How Activist Nneka Jones Used Her Art To Advocate For Social Justice

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Trinidadian art activist Nneka Jones' photo-realistic painting of George Floyd caught TIME international art director Victor Williams’ eye. Shortly after, she was asked to create the TIME magazine cover--an embroidered flag that reflects a new “American revolution.”

Growing up in Trinidad, Jones was influenced by the island’s melting pot of culture, people, and food. Yet, social injustice and segregation were underlying issues that she was exposed to in the U.S. and Trinidad. These realities went on to drive the messaging behind her art. From human trafficking to the Black Lives Matter movement, Jones has used her platform to address issues that many people are afraid to acknowledge.

In this exclusive interview, Jones sits down with Connect Forward founder Rebecca Walcott to discuss her experience creating the symbolic art piece for TIME magazine, her Trinidadian roots, and how she plans to continue to pave the way as a self-described activist-artist.”

RW: What was it like growing up in Trinidad?

NJ: Growing up in Trinidad, I was always influenced by the culture because we are a melting pot. I was mostly influenced by the food, the festivals, and the people. So, that’s how I got into my creative background of portraits because I would always want to sketch people of different backgrounds. I grew up mostly in Port of Spain and went to Bishop Anstey High School. I was always pushed by not only my siblings and my parents but also, teachers at the school to pursue art because they saw that I was making art that reflected [the] culture. So, that’s how Trinidad got into the mix of solidifying my art career.

RW: I think a lot of people, when they hear that you’re from an island, have a cliched perception of what that embodies. But we do have profound issues with prejudice and social injustice.

Your transparency of discussing your individual experiences with injustices showcases just how much thought you have put into this. It’s not just about America, it’s about the world. So, how do you plan to continue to bring awareness to social, economic, and political issues?

NJ: The artwork is always going to be there for you to refer to it. For me, for right now, I'm doing my part as an activist creating work that will not only exist in gallery spaces but, outside of that, in the form of getting into the minds of people and getting into the mind of the subconscious. Art stays with you, and it is something that continues circulating in your mind, which is my intention for the piece. And I am currently working on two new series--one is related to the social injustices with black women in America. For example, with Breonna Taylor. And then, I am continuing my Target series but in a different sense.

RW: We both went to Bishop Anstey High School and actually had the same art teacher: Ms. Hutchinson. How has your high school art experience navigated the way that you have chosen to identify your artistic style?

NJ: I hadn’t even done embroidery art while I was in high school; I just knew that I wanted to be a painter. But when I started classes with Ms. Hutchinson was when I really felt like I gained confidence in not only my artwork, but in myself and in saying that I was an artist. Her classes really allowed me to come into my technical skills, and once I got that down pat, I was able to say, “hey, how can I add meaning to my artwork so it’s something that I am confident speaking about?” Ms. Hutchinson really catered to developing the skills that were needed for each student to grow, so you felt like you were part of a community.

RW: In a recent interview you said, “It’s a breakthrough for me that I can succeed as an artist, a Black artist, a Black woman artist, and a Trinidadian artist living in the U.S.” How has this accomplishment shaped your decision to choose the American flag and some of the stories you have chosen to tell with your art?

NJ: It was a big shift from that rich Trinidadian culture to a different culture in America that is rich but in a different way. Despite these differences, I noticed some similarities in a lot of things relating to the social and political injustices that existed in both societies. So, that’s what influenced my body of work while I was at the University of Tampa because I felt like although cultures are different, we have similarities in things that are injustice that we need to change.

RW: Now, let’s get into the TIME magazine cover. TIME international art director Victor Williams initially recognized you because of your artwork of George Floyd. Can you tell us a more about the timeline from your initial conversation to the 24-hour deadline you had to create the piece?

NJ: When TIME initially reached out to me, they wanted the issue that was released before this one, but they ended up selecting another artist, Charlie Palmer. His work is beautiful. When they initially reached out to me, I thought, “this has to be a joke; why is TIME Magazine contacting me?” We went back and forth, and then they decided to go with Charlie’s work. Then, about a month or so later, they reached back out for a potential cover issue. Victor realized that the pieces that he had been seeing on my Instagram were actually hand embroidered. So, for the cover issue, he wanted something that was also hand embroidered.

RW: What was the most challenging part of executing the artwork for TIME?

NJ: It was a challenge in the sense that it was something that I had never done before in regards to the imagery. But also, the timeline of having just less than 24 hours to produce it was insane. But I’m happy that I was able to finish it in time.

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MUSIC CREDIT: YouTube Studio

PHOTO CREDIT: Nneka Jones, TIME Magazine

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