Published: August 21, 2020
Activist Artist and Recent UT Grad Creates TIME Cover Art
Nneka Jones’ fingers were raw by the time she finished embroidering her most recent piece on canvas — an incomplete American flag, frayed at the bottom third. It was a 24-hour marathon all-nighter, reminiscent of some of her college days, which aren’t that too far past.
“I shocked myself, to be honest,” said Jones, who graduated in May with a degree in fine arts with a minor in marketing. “I don’t know what it is with me that the last-minute things turn out to be the best things.”
Jones, who grew up in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, said that she’s spent months on projects that don’t get as much attention as the ones that she does when pressed to a tight deadline. And the flag project is one that will likely get the most recognition yet as the cover for TIME magazine’s Aug. 31-Sept. 7 issue.
“To see the words TIME on top of your work, it’s surreal,” Jones said.
Jones had been discovered by TIME international art director Victor Williams, who saw several pieces of her work on her Instagram, @artyouhungry. When she got an email early this summer about the potential to create some work for TIME, she first thought it was spam. So she did her research and realized this was a great, legit opportunity.
Before the flag project came about, Jones was being considered for another issue of the magazine, however it went to different artist.
“I was disappointed, sad a little bit,” said Jones, but she thought the work of the selected artist was beautiful. “So I was happy that they chose that person, but of course, you know, you would want to see your work in TIME magazine, especially on a cover.”
Williams told her not to worry, and that he saw the potential of her work and said they’ll likely work together in the future. “So I still had hopes of it,” Jones said.
Then a little over a week ago, she got another email from Williams for an issue about equality and the future of Black Americans curated by the recording artist and producer Pharrell Williams. She accepted the “potential cover” assignment immediately. It didn’t matter that it usually takes her weeks to produce an embroidered piece, and that concept edits between the creative team and Jones would chip away at the seven-day deadline making it more like 24 hours. She was in because she saw the greater purpose.
“I connected with it, especially as an activist artist,” said Jones, explaining that activist artists go beyond creating art for the purpose of hanging it on a wall or for aesthetics. Much of her previous work has raised awareness about sexual abuse and sex trafficking. “It’s an artist with a purpose, a plan and a vision and a way to connect with an audience, convey a message and evoke emotion or change from that audience.”
After completing the piece in those 24 hours and meeting her Aug. 19 deadline, Jones said she thought she’d collapse and sleep the whole day. But she couldn’t. She kept checking TIME’s Instagram account, where it was to be posted for a preview, feeling excited and anxious to see the magazine cover — with her art. She hadn’t yet told her family and was excited to share the surprise, which came on Aug. 20.
“I felt my pores raise. It’s so crazy that the work you completed … it’s not even inside of the issue; it’s on the cover,” Jones said.
For the piece, Jones left the needle she used to create the flag in the canvas as a representation that American society is ever-evolving. “The piece represents an in-progress look toward a brighter future for America, especially for Black people and people of color, and the elevation of Black visionaries and leaders.”
She said she didn’t want people to just look at the work and see an American flag that’s incomplete. Look closer at the details of the piece — the stitching, the color changes, she said.
“It’s not erasing the history of America,” Jones said. “It’s reshaping and remolding and creating something that is new and brighter and beautiful.”
The flag is her 11th embroidered piece, though she had no prior experience with the technique aside from growing up helping her mother, an avid sewer, thread needles.
Only three months after graduating, Jones is looking for studio space in Tampa Bay and taking a year to explore working as a professional artist before pursuing a possible master’s of fine art. She’s also recently launched a book, Targeted Truth.
“I think so far I’m off to a good start,” she said. “I set a bar pretty high for myself, so I have no choice but to be consistent.”