The digital archives retracing art and design history

Digital platforms including Decentralise and the People’s Graphic Design Archive are helping people to learn about creative and cultural history. We speak to their creators about redefining who gets to tell stories and what interactivity brings to the table

Safiya Mckenzie used to take day trips to London as a child, but when she walked past Somerset House, she didn’t see it as a place that reflected her background. “The last thing that came to mind was my own heritage,” she recalls. “The physical space itself echoes British imperial power.”

Mckenzie is a designer at Comuzi, a London-based design and technology studio that works with brands and organisations to make them ‘future-fit’ in a rapidly changing world. As part of its residency at Somerset House Studios, Comuzi has just completed a project with six of the emerging creatives on the organisation’s Future Producers programme – Jahnavi Inniss, Okocha Obasi, RhyanRhyan, Zak Agnew, Nkechinyere Nwobani-Akanwo and Kayleigh De Sousa – responding to ways heritage can be explored within the context of Somerset House.

Early conversations between Comuzi and the Future Producers revealed that Mckenzie was not alone in her encounters with cultural and arts institutions. “All of us had very similar experiences,” she says. “We spoke about how deeply important it was to preserve Black heritage in the UK, and also to critically question the lens through which history is presented to us. Whose stories are being prioritised? Whose are discarded? How could we celebrate the culture, traditions, and worldviews of people in our communities?

“Naturally, conversations began to arise around how history, art and identity are deeply interlinked with each other. Whether intentionally or not, artists continue to play a huge role in ‘reflecting the times’ through their work, as Nina Simone stated. “We explored how it is through learning about our culture, the stories of our ancestors, that we are invited to stand confidently in our Black identity.”