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See Nicki Minaj’s Digital Vogue Cover by Tschabalala Self

Tschabalala Self seemed just the right artist to do a portrait of Nicki Minaj—someone able to conjure an iconic yet unconventional image, and one unlike anything else out there. How do you make a picture of the world’s Queen of Rap, a wildly popular celebrity whose many alter egos are already branded in our minds?

When we asked Tschabalala to do a portrait of Nicki for Vogue’s December digital cover—using photographer Norman Jean Roy’s cover shoot as a starting point—she was surprised and electrified by the idea, and maybe just a tad concerned about the Barbz, Nicki’s idolizing and hyper-vocal fan base, whose members are ready to do battle with whatever anyone says about her. But her answer on that first call was a resounding Yes. “I was shocked!” Tschabalala recalls. “I love Nicki Minaj. She is my favorite rapper. I am a Barb, so I was pretty thrilled to be asked.” And doing a Vogue cover added to it. “I have always been greatly inspired by popular culture, so it means a lot to contribute to this aspect of the visual cultural realm through the realization of a Vogue cover.”

Tschabalala is known for her indelible, brightly painted, quilt-like portraits that celebrate the Black female body, but her subjects are almost always fictional—images of women she imagines. “I do not usually delve too deeply into realism,” she says, “so by working on this project, I realized something I already suspected, which is that a portrait is more about capturing someone’s aura, as opposed to their appearance.”

Channeling Nicki Minaj, getting past her many personas and all the characters she has created for herself, was a large order. The idea was to break through to who she is today. “I really wanted to capture her strength and natural beauty in this portrait,” Tschabalala explains. “So I spent a lot of time delicately articulating her features and powerful gaze. And yes, it was a challenge, for sure. Mostly because Nicki Minaj is such an icon. Capturing her in just one image—that’s a big feat!”

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