The cover of the August 31-September 7 issue of TIME magazine, titled “The New American Revolution,” features an embroidered image of the United States flag with a needle stuck in the thread of an incomplete story, a story that it is still developing, especially for people of color in the “land of the free.”
The image was the work of Nneka Jones, a 23-year-old Trinidadian. Victor Williams, Artistic Director of TIME, was impressed by George Floyd's photorealistic painting that he saw on Instagram, and invited her to create a cover for this special issue.
The project fits perfectly into Jones' artistic identity as an “activist-artist.” In the second part of the Jones interview, we discuss this identity, and other difficult issues that she has tackled as she strives to use her art as a bridge to understanding.
Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): It is very appropriate that the image created by a “foreigner” is the symbol of TIME magazine's exploration of the current reality of the United States: fierce nationalism in a country built by immigrants, unresolved issues around race, explosive gun violence, great inequality. What did you want to achieve with your reconstruction of the American flag?
Nneka Jones (NJ): This hand-embroidered flag was created with the intention of signifying optimism and hopes that we can all work together to build a brighter future. This nation has a great impact on many other countries around the world, and so it is important that we understand the importance of equality. Currently, Black people and people of color are calling for the opportunity to excel in higher level positions and with the push to elevate the Black entrepreneurs, visionaries and creatives like myself, it allows for inclusivity and can hopefully bring about a better America and better world .
Nneka Jones (NJ): This hand embroidered flag was created with the intention of indicating optimism and hope that we can all work together to build a brighter future. This nation has a great impact on the other nations of the world, so it is important that we understand the importance of equality. Today, people of color and black are asking for the opportunity to excel in higher-level positions and with the push to elevate black entrepreneurs, visionaries, and creatives like myself, it enables inclusivity and can hopefully achieve an America and a better world.
JMF: How difficult was it to achieve the gradient effect and what was the meaning of mixing the colors in that way?
NJ: Given that I was limited to 24-hours to complete this piece, it was definitely a challenge to ensure that the ombré effect was up to my standard of work. It was also important as this effect was particularly symbolic of a more hopeful future and the shift and transition to allowing black people and people of color a voice, a space, and a chance at achieving greatness.
NJ: Since I only had 24 hours to finish it, it was quite a challenge to make sure that the gradient was up to my usual work. It was also important as this effect had the symbolic meaning of a more hopeful future and change and transition to allow blacks and people of color a voice, a space and an opportunity to achieve greatness.
JMF: You have been living outside of Trinidad for a while, however the visual language of these islands is very strong, and somewhat challenging, in your work. Tell me about the impact of those beginnings and that identity on your art. It's like you've put Grandma's comforting and familiar embroidery on your head and reused it on the battlefront.
NJ: While living in Trinidad, I was always influenced by the flamboyant colors and vibrant culture that we have, and had always incorporated this in my work as it was a reflection of the Trinbagonian spirit. However, as I have grown into my artistic skin, I am able to use these same colors to draw attention, as well as communicate symbolic meaning in my pieces. The colors that I use now are very intentional especially as seen in my most recent series, ‘Targets Variegated,’ where I use the colors of a traffic light to tell a story of Black women and children reclaiming their rights.
NJ: While living in Trinidad, I was always influenced by the quirky colors and vibrant culture that we have, and have always incorporated them into my work to reflect the Trinidadian spirit. However, while growing up as an artist, I was able to use those same colors to attract attention or to communicate the symbolic message of my pieces. The colors that I use now are deliberate, as can be seen in my most recent series entitled “Various Objectives”, where I use the colors of a traffic light to tell the story of black women and children claiming their rights.
JMF: The “Objective” series is one of your most surprising series; wants to raise awareness about sexual abuse and human trafficking. The use of condoms around these girls and women is disturbingly provocative. Tell me about how you use your art to participate in a discussion and bring about change.
NJ: (The) series is a call to everyone to look closer and pay attention to what is currently happening in society. It highlights the statistics where (most) sex trafficking victims are young, beautiful, innocent girls of color. Hence, the series features hundreds of condoms on each canvas, layered in a ‘target’ pattern, drawing the viewer’s eyes to the eyes of the victim. It is a very striking image, one that forces you to realize the harsh reality and help speak out against it so that this ends, and other young girls and women are not targeted.
NJ: (The) series is a request for everyone to take a closer look and pay attention to what is currently happening in society. It highlights the statistics in which (the majority) of the victims of sex trafficking are girls of color, young, beautiful and innocent. What's more, the series features hundreds of condoms on each canvas, placed according to a “pattern” that brings the spectator's eyes to the victim's. It is a surprising image, it forces you to see the harsh reality and help this end, so that no other woman or girl is the target.
JMF: Do you have a particular piece that you are fond of?
NJ: Right now, I do not have a favorite piece; However, the piece that has been a huge milestone so far in my art career would be the TIME magazine cover. Not only did I get to produce hand embroidered artwork, but I was also able to create as an activist artist in under 24 hours and it is a piece that has changed my life.
NJ: Not at that time; however, the work I did for TIME magazine has been a stepping stone to my artistic career. Not only did I manage to produce a hand-embroidered work of art, but I created it as an artist-activist in less than 24 hours and it is a piece that has changed my life.
JMF: Who has inspired you as an artist?
NJ: My high school art teachers and professors continue to be huge inspirations and influencers in my life. A lot of people make fun of art teachers or joke that most art majors don’t ever really become an ‘artist.’ However, my art teachers have brought me to where I am today; without their guidance and support, it would take me a much longer time to realize my potential and act on it, and I am truly grateful to have had them for my foundation.
NJ: My high school art teachers and teachers continue to be great inspirers and influences in my life. Many people laugh at art teachers or joke that most art students will never become true “artists.” However, my art teachers have led me to where I am today; Without their guidance and support, it would take me much longer to realize my potential and act from there, and I am truly grateful to have had them for my training.
JMF: How have the internet and social networks helped you?
NJ: In 2017, I decided to start my art blog on Instagram and named it @artyouhungry. People often found it difficult to pronounce my name and so I wanted something that was easy to pronounce, remember and fun! I did not know where this blog journey would lead, but I am so happy that I stuck to it as I am able to share the process of my work with hundreds of people, and also get feedback when needed. This has allowed me to make connections with other artists and even galleries, and I look forward to developing my brand on social media as I elevate in my art career.
NJ: In 2017, I decided to open an account on Instagram with the name @artyouhungry. People often find it difficult to pronounce my name, so I wanted something that was easy to pronounce, to remember, and fun! I didn't know where this blog journey would take me, but I'm so happy I stayed as I can share the process of my work with hundreds of people, and also get feedback when needed. This has allowed me to connect with other artists and even art galleries. I look forward to developing my brand on social media as my artistic career ascends.
JMF: You are still very young and have your whole career ahead of you, with all its inherent dynamism and change, but at this precise moment, if your art could achieve something, what would you want it to be?
NJ: I would hope that my art could cause someone to reflect within themselves – almost like a mirror to society – and truly ask how they are contributing to what is currently taking place, and what they can do better to improve the world we live in.
NJ: I hope that my art can make someone reflect inside themselves – almost like a mirror of society – and really wonder how they are contributing to what is happening today, and what they can do better to improve the world we live in.
Click here to read the first part of the interview.