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2020 Deinum Prize Winner Addresses Systemic Racism through Art

by Nik Tucker

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. (they/them/theirs), a candidate for the MFA in Art and Social Practice, was recently awarded Portland State University’s 2020 Andries Deinum Prize for Visionaries and Provocateurs.

In addition to the recognition, the award also comes with a $10,000 prize to be used by the recipient after graduation to advance their work and artistic exploration. Stevenson plans on using the funds to institutionalize and expand their current Afro Contemporary Art Class (ACAC) project started this past school year.

An after-school program at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Northeast Portland, ACAC uses the lens of Black contemporary artists, creatives, and other leaders to guide hands-on interactive activities that explore the Black condition and the African diaspora in depth. The investigation begins by presenting an artist’s work to the class, teasing out the underlying contexts in the work, and then presenting about the people, events, and outcomes surrounding those contexts.

The accessibility of art opens doors to learn, connect and create, while the focus on Black artists and leaders offers students, particularly those of African descent, an opportunity to find pride in a history and culture that has historically been excluded and misrepresented. ACAC gives youth a chance to develop an understanding of the past and how it affects their present lives, cultures and social experiences.

In our current political and social climate, work like Stevenson’s provides hope. By working with youth, ACAC sows seeds that will produce fruits well into the future.

“We loved that [ACAC] focused on impacting children when they are at their most influential stage of life, using art as the lens to explore and understand context, history and culture as it relates to the variety of experiences in this country coming from the African diaspora,” said Michael Tingley, Bora Architects principal and a member of the Deinum Prize selection committee.

“I have positioned myself towards engaging people at their most sensitive, yearning, and influential stages of life,” says Stevenson. “My pursuit is to develop projects that address communities in most need. My mission is to use energy and resources to affect individuals and groups in ways that will have far-reaching implications for their personal achievement and well-being.”

This year’s Deinum Prize is more than an investment in a talented artist. It is the overdue recognition and investment in the Black community and Black youth–an effort that Portland has too often shied away from. It is the hope for a future that prioritizes all communities, histories and cultures.