This awards season has been good to Viola Davis. She won big at the Critics Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the SAG Awards, and of course, the Oscars. But it turns out, there was still another award for Davis to get. Over the weekend, Harvard University presented her with its 2017 Artist of the Year Award for her contributions to American and intentional film and theater.
The presentation of the award by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations (which JUST honored Rihanna with its Humanitarian of the Year Award last week) marked the culmination of Harvard’s Cultural Rhythms festival, celebrating the university’s diversity.
In her acceptance speech, Davis shared a story from her days at Julliard. She said she went on a trip to Gambia, where she took part in a fertility ritual, a “sacred” experience that she felt was awe-inspiring and spoke to her craft as an actor. She said:
"Art, it’s a very sacred place, the stage and the screen. Because really at the end of the day, even what I do as an artist when I channel characters, and people, and their stories and those moments in their lives that we sometimes hide, that we feel like is just kind of our mess, our shame.
I want people to be seen, I want them to feel less alone. I think Picasso was the one who said, “I paint because I want to show people what’s going on behind the eyes.” And that’s the power of what I do and it’s the reason why for so many years that I did it, that it’s healed me in many ways."
Davis also went on to say that the audience aren’t exactly passive—that they have responsibilities as well.
"Your job is to bear witness. Your job is to come open and willing to transform. And that’s the power of what we do. I feel like if one audience member is shifted in any way possible, I’ve done my job…The great James Baldwin says that being an artist is very much like being a lover. If I love you, I have to make you aware of what you do not see.”
It's yet another fantastic and inspiring acceptance speech from Davis, who joins Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah, Quincy Jones, Matt Damon, Eva Longoria, Lucy Liu, and others as recipients of the Harvard award.