Zana Masombuka On Her Ndebele Heritage and Preserving Black Joy

South African artist Zana Masombuka’s works inspired by her Ndebele heritage are challenging and reframing conversations about the place of tradition in the modern world. Her works are rich tapestries of traditional Ndebele lore, deeply influenced by her upbringing and profound connection to her family and native land. In this interview, we delve deeper into the philosophies, inspirations, and aspirations that fuel her creative odyssey, exploring the artist’s perspectives on the current African Renaissance, the symbolism ingrained in her work, and her hopes for the impact of her art on the world.

Grace Okereke: Your first solo exhibition in London (at October Gallery) is titled NGES’RHODLWENI: A Portal for Black Joy. Nges’rhodlweni refers to a special space in the Ndebele household, where people of all ages gather to share in the communion of art. Can you elaborate on the space and its role within the community?

Zana Masombuka The project speaks of this space that is the central point of the compound. It’s designed architecturally in such a way that when there are gatherings, it feeds into the components of ceremony and celebration and art and just life in general.

During times of celebration this space acts as an anchor and is a central point for people to gather themselves. Also, it’s almost like an anchor, but also an accelerator. When you are in this space, you can feel anchored, your joy or whatever it is, whatever feeling you have, can be intensified.

So I wanted to pay an ode to that space and the different energies that it’s able to hold in times of ceremony and just celebrate all the different feelings and emotions that it’s able to hold in this one centralized space.

Christopher You’ve mentioned in a previous discussion that we are currently witnessing an ‘African Renaissance.’ Could you please elaborate on that?

Zana When I was studying [for] my degree in 2017 in International Studies, majoring in politics and history, I was seeing just how global trends were changing, how everyone was looking to the continent for a lot of different things.

We’re at a very important time in our history, there’s this remaking of the world that happens every hundred years and I think that we’re at the foundational phase of that renaissance setting, the precedence for that, for what that’s gonna become. And that comes with, you know, being audacious about the kind of work we make and the things that we want to exist. We are at that time for the African continent with the stories that are coming out of the continent and from people who live in that Diaspora who are from the continent, and just black people in general.

The climate is conducive for that both physically as well as metaphysically. We’re at a very important time where we’re setting the foundation for this African renaissance to come to life and creating new patterns and new worlds and new ideas and just new ways of existing. I think it’s important to recognize that and to remember that we don’t have to create reactive work. We can create work that builds the world.

Christopher You often incorporate various symbols, numbers, and geometric patterns in your work. Could you share more about the significance and meaning behind these elements?

Zana What you do as the artist, you’re sort of like deciphering what is coming through you from another world ultimately. Your job as the artist is to cultivate a type of stillness that allows whatever needs to be said at that current time to come through. My first introduction to art was this meditative practice where you are making space for this energy to come through.

The geometry and the symbolism that you see in this body of work is inspired by the culture. Historically, the geometry which they now call the print, was a written language. When you look at some of the writings of Credo Mutwa, who’s an African philosopher, in his book Indaba, My Children, he speaks about this language, which is kind of like the hieroglyphs which was spoken across the continent through weaving and the beading. So when you look from southern Africa to the north, there’s this geometry in different parts that’s repetitive. It means different things but there was a time in folklore this written, language was spoken by certain members of the tribe across the continent.

Grace Are there any institutions where the history of the Ndebele people is archived and preserved?

Zana For a long time a lot of people who were writing about Ndebele people were not Ndebele. My mom is a traditional historian. Her marriage name means ‘The One Who Holds Memory’. A lot I get from her. The one thing about living culture is there is a thin layer in regards to how you acquire knowledge. Knowledge lives in the body and your responsibility is tuning into that memory. I learned from my art practice that I am continuously creating the space for what I need to know when I need to know it and trusting that whatever i need to know at that particular place and time makes its way to me given that I make space for it.

Christopher In your travels you’ve experienced different cultures, what do you appreciate about the Ndebele culture after being exposed to the world?

Zana One of the things that I appreciate the most is intentionality and the culture’s ability to survive its most sacred things and hide its most sacred symbols in plain sight to allow them to survive so those who discover them then understand. It’s like you’re in those American movies where they go into the barbershop and they knock and they have to say code word.

Imagine that being expanded to natural systems like birds flying and being able to read things like that. Yeah. Like just the understanding, the symbiosis that you exist in. I think that what I appreciate the most is understanding, being able to locate myself, and understand the symbiosis and the intentionality in everything that surrounds me, just in every living thing that surrounds me and all these natural sort of systems that exist, the rising and the setting of the sun and all these different things. I think that’s what I appreciate the most.

Grace What’s the one thing you hope people walk away with after experiencing your art?

Zana I think when you expand what you can see and you don’t limit it to sight or sense or hearing, the world gets so much bigger. I would love for people to expand how they perceive things and to invite other ways of receiving information into their orbit and their aura.

The theme of exploring portals for black joy within this project is to understand how we are active participants in the cultivation of our own joy and the importance of ritualizing that. Joy is an energy that we create space for. You can have joy within yourself and that’s wonderful and that’s great, but it’s always better to share it with community. I really understand the power of how the joy you cultivate within yourself just gets so much better when it’s shared with the community. When we create that space for ourselves it creates this sort of sustainable joy that we can feed off of and go back to recharge. So I just want people to expect to expand their openness and their perception to the cultivation of these different spaces that we occupy.