Hey Creative Friend,
I’ve been busy at work. I created a new piece and I’m happy to share the story with you. I happened to discover an amazing woman who has unfortunately been forgotten but shouldn’t be. She’s Matilda Sissieretta Jones.
It started when I found a photo of her with medals pinned all over the dress that she was wearing. I was intrigued. There were so many of these gold medals and they looked important to her. I thought she really looked like African royalty.
You see, African kings and queens are adorned with a lot of gold jewelry. Since the land is rich in gold, the metal is often used as a status symbol. So, when I saw Madam Sisierretta, she reminded me of an African queen. So, I decided to draw her as a queen.
However, I didn’t find out about who she was until I’d completed my initial sketch. That’s when I started researching her story. Sissieretta Jones was an accomplished soprano; trained at the Providence Academy of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. She was “the greatest singer of her race” according to the caption on her photo. Sissieretta Jones was the first in many respects. She performed at The White House for 4 consecutive presidents and for the British royal family.
She was the first African American woman to headline a concert at the Carnegie Hall. Through a video created by Carnegie Hall and posted on YouTube, I learned the significance of Madam Jones’ medals. They were awards, made of gold, diamonds, and rubies given to her for her excellent performances. Of all her medals, she kept only three. Howard University has one of the three which it loaned to Carnegie Hall. And that’s how the video about it got created.
Often, I see a photo and I want to use it as reference to create a portrait because something about the photo speaks to me. 90% of the time, I never find out anything about the people in those portraits. This time, I was blessed to have chosen a woman of significance.
So, I dressed her up like a queen. I made her a crown with a lot of gold embellishments representing all the gold medals and awards she had received in her lifetime. I dressed her up in kente cloth, which I designed myself. Kente cloth was originally worn exclusively by royalty. Now everyone wears it. I also designed fabric which had a motif which is an exact replica of the shape of one of her medals. This fabric also had on it her dates of birth and death. That fabric became the background on which I layered her portrait.
As we celebrate Women’s History, this month, I celebrate Madam Sissieretta Jones. History should not forget what a treasure she was. Not only was she a talented artist, she was a doting daughter to her mother. She gave up everything and moved back home so that she could care for her sick mom. After she left the limelight to care for her mom, orphans, and adopted children, she was forgotten. Eventually, she lost all her source of income and ended up dying poor. She was a talented, compassionate and decent human.
I hope you enjoyed learning about my new piece. What are you working on? Let’s chat in the comments section below.
PS: Want more? Read other Stories Behind The Art.
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Also published on Medium.