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Artist, student unveil work of art commemorating African diaspora

Sunday, February 15, 2009 | 8:25 p.m. CST; updated 10:31 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 15, 2009
Nathan Stephens, left, and Isaiah Berry unveil a painting by Berry and local artist Grant Blackwell that shows their interpretation of African diaspora, a term used to describe Caribbean immigrants of African descent that arrived during later American history. The unveiling took place at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center on Sunday.

COLUMBIA — Nathan Stephens wanted to find a new and innovative way to involve young people in art, which he thought was disappearing from schools' curriculum.

Stephens, the director of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, first got the idea from West Boulevard Elementary School, where students often create murals depicting important events in history. He said he wanted this project to focus on the African diaspora, the movement of Africans to places worldwide as part of the slave trade.

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“Most people are not aware of the diaspora,” Stephens said. “It’s important for the kids to have a cultural identity.”

The culmination of Stephens' idea, a piece of art depicting the African diaspora, created by artist Grant Blackwell and fifth-grader Isaiah Berry, was unveiled Sunday afternoon at the Black Culture Center.

To fund this project, Stephens filed for a grant with the Office of Cultural Affairs. Marie Hunter, who works with the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, said the city often grants funds for organizations to host events, classes or workshops for children.

But during the process, Stephens said he was inspired by another idea. He wanted to incorporate a local artist to work with the students at West Boulevard.

“We wanted to continue the idea of involving young people in art,” Stephens said.

That’s when the man known as Grant Blackwell, an artist whose work has been featured in the Black Culture Center, became involved with the project.

Kathleen Bailey, Blackwell’s mother, said she thinks her son was chosen because of his unique artistic style.

“He’s unconventional,” Bailey said, “but I guess artists are supposed to be unconventional.”

Isaiah Berry, a fifth grader at West Boulevard, was chosen to work with Blackwell on the piece.

“He’ll try just about anything,” said Brenda Perkins, Berry’s mother. “He loves to paint and color. He’s very artistic and always has been.”

Perkins said she was approached with the idea of her son collaborating with an artist on a piece but did not see the finished work until the unveiling.

Berry said his favorite part of the project was painting and he was excited for his work to be unveiled in front of his friends and family.

Blackwell said he was eager to work on the piece because of its theme.

“It blew my mind, the contributions of (the people of the) West Indies that no one else knew about,” Blackwell said.

Stephens said although the Black Culture Center does a good job of including both African and African-American heritage in its education, the West Indian and Caribbean immigrant culture is not as well represented.

“Educating the MU, Columbia and Boone County community should be more inclusive,” Stephens said. “We want to be totally inclusive.”

The banquet concluded with a speech by Flore Zephir, chair of the Romance languages department at MU, detailing the heritage of immigrants to the U.S. from the Caribbean and the West Indies, where many Africans landed during the slave trade.

Zephir said she felt that it was important for children to be aware of this history.

“The single most compelling reason is to bring them pride,” Zephir said. Also, “to help them realize the contributions that (their ancestors) have made.”

Stephens said he hopes with this newly formed relationship between the Black Culture Center and West Boulevard Elementary, there will be opportunities for future projects.

“We would love to expand and to work with more kids and have a gallery with exhibits painted by kids with mentors,” Stephens said.

But Sunday he just wanted to focus on Berry, whose piece will permanently hang in the halls of the center.

“If his classes ever come here on a field trip,” Stephens said, “he can point to it and say, ‘I did that.’”


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