About the Art: Ode to the Ancestors

We spoke to Sherry Davis about Ode to the Ancestors, and the search for images of Kenyan heritage professionals during the colonial period.

Hi Sherry, first of all can you tell us about you and your work?

Hello, I’m a musician, filmmaker and curator from south-east London. I’m passionate about driving social change though the arts and my current practice involves the exploration of African history, culture and identity.

How did Ode to the Ancestors come to be?

Ode to the Ancestors came about during my research work with the Community Action Research group at the Horniman. I was previously working on music and a documentary about reconnecting with my Kenyan heritage and retracing the footsteps of my late grandad Karisa Ndurya, who was a foreman at the first excavations of ancient monuments in East Africa.

After realising that he and other Africans who worked during the colonial period were erased from records, I wanted to highlight this issue through music and film. But the pandemic hit, and everything was put on pause.

The Community Action Research group gave me an opportunity to pivot in the pandemic, so I decided to research the Horniman’s Kenyan archaeology collection. After finding that there were no Kenyans credited in the excavation of the objects in that collection, I wrote a song called Ode to the Ancestors and produced a short documentary in honour of those unknown Africans. The hope is that one day we will find their names, and credit them in records.

Around the same time, I pitched to curate an exhibition that commemorates the black contribution to archaeology and conservation in Kenya – and got it! That was a wonderful surprise as it would be my first time curating an exhibition. To do something on this scale for the first time was a huge challenge, but thankfully there was an incredible team of professionals from all over the world who helped to pull it off.

The process involved a lot of research work – can you tell us a bit more about that?

We were fortunate to develop a partnership with National Museums of Kenya at Fort Jesus, as well as The British Institute in Eastern Africa and National Archives, UK. Along with support from Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp who helped lead the project from Horniman’s side of things, we received support from the British Council to undertake extensive research of archive libraries in Kenya and the UK. Prof George Abungu, the Emeritus Director General of National Museums of Kenya also came on board to offer invaluable advice and guidance.

Ashikoye Okoko led the research in Kenya and I undertook research in England. The aim was to find images that profiled Kenyan heritage professionals from in and around the colonial period. Most of the images I came across in the UK did not showcase Africans at work, or even name Africans in records of archaeological digs.

I was surprised that even Okoko in Kenya struggled to locate images of Africans at work from that period. After about six months of searching, and finding great images from the 1970s and 1980s, we were almost ready to concede that we wouldn’t find them in time for our printing deadline, and launched an appeal to the wider public to help us find those colonial era images we were looking for.

A couple of months later, Okoko stumbled on images from the 1940s and 1950s at National Museums of Kenya. There was no record of them being held as photos, so it was greatly fortuitous, as well as a testament to his hard work, that he widened the search and found what we were looking for in unlikely places. Amongst those archive images, were three photos of my grandad overseeing an excavation at Fort Jesus in 1959. My family and I had never seen those photos before.

Retired professionals and their children also began coming forward with images to share. I’m sure there’s more out there, and we look forward to honouring as many Africans as we can.

This must be a personal exhibition for you. What was it like working on something so close to your heart?

It really is a personal exhibition, because the driving force was my grandad and the sense that he and so many other Africans of his time never got credit for their work, while their European counterparts received all the accolades. Curating this exhibition was an attempt to highlight the wonderful work undertaken by huge teams, from archaeologists, to foremen, to manual staff. Whatever position they held, they made a significant contribution. It’s important for African communities to lead the charge on interpreting their own histories and to be recognised for undertaking this important work.

Your relationship with the Horniman began as a Community Action researcher. What has the process been, from that to this?

The Community Action Research Group is a brilliant initiative to involve local communities in understanding the provenance of objects held at the Horniman. As a non-academic who grew up in the area, I loved attending the training sessions and learning from a host of professionals across different disciplines on how they collaborated with heritage institutions. To go from that, to curating an exhibition in the beautiful World Gallery was a wonderful learning process, and an opportunity to shift colonial narratives that still influence modern thinking.

Launching the exhibition with music, dance, poetry and speeches at the Horniman, then doing the same at Fort Jesus, Mombasa was also an unforgettable experience that brought together diverse communities to celebrate the reclamation of African history. I performed with a choir and dancers in London, and then Swahili Pot Hub in Mombasa put on an array of incredible performances. Raphael Igombo and Arafat Mukasa arranged a brilliant Kenya launch and many retired heritage professionals came along. I was so happy to meet them – one of them is my great uncle Katana Mwatseka who worked during the 1960s. He mentioned how much it meant for his work to be commemorated.

Can you tell us about working with the young people who also created work for the exhibition?

One of the most rewarding parts of this journey, was to view the excellent art pieces created by the young people in the Reclaiming African History project. It is featured as the last section of the Ode to the Ancestors display at the Horniman and does a fantastic job of summarising the mission of the project. They also gave speeches and performed deeply moving, profound poetry at the launch. Their contributions really enriched the project as a whole.