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Proudly Ndebele: South Africa's Zana Masombuka showcases her heritage through modern expressions of art

Published 8th February 2022
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Proudly Ndebele: South Africa's Zana Masombuka showcases her heritage through modern expressions of art
Written by Lamide Akintobi, CNN
Raised in a small, rural town called Siyabuswa, in the KwaNdebele region of north-eastern South Africa, Zana Masombuka is on a mission to create art that bridges old and new Africa. Inspired by her Ndebele roots, she explores concepts including African identity and cultural complexity, as well as how indigenous cultures and modernity both collide and coexist.
Under the moniker "Ndebele Superhero," Masombuka champions and showcases her heritage through her work as a creative director, using a variety of media including sound, scent, video and photography.
Inspired by nature, she says her art brings together ancient teachings from her childhood and things she's learned through studying and life experiences.
Known for their unique and colorful visual expression, crafts and artistry, roughly one million Ndebele people currently live in South Africa, and can be traced back to 17th century settlers in what is now Pretoria. Masombuka's hometown, which is just over 100 miles from Johannesburg, was the capital of the KwaNdebele area during the apartheid era. Despite inter-tribal battles, colonialism and apartheid, indigenous Ndebele traditions continue to be practiced today, something Masombuka says she's very proud of.
Creative director Zana Masombuka goes by the name "Ndebele Superhero," celebrating her Ndebele heritage through a variety of artistic expressions.
Creative director Zana Masombuka goes by the name "Ndebele Superhero," celebrating her Ndebele heritage through a variety of artistic expressions. Credit: Zana Masombuka & Lonwabo Zimela
"People thought that the Ndebele culture was a dated culture," the 26-year-old artist said. "Yet it has created a visual language for South Africa that's recognized by the world."
The signature Ndebele beadwork is showcased in much of Masombuka's work, from initiation bead rings and beaded towels that signify the transition into womanhood, to aprons, neck rings and golden rings worn around the neck and legs to signify marriage, manhood, widowhood and other stages in life. Masombuka says this "announces who you are, so that people know ... the respect they need to give you, given the position you hold in the society."
Masombuka's art is powered through collaboration, working with photographers, videographers and other creatives to bring her ideas to light. Her latest work, "Umseme Uyakhuluma: A Celestial Conversation," is a collaboration with a team of all African women creatives, which she says started over Zoom in March 2020.
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The team created an experimental, multi-disciplinary project which made its physical debut as a sound installation and photo exhibition in London in October 2021.
Now based in Johannesburg, the conceptual artist says she will continue drawing on her culture to create conversations, be it Ndebele culture or otherwise. "It helps us position ourselves in the world," Masombuka said, "and also make sense of what's around us."