A conversation between Marsha Pearce and Nneka Jones
Marsha Pearce: Hello Nneka, how are you? How are you processing all that is going on this year? Have you been keeping abreast of things at home in Trinidad and Tobago?
Nneka Jones: Hi Marsha, I have been doing well and trying to stay positive and optimistic throughout the chaos. I believe 2020 has been a year of many lessons, one of them being the importance of reflection – reflecting not only on yourself but also on what has been taking place throughout the world. So yes, of course I have been keeping abreast of what has been occurring not only in North America but also in my home country, Trinidad and Tobago, which is also dealing with issues of racial division, not only among “Whites” and “Blacks” but specifically people of colour. I know, however, that dealing with issues such as these, is something that takes time and effort and requires reflection.
Congratulations on your latest milestone in your creative journey! You were commissioned to create artwork for the cover of a recent issue of TIME Magazine. The issue explores the theme: “The New American Revolution: Visions of a Black Future that fulfil a Nation’s Promise,” with content curated by Pharrell Williams. Your cover art is an unfinished embroidered flag of the United States of America. The needle can be seen stuck in the canvas. In so doing, you present the flag symbolically as a nation in the making – a work in progress. Yet, I was struck by the bold decision you made regarding the colour of the flag. National emblems are, more often than not, regarded as sacred or untouchable. However, your work makes a deliberate intervention. The red stripes and blue background are suffused with black, in a move that injects new meaning. Ronald Reagan is quoted as having said the colours of the U.S. flag “signify the qualities of the human spirit we Americans cherish…Red for courage and readiness to sacrifice; white for pure intentions and high ideals; and blue for vigilance and justice.” These qualities have come under close scrutiny in the last few months as the U.S. reckons with racial injustice. Tell me about your address of colour in your piece; this conscious picturing of black bleeding into the flag. I also notice the needle is threaded with red. I would love to hear about the colour palette for this work and its signification.
Thank you for the kind words! When Victor Williams, the art director at TIME magazine initially reached out to me, he highlighted that with everything happening in America right now, this special issue hoped to invoke change, with the main theme being “optimism.” Williams and I played “see-saw” with multiple ideas and landed on the image of the American flag as it is supposed to be a symbol of unity and pride for the American people. The artistic goal was not to destroy the flag or dishonour it in any way, but use the same flag that everyone praises, to emphasise the inequality and disparities that exist within the nation currently, and to 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 colour must be given equal opportunity to enter leadership roles, be visionaries, creatives, entrepreneurs, etc. Hence, the use of the black thread and very tight stitches at the top of the canvas that then transition into a gradient where red thread and loose, raw stitches are more visible. 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 with the traditional red of the original American flag emphasising the “work-in-progress” for a better nation and a fair chance for Black people and people of colour.
The history of embroidery is connected to gender identity politics – embroidery is seen as a female practice. Yet, in her article “The Feminist Power of Embroidery” writer E. Tammy Kim talks about embroidery as a space for meditation, freedom and power. She notes: “to take up the needle is to reclaim our histories of anonymous, poorly paid and unpaid female craft, garment labor and piece work” and that “the act of embroidery can feel transgressive in its silence…It is a haven from news whorls and internet noise, a return to a female tradition when our bodies and minds feel so keenly under assault.” Nneka you use embroidery as a key approach in your work. What does this approach mean to you? What does it mean to you when you take up the needle? How do you understand your relationship to embroidery?
I discovered embroidery through experimentation. After taking that leap, I have been hand sewing every day for almost two years now. Art in general has always meant more to me than just creating a portrait or just simply a creative release to provide aesthetic pleasure. I consider my work activist art. This allows my work to exist beyond the space on the wall and occupy that of one’s mind and subconscious. For me, embroidery allows me to deeply connect with my subject matter. It forces me to slow down and reflect on the social injustice that I am trying to raise awareness about.
Working on a smaller scale and physically having to indulge my body, mind, fingertips, wrists and arms in the process make a more intimate setting where I am truly able to create from my heart. It becomes more than just artwork for me and puts the “act” in activism. Each time I push the needle through the canvas, I reassure myself of why I am creating this piece and what I want others to take away. So, although many people associate embroidery with “grandma’s hobby” or “simply crafts,” I am trying to break this mould to show the versatility of it and emphasise how it can be used to bring justice and awareness in such hurtful times.
You mentioned seeing art as activism. You’ve used condoms in your work to raise awareness about sexual abuse and sex trafficking. And, your Target series puts a spotlight on people in society who often come under attack. Do you think art can bring about social change? What other issues are you interested in tackling?
My Target series, which uses condoms on canvas, was not only created to raise awareness about the issues of sexual abuse and sex trafficking but also to serve as a call to action for them to stop. Most people associate art with beauty and are not aware that beneath the beauty of the work, sometimes lies a deeper message that the artist is calling for you to pay attention to. Given the statistics for human trafficking, where the majority of victims are young girls of colour, I use my artwork to not only capture the beauty of these precious and innocent children but also to communicate the pain from the physical and emotional damage that these young girls and boys have experienced. It was after this series that I considered myself an activist artist, as I knew that my intention was to demand social change. I saw the emotions the work evoked and the response it received whenever the pieces were on display at exhibitions. The series got people talking, feeling, crying – and that was the point.
For now, because I am a Black woman, I want to use my work to bring justice to young girls, boys, women and men who have been affected by colorism; by abuse in all forms: sex trafficking, police brutality, racism. I will continue making work until I see the change happening and fulfil my job as an activist artist.
You’ve just graduated from the University of Tampa. What are you taking away from that experience and what do you envision is next for you?
Making the decision to pursue a career in the arts was difficult but worth it. I am extremely happy that I realised where my passion was and decided to stick with it. The University of Tampa has provided me with a solid foundation in the arts and has presented me with many opportunities to build my art portfolio through exhibitions, festivals, student shows, internships. This has paved the road that I am now on: working independently as a full-time artist. I hope to continue working towards my dream of becoming an internationally renowned artist, with my next goal being a solo show.
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