FOR YEARS, Lorna Simpson has been recognized for her powerful and transporting collage portraits of Black women. Her subjects are usually anonymous. Her latest is one of the most recognizable women in the world—music, beauty, and fashion icon Rihanna.

Essence magazine commissioned Brooklyn-based Simpson to make a series of portraits of Rihanna for its January/February issue. One of the collages appears on the cover with a 12-page portfolio of additional portraits titled “Of Earth and Sky” published inside.


January/February 2021: Lorna Simpson’s portrait of Rihanna graces the cover of Essence. Inside, a 12-page portfolio is accompanied by an essay titled “Anthems of Possibility” from Zora Simpson Casebere, the artist’s daughter.


The interior images include full-length environmental portraits by Simpson, with Rihanna wearing clothes, shoes, and accessories from her own Savage x Fenty collection, Black designers Hood by Air, Maxmilian, and Amina Muaddi, and other top designers such as Rick Owens, Givenchy, and Maison Margiela Artisanal. The portfolio is accompanied by an essay from Simpson’s daughter, writer and actor Zora Simpson Casebere.

The experience of working with Rihanna and Essence was “quite incredible,” Simpson told the magazine. “As an artist, I’m able to deliver these unusual images of someone who is so well-known and so recognizable… It’s an amazing opportunity,” she said.

“As an artist, I’m able to deliver these unusual images of someone who is so well-known and so recognizable… It’s an amazing opportunity.”
— Lorna Simpson

Interestingly, the artist’s celebrated collage portraits are inspired by pictures of Black women found in the pages two other Black magazines. For years, she has been working with images from Jet and Ebony magazines from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Simpson focuses on the hair of her subjects—a source of great joy, pride, and consternation, central to the identity of Black women—and replaces it with imaginative elements and materials.

She embellishes the head portraits with watercolor flourishes, geological formations, and illustrations from scientific textbooks. The compositions form mighty, fantastical, and beautiful portraits. The images are full of life and agency and possibility. They transcend time.

In “Of the black & boisterous hair,” her essay for Simpson’s book “Collages,” Elizabeth Alexander wrote: “Black women’s heads of hair are galaxies unto themselves, solar systems, moonscapes, volcanic interiors. The hair she paints has a mind of its own. It is sinuous and cloudy and fully alive. It is forest and ocean, its own emotional weather. Black women’s hair is epistemology, but we cannot always discern the codes.”

For the cover collage, Rihanna is photographed wearing a diamond necklace by Michelle Ong from Siegelson draped around her neck. Her head is crowned with a massive geological formation that conjures textured and woolly hair in the back and geometric wonder in the front, resembling a royal headdress a la Queen Charlotte Bridgerton from Shonda Rhimes’s new hit Netflix series “Bridgerton” or, perhaps, Rihanna in all her fashion glory at the Met Ball. It’s a bold and powerful portrait.

“Lorna is a legend,” Rihanna told Essence. “Honestly, I just didn’t think I could get her.… But I like reaching for the stars and I like challenging myself.” CT


In 2018, Lorna Simpson published “Lorna Simpson: Collages,” a book dedicated entirely to her portraits. The volume includes an essay by Elizabeth Alexander. From 2013, “Lorna Simpson” documents the artist’s 30-year retrospective.


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