Rich in culture and colour, Zana Masombuka is unapologetically Ndebele and wants to share it with the world.
Zana Masombuka’s highly anticipated first solo London exhibition opened to a warm reception from the audience. If you had been in attendance during the accompanying talk for Nges’rhodlweni: A Portal for Black Joy, curated by October Gallery, you would recognise the appreciation for an artist confident in her identity, history, culture and heritage, and a reverence for her community’s cultural and spiritual practices.
To understand Masombuka’s work, it helps to go back to where it all started, Siyabuswa, a rural township in KwaNdebele, her homeland in north-eastern South Africa. A place where celebrations and ceremonies of tradition and ancestry were not strange, but embraced with pride.
An interdisciplinary artist, Masombuka’s art journey started as a fascination with her joyous childhood experiences, which have evolved into a body of work that uses photographs, sculptures, film and performance to explore the intersection of culture and identity.
A graduate of Stellenbosch University, whose endearing artistic alter ego is known as Ndebele Superhero, Masombuka weaves visual narratives of a shared past with sensitivity, to remind people of what’s possible today, and in the future. She talks to Pin Africa about art as an energy and a ritual process, why she is not afraid to centre herself in her work, and wanting people to feel empowered in the cultivation of their joy.
Pin Africa: Ndebele Superhero, why did you create this name for yourself? What is the significance of your artistic expression and the way you show up in the world?
Zana Masombuka: Ndebele Superhero, at its inception, was supposed to be a one-off project. I was studying at Stellenbosch University at the time, doing a degree in international studies. It just so happened that whenever I went home, I would document my brother’s homecoming. This was the birth of it.
I’m Ndebele, and I’ve been surrounded by art since I was a child. When the events surrounding my brother’s homecoming were happening, I decided to create this body of work because, for a long time, Ndebele people were used as backdrops for photoshoots. It was always about the aesthetics, never about the people or their culture. How does the culture move? How does it evolve? The culture was always seen as an aesthetic thing, which muted the voices of Ndebele people.
I grew up in KwaNdebele, which for me was the best upbringing. Being Ndebele was the best thing about me. I had so much pride in it when I was growing up. When I was 14, I moved to the city and saw people from home who, the minute they came to the city, didn’t identify as Ndebele. They identified as other tribes instead. All of this, in addition to growing up under the pride and richness of the culture led to the culmination of the birth Ndebele Superhero.
Ndebele Superhero is a platform for storytelling through the perspective of a young 21st-century Ndebele woman. Stories of culture, identity, technology, spirituality, and capitalism, which interact with the different issues in society. It’s a platform for me to express and tell these stories because having grown up in a culture where there was so much pride and richness, I wanted to bring forth and restore the pride and richness of being Ndebele beyond the aesthetics of the culture.
You are not afraid to centre yourself in the work you create. Why is it important for you to weave yourself into the narrative, while telling stories about your culture, heritage, history, ancestry, spirituality and everything that being Ndebele represents, and do it without apology?
I see and understand art as an energy, and artists at different points in their journey, all connect to it. There’s something which through connection to this entity, independent of the artist, channels and comes through you. For me, a lot of my work comes to me in different ways.
My life is structured in a way that’s centred around creating silence and stillness for the work to come through. Certain experiences can only manifest through the creation of stillness. It’s also because of the different ways in which the work comes to me. Sometimes, I could be obsessed with a colour for a month or a year, or I could have a dream or a vision. I believe there’s a meeting that happens between the entity, which is art, and myself as the vessel the art manifests itself through. All these things are taking place in the body. This is why I’m the subject of the work.
Bold and vivid colours also take centre stage in your work. What’s the role of colour in your work, and how does it facilitate your ability to tell heritage stories?
Colour has a very big role in my work. I’m always trying to pay an ode to the significance of colour on the continent, particularly within the Ndebele culture. I exist in the Ndebele palette, which is the Ndebele blanket. I’m always trying to move within that space and find different ways in which I can interpret what I know to be sacred and ancient about the blanket without being too explicit about what this colour means or what that colour means. I’m leaning on the knowledge that the colours of the blanket represent Ndebele culture. It’s an ode to that space.
