Nneka Jones mixed media piece “Modern Renaissance” won Best of Show at GFA 52.
If you’re an emerging artist on the fence about whether to apply to the 53rd Annual Raymond James Gasparilla Festival of the Arts Emerging Artists program in 2023, you should learn more about Nneka Jones. Her story is a journey of hope and promise and her future is indeed bright, thanks in part to the visibility she attained through the Festival.
Leaving her friends and family behind in her homeland of Trinidad in 2016 was hard but Nneka had a mission. After placing first in the Caribbean for Art and Design Examinations, she decided to further her art education in the U.S. At just 25 years old, she graduated with a BFA with a minor in marketing from the University of Tampa and has since blossomed into a multidisciplinary activist artist working in mixed media, embroidery, and paint.
In 2019, Nneka won the Emerging Artist award from GFA, which was the beginning of a successful Festival history for her. Fast forward three years to 2022. Last year, Nneka was awarded Best of Show and the $15,000 prize for her work Modern Renaissance, which was also purchased at the Festival.
“I had been to the Festival and had seen the amazing artists and I was a bit intimidated to apply the first time,” said Nneka about her decision to apply as an Emerging Artist. “I didn’t think I had a great body of work or know if people would be interested in it.
Nneka crossed her fingers and applied for the 2019 Festival despite her hesitation and was accepted. It was the first time she had ever shown her work in public. At that show she not only won, but she sold her first two pieces of art to buyers who remain clients to this day.
That’s just a few of her many accomplishments. In October of 2020, Nneka was the keynote speaker at Adobe Max, honoring the best in the creative industry. To date, her work has been acquired by the Tampa Museum of Art, Florida Craft Art Gallery, The Ferman Center for the Arts, and many public and private collectors. Nneka uses her artwork as a tool to advocate for the protection of women and girls of color and is most known for her realistic embroidered portraits. She recently completed the mural History Starts Here at Tampa’s Gwen Miller Community Center to tell the story of the community and envision the future.
In 2020, Nneka’s painted portrait of George Floyd that she posted on Instagram caught the eye of TIME Magazine’s international art director Victor Williams, who reached out to her about designing the cover for a Time series by recording artist and producer Pharrell Williams. The series included conversations and essays about creating a more equitable future for Black Americans. Nneka’s cover solution was of an embroidered American flag that had black stripes stitched onto the canvas. The white stripes in between are raw canvas. Similarly, the stars of the are also the white of the canvas with black thread embroidered around them. She left the flag unfinished and tucked the needle she used into the last stripe, indicating that “The New American Revolution” was a work in progress.
“Every time she pushes the needle through the canvas, it’s an act of intention that mirrors the marching, the protests, the push to form a more perfect union,” TIME’s Williams says. “It’s deliberate. It’s painstaking. It’s long. It’s hard. Each one of those stitches is a single person’s story, a single person’s travails. That’s why we wanted to make the stitches visible.”
Nneka says the one thing that has been constant in her career is GFA.
“GFA has been so amazing and I can’t thank them enough,” Nneka said. “ Anyone interested in signing up to be an Emerging Artist, all I can say is please do it. It’s life-changing.”
Typically, about 150 emerging artists apply and 15 are selected to participate in the Festival.
To qualify for the Emerging Artists program, an artist must not have an established record as a professional artist presenting their work in museums, art festivals, major galleries, or juried exhibitions. You must also not make more than 25 percent of your total annual income derived from the sale of your art or be employed as an artist practicing your specific medium. All you need to do is submit three high-resolution images that represent your work along with a $10 application fee. Selected artists will receive a free booth at the 2023 Festival, a $350 stipend to help with preparation and mentoring opportunities from established Tampa Bay-based artists. Those selected for the program are also eligible to win the Emerging Artist Prize which includes a $1,500 award. Click here to apply.
GFA would like to thank the Hillsborough Arts Council and the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners for their support of the Emerging Artists Program. We are still seeking 2023 Emerging Artist Presenting and Patron Sponsors and invite you to join us in bringing this career-building opportunity to our participating Emerging Artists. To learn more about this and other sponsorship opportunities and the visibility they give your company, click here.