came from, but it is certainly possible that this was done to protect the real model from undue scrutiny. But it should be understood that we are not aware of the original context of the images and a number of parents are sometimes curious about their precious child’s bodily development and may have made clinical shots (ie. Betsy Schneider). Who’s to say if Rihanna’s parents were “ordinary” people or more intellectually inclined? And it is certainly possible that he had to mold his image to kowtow to the requirements of the corporation and sell his soul a bit in exchange for the fame and success he feels he needs to continue—an interesting irony.
Your point about his unskilled use of iconography is born out by the fact that he had to explain it in an article. However, this could also mean that he felt he could not be forthcoming about his real intent. Also, Nachum did express his uncertainty about his use of language and my use of the word “achievement” was an attempt to interpret his words. It is crystal clear to most thoughtful people that one of the ills of society is our distorted notion of success and the ambition needed to achieve it.
Propaganda has a negative connotation and you will observe that the definition you gave was “biased or misleading”. The logical operator “or” means that either or both may be true. So I am not being uncritical is using the word and, in any event, am not constrained by institutional definitions. Pigtails is certainly biased but hopefully not misleading; we believe the historical shaping of our understanding of little girls is unhealthy, for girls and women and society at large. We have an agenda but not a hidden one: I have learned that the portrayal of girls can be a kind of litmus test for the state of our society. It is also unfair to say we “like” the images of nude/naked girls; for some of us, what is really interesting is the kind of visceral impact they have on us when we see or interact with them—there must be a primal biological basis for this that has not received sufficient scientific scrutiny.
Therefore it is the purpose of this site to open up the possibility for this kind of understanding leading to a corresponding reform in society. Understanding is a great weapon against ignorance which, as a form of poverty, does harm to real little girls and gives shape to a grim future.