Your body of work keeps evolving through the lens of culture. From your use of Ndebele art to Ndebele blankets to Ndebele rituals to Ndebele beads, to the vivid and vibrant colours of Ndebele cultural identity. In your own words, the Ndebele colour palette is your backdrop. How is evolving through your work a revolutionary act and action, and why is this critical for you as an artist?
My first introduction to art wasn’t in a museum or a gallery. Watching my grandmother bead, weave, and garden, which is how my journey started, impressed on me that art was sacred. It is this sacred thing that chooses you, and you make space for it. Growing up in a space where art is an energy, an entity, and sacred, it’s almost like it’s an extension of your human experience. Having had that as the backdrop of my journey and watching my grandmother move into different mediums was also inspiring because, at different times, your art is going to require you to be different things.
The essence of it never really changes, but the medium does. So, the job of the artist, from what I learned watching my grandmother and the different people around me who use art or have incorporated art in different ways in their lives, was the understanding that art will move you to different places and times, and you explore different mediums based on what you are being moved to do and create.
“I really despise this notion of hand-me-downs for Africa, and for our
community. I can’t stand it. We deserve the best.”
Nges’rhodlweni: A Portal for Black Joy—what an exciting title for this body of work. At a time when we have a front-row seat to the oppression, antagonism, and continued racist brutality on Black bodies globally in the digital space, can you talk us through the symbolism of this title?
Nges’rhodlweni is a place in the Black household in Ndebele culture. It’s usually at the centre of the compound and is the centre of the ceremony of joy. A lot of rituals and ceremonies take place there. What I wanted to do with this body of work was to lean on the rituals from the perspective of the Ndebele woman. We cultivate joy. To do this, I looked at 21-year-old archival footage from ceremonies in my culture from my family archives. Which I have used as the film showing as part of the exhibition, alongside the images and sculptures.
I wanted to reinvigorate the spirit of ritual in the creation of joy among Black people. What rituals do we have that help cultivate the space of joy? When I was going through that archive, there are people who don’t generally get along in their normal lives, however, during the preparation of the space through ritual, whether it was brewing traditional beer, calling the ancestors, or inviting the nature spirit into the space, it creates a portal of joy.
I wanted to honour these rituals that exist in the Ndebele culture and are prevalent in a lot of tribes on the continent because we have the power to cultivate rituals that are authentic to our experiences. Joy is communal. And in the creation of the space, we hold each other’s hands and trust in the spaces that we’re creating. That’s what it’s about, exploring ancient rituals that help create these sustainable portals of joy through the process of ritual ceremony and celebration.
Do you remember when you had the defining moment which clarified your WHY? And you knew you would be doing this work to bring your culture, ancestry and heritage to the world?
Yes. It was in 2017, when I was in my final year of studying for my degree. It just so happened that I went home as my brother was going through his initiation. I noticed there was an energy during the religious celebration that takes over the entire village, especially the male initiation, which happens once every four years. The energy is intense and uncontained. Everyone is happy and joyous, and it’s something that takes place over a period of four months. So there’s this uncontainable joy and celebration in the air. I would say that experience was my defining moment, and I wanted to share it with the rest of the world. I wanted to show that, as Black people, we can create these spaces for ourselves outside of the white gaze. I wanted to show us that our history, our essence, and who we are doesn’t start with white people. Who we are goes way back.
An artist has no control over how their work is received, but what do you at least hope your work evokes in the people who interact with it?
This work is to open an expansiveness in human beings, in how we see and understand ourselves, and in what we think is possible for ourselves.
I want to demystify our identity, especially as Africans and as Black people, the things we feel in our gut, and to demystify rituals, so we are able to better connect with ourselves. I want people to know that when they interact with this work, they can cultivate their own rituals, cultures are ours to make. We weave, and we build it. I want people to really feel empowered about the possibility of what they can do for themselves in the cultivation of their own joy.