TIME magazine covers often tackle pressing issues with simple and powerful images that address the big picture and also the nuances of any situation.
However, the cover of their issue, from August 31 to September 7, was especially moving. Titled “The New American Revolution,” a fiery image of the American flag is embedded in negative space, even though it maintains that space to facilitate discussion about creating a future for black Americans that lives up to the standards. promises of justice and equity established in the Constitution of the country.
The artist responsible for the image is 23-year-old Trinidadian Nneka Jones, whose incredible George Floyd painting, which she posted on Instagram, captured the attention of TIME's Artistic Director Victor Williams. The rest, as they say, is history:
I kept this a secret, but it's time I realized the opportunity presented to me to create an exclusive hand-embroidered piece for the cover of the latest issue of TIME magazine “The New American Revolution” hosted by Pharrel Williams.
YES, I SAID THE MAGAZINE 😭🙏🏾
Very very grateful for this opportunity. Thanks to everyone at TIME (especially Victor).
Jones left Trinidad and Tobago for the United States to obtain her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He graduated from the University of Tampa in May 2020, the same month that Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in the United States and around the world. It was a convergence of events that solidified her work as that of an “artist-activist.”
Jones chose to work with embroidery on canvas, as Victor Williams explained:
Every time she pushes the needle through the canvas, it’s an act of intention that mirrors the marching, the protests, the push to form a more perfect union. It’s deliberate. It’s painstaking. It’s long. It’s hard. Each one of those stitches is a single person’s story, a single person’s travails. That’s why we wanted to make the stitches visible.
Each time he pushes the needle through the canvas it is an act of intention that reflects the march, the protests, the push to form an even more perfect union. It is deliberate. He is meticulous. It is long. It's hard. Each of these points is the story of a person, the anguish of a person. This is why we wanted the dots to be visible.
Even the process of making art – Jones' fingers were cut and sore from working so fast – was a process of solidarity with those who bleed from the everyday injustices as a consequence of being black in America.
I talked to Jones about his art. In this article, the first part of the interview, he shares his vision of how art and activism can change the world.
Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): Congratulations on your cover of TIME magazine. Embroidering on canvas is such a unique medium. How did you approach the technique?
Nneka Jones (NJ): Thank you! My discovery of embroidery came about through an experimental painting class at the University of Tampa. The class invited the students to create a painting without using paint as the main material on the canvas. It therefore forced my classmates and I to reflect on every day and non-traditional materials that could be used. Once I had decided that I would use thread, after seeing many other embroidery artists, I was able to complete my first hand embroidered self-portrait.
Nneka Jones (NJ): Thank you! I discovered embroidery during an experimental painting class at the University of Tampa, we were invited to create a painting without using dye as the main material on the canvas. This forced us to reflect on the recurring and non-traditional materials that we could use. Once I decided that I would use thread, after seeing many other embroidery artists I was able to complete my first hand embroidered self portrait.
JMF: It is clearly a precise and meticulous process. What went into that cover of TIME, from concept to making?
NJ: Victor Williams reached out to me (…) He was automatically drawn to my hand-embroidered work and offered for me to produce cover art for the (…) issue curated by Pharrell Williams. We had decided that using the American flag would be the perfect symbolism as it is a reflection of everything happening in the nation currently.
After having only 24 hours to complete the hand-embroidered work, I was able to stencil out the flag and have the agreed upon image completed by the deadline. The incomplete ‘finish’ contributed toward the meaning of the piece, as it is symbolic of the work in progress toward a more inclusive future.
NJ: Victor Williams approached me (…). He was automatically attracted to my hand-embroidered work and offered to do the cover for (…) the issue organized by Pharrell Williams. We decided that using the American flag would be the perfect symbolism as it is a reflection of everything that is currently happening in the nation.
After having only 24 hours to complete the hand embroidery work, I was able to make a pattern of the flag and have the agreed upon image completed by the deadline. The incomplete “finish” contributed to the meaning of the piece, as it is symbolic of the work in progress towards a more inclusive future.
JMF: Activism is deeply intertwined in your art. What has it been like to come from multi-ethnic Trinidad and Tobago to a racially divided America? What perspective has your art brought to the issues to be addressed?
NJ: Racism is something that exists on a global scale and every country has issues relating to some social injustices. These issues were not foreign to me before leaving Trinidad but of course, coming to a nation that is more largely populated and even more of a melting pot, they seemed to be more obvious.
As an activist-artist, I use my artwork as a tool to bring awareness to these injustices and evoke change within society. It is harder for us as humans to have these conversations without having a prompt or ‘push.’ The artwork then, is almost like a stepping stone, forcing viewers to look within themselves – but also amongst themselves – and have these conversations.
NJ: Racism is something that exists on a global scale and every country has problems related to some social injustices. These issues were not foreign to me before I left Trinidad, but of course, coming to a nation with a much larger population and that is even more of a melting pot, they seemed to be more obvious.
As an artist-activist, I use my art as a tool to raise awareness about these injustices and call for changes in society. It is very difficult for us as humans to have this conversation without having an incentive or a “push”. So art is something like a springboard that forces viewers to look inside themselves – and also each other – and have these conversations.
JMF: Your portrait of George Floyd was delicate and powerful at the same time. How did you feel doing it, what message did you want to send and why was its photorealism so important to you?
NJ: The painting of George Floyd was all very in the moment. It contradicted all my other pieces as I usually take time to plan out the content and composition of my pieces and also spend a while completing it. However, this painting was different; I wanted to capture the essence of Floyd right then and there and bring some kind of peace to the chaos that was happening in America at that time. This meant that I had to do my best to capture him as his daughter, family and friends saw him before his passing.
NJ: George Floyd's painting was all in the moment. It contradicted all my other pieces as I usually take time to plan content and composition, and it also takes time to complete. However, this painting was different: I wanted to capture the essence of Floyd at the time and bring some peace to the chaos that was happening in America at the time. This meant that I had to do my best to capture him as his daughter, family and friends saw him before his death.
JMF: When the BLM protests broke out around the world, many Caribbean social media users were criticized for supporting America's cause, but the reality is that every society has its own kind of racism to deal with. What role does your art play in these movements and the resulting conversations?
NJ: Not many of us realize that although we come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, countries and social groups, a lot of the issues that we face are very similar and are related to overarching issues of racism, inequality and discrimination.
This is something that we can all relate to in some way and if my work is to be seen on a global scale, people would be able to identify the specific issue I am highlighting without even speaking the same language I speak. Art in itself offers a universal language and that allows me to create work that speaks out against the injustices and calls for change in all parts of the world, not just Trinidad and not just America.
NJ: Not all of us realize that, although we come from different origins, ethnicities, countries and social groups, many of the problems we face are very similar and are related to more general problems of racism, inequality and discrimination.
This is something that we can all relate to in some way and if my work were seen on a global scale, people could identify the specific topic that I am highlighting without even speaking the same language. Art itself offers a universal language, and that allows me to create a work that speaks out against injustices and calls for change in all parts of the world, not just in Trinidad and not just in the United States.
In the second part of this interview, Nneka discusses the optimism related to her work and how social media has helped to boost awareness of her art.