Artist Nneka Jones has been busy since graduating college four months ago. She gained recognition—and rightfully so—for her portraits highlighting Black girls and women who have faced injustices. The embroidered images are powerful and use circular motifs to symbolize how the subjects are targets within our society. Jones’ latest project—the coveted cover for TIME magazine—takes another conceptual approach, this time applying it to the United States flag.
Jones’ embroidery features the stars and stripes as they trail three-quarters of the way down the magazine’s cover. At the top of the flag, the stitches are tight. If it weren’t for the bottom of the flag, which frames the magazine’s headline and shows looser sewn stitches and a lone needle, you might not realize the image was crafted using thread.
Everything, from the color choices to the stitches, has a meaning. “I was using the traditional flag as a base for something that needed to symbolize and embody an optimistic future where everyone is given a fair and equal chance,” Jones tells My Modern Met. “The artistic goal was not to destroy the flag or dishonor it in any way, but use the same flag that everyone praised in order to emphasize the inequality and disparities that exist within the nation currently and a call for change in order to achieve a better future.”
We had the chance to speak more with Jones about her cover of TIME magazine and learn more about the meaning behind this striking illustration. Scroll down to read our exclusive interview.
How did the TIME magazine commission come about?
Being commissioned by TIME magazine to produce cover artwork is all surreal. Victor Williams, an art director at TIME saw my work on Instagram during the Black Lives Matter protests. He noticed the portrait painting I had completed of George Floyd and after skimming my Instagram (@artyouhungry) noticed that most of the portraits I do are hand embroidered, not painted. After reaching out to me via email, he notified me that there was a potential assignment that he wanted me to collaborate with TIME for. I was shocked and felt like I was being scammed so I did my background research on him (little did he know) and once I confirmed he was real, I agreed!
How did you come up with the idea for this piece?
Williams and I “see-sawed” ideas after he had given me the general details of the project. The artistic goal was not to destroy the flag or dishonor it in any way, but use the same flag that everyone praised in order to emphasize the inequality and disparities that exist within the nation currently and a call for change in order to achieve a better future.
In order for a more inclusive and equal future to exist, Black people and people of color must be given equal opportunity to enter leadership roles, be visionaries, creatives, entrepreneurs, etc. This meant that I was using the traditional flag as a base for something that needed to symbolize and embody an optimistic future where everyone is given a fair and equal chance. Once we agreed on an image, I was left with only 24 hours to hand embroider the American flag that would be on the cover of TIME magazine's Aug 31 – Sep 7 issues curated by Pharrell Williams.
Your image leaves the needle stuck in the fabric. What inspired that decision?
Scanning the hand-embroidered image from top to bottom, the top has very tight stitches with black thread so that it is almost impossible to see the raw canvas behind it. Moving down the canvas however, one will notice that the stitches become more visible, loose, and raw.
This symbolism represents the reshaping of America to reflect a nation that is more close-knit but with the knowledge that it is something that requires time and investment. This is not something that will happen overnight, and so the needle is left in the canvas on the right, emphasizing the “work-in-progress” for a better nation and a fair chance for Black people and people of color.
Your work focuses on portraits. What was it like focusing on the flag, a symbol, rather than a person?
Throughout my artistic journey, I have always been fascinated with portraits and capturing the essence of someone, just by focusing on their key facial features. However, with the TIME commission, I was forced to step outside of my comfort zone, not only with the time limitation but also with the change in subject matter and imagery. It allowed me to understand that, as an artist, activism art comes in all shapes, colors, and symbols. Just because I was not completing a hand-embroidered portrait did not mean that I was not capturing the essence of a better future for America.
Hence, this piece marks a milestone in my art career as it is not only the first hand embroidered piece I have created in less than 24 hours, it pushed my artist boundaries and allowed me to explore symbolism in a different light and for a good cause.
The flag shifts in color. Can you explain what that means?
The traditional colors of the American flag are supposed to symbolize and bring forth unity, justice, and pride in the American nation. With the current affairs, especially over the last few months, it is clear that there are disparities and divisions that need to be addressed in order to mirror this proud image of the flag. The very tight stitches using black thread at the top are symbolic of the coming together of all Black people and people of color and the elevation of Black visionaries, creatives, and leaders. It is an intention of showing the strength in numbers as mirrored by the thousands of people that have marched through the streets, demanding justice, and calling for a more equal nation.
This “Blackness” is not a defamation of the flag, but a symbol of optimism for the reshaping of America. The transition to the red shows that it is not only the efforts of Black people and people of color that matter but the nation as a whole, and in order to reshape and maintain something new, everyone needs to be on board.
You've recently graduated from college, and having an illustration on the cover of a major magazine is a huge accomplishment. What has this whirlwind time been like for you?
Making the decision to pursue a career in the arts was difficult but absolutely worth it. I am extremely elated that I realized my passion and developed a plan to work towards my dream career. The University of Tampa has provided me with a solid foundation in the arts and has presented me with many opportunities to build my artistic portfolio through exhibitions, festivals, student shows, internships, etc. This has paved the road that I am now on, independently as a full-time artist, but I never would have thought my education and persistence would have afforded me the opportunity to land on the cover of TIME magazine just four months after graduating. I hope to continue working towards my dream of becoming an internationally renowned artist, with my next goal being a solo show.
Anything else you're working on that you can tell us about?
I am currently excited about the launch of my first book, Targeted Truth, which compiles all hand embroidered pieces in my Target and Targets Variegated series, as well as highlights my journey and discovery of embroidery. This book is perfect for aspiring artists and those who just enjoy embroidery art as it gives close-up, high-definition images of my work as well. This can be pre-ordered on my website shop.