The hand-embroidered portraits of Black girls and women by Tampa-based artist Nneka Jones focus on themes of exploitation and empowerment. Her training as a painter informs her expressive application of layered thread.
Jones, who earned a BFA from the University of Tampa in 2020, attributes her choice of materials, in part, to the influence of professor Chris Valle, chair of the UT department of art and design. Valle taught an experimental painting class, instructing students to “paint without paint.” In her work for that class, Jones launched a series of canvas-based pieces using thread and other materials.
Thread was already familiar to Jones’s deft hands. As a child growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, she watched her mother sew every day after work. Jones says this experience had a “huge impact” on her foray into fiber arts. “From a very young age, I remember spending evenings into late nights keeping my mom company in her sewing room.” As she grew older, her mother let her help with needle threading, pleat folding, and drapery construction.
To begin an embroidered portrait, Jones starts with research, often into social issues. Her ongoing “Target” series, started while in Valle’s class, centers on the sexual exploitation and trafficking of girls and women of color, especially in the Caribbean. Jones describes the region as a “melting pot of different ethnicities, cultures, and festivals . . . nothing like anywhere else in the world.” But, she says, as she was preparing to leave for college in the United States, there was an alarming rise in the number of missing teen girls, and the topic of trafficking gained increased media coverage. This led her to focus her work on the topic of women’s safety—which, she points out, is a global issue not limited to the Caribbean.
After researching concepts, Jones develops imagery and begins to sketch. For Shooting Range Target (2019), she combined a number of faces in Photoshop, creating a digital portrait of an archetypal Black girl. She then superimposed a bull’s-eye, to “get the viewer to stop and face this issue head on, looking directly into the young girl’s eyes.”
Jones then chooses a color scheme and starts embroidering. Her works take from a week to a month to complete. Building up colors from the limited palette of embroidery threads, rather than by mixing paint, has forced her outside of her comfort zone and helped her develop patience. “Embroidery has opened my eyes to the world of experimentation in art [and] helps to center and slow my process down so I’m more connected to what I create.” And she loves seeing viewers do a double take when they realize her works are not paintings but embroideries. In some compositions, Jones makes her medium more explicit by letting threads’ ends fall loose. In Shooting Range Target, a waterfall of bright red threads from the subject’s shirt flows past the bottom of the canvas.
Along with targets, Jones inserts other round symbols into her portraits of Black women and girls, including condoms, bullet holes, dartboard motifs, colorblindness testing circles, and traffic lights. In her “Traffic Lights” series (also called “Targets Variegated”), her intention is to present women as more than victims. She says while earlier pieces in the “Target” series often evoke sadness and pity, these later works “help give power back to women and girls.” Instead of placing shooting targets over their faces, she uses familiar red, yellow, and green circles to attribute authority to the subjects. And “just as a traffic light controls the flow of traffic and [prevents] deadly accidents, sometimes artists [help] the public slow down, stop, and digest,” she says.
Jones’s target-based works may call to mind U.S. social issues, including gun violence in general but particularly the police shootings of Black people that is the Black Lives Matter movement’s primary cause. Jones recognizes that her works are interpreted in multiple ways and are “sparking additional conversations surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.” She says this “reinforces this is the reality of the world we live in… It’s necessary to have conversations about how to move forward and make positive changes for future generations of color to have an equal and unified space.”
Jones has also directly engaged these issues, including with a painting of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by white police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. And in August 2020, her image of an American flag rendered in black and red thread graced the cover of Time magazine, along with the cover line “The New American Revolution.” Jones left the flag unfinished and tucked the needle she used into the last stripe, as any sewer might do with a work in progress.