Armed with a white beaded bralette and patterns from Ndebele homes replicated in paint down her arms, Zana Masombuka introduced the character of the Ndebele Superhero at the 2017 Afropunk festival. Building from this performative moment, her work combines storytelling, creative direction, archiving, and celebrating culture with a look to the past, present and future.
Masombuka’s adoption of the superhero figure points to sci-fi cultures, a genre which has been used reclaim identity, reconfigure imaginaries and repossess the past and future. For Masombuka, science fiction is a form of storytelling that allows people to reimagine themselves and their circumstances. At a closer look, the figure in Masombuka’s work is deeply embedded in contemporary political and social contexts, providing a way of understanding the present and guideline for prepossessing the future. ‘The role of science fiction within history is what some may call folk tales, and I think that it is a form of preserving the imaginative spirit of the African,’ Masombuka explains.
Masombuka has a presence at Julie Miller Investment Art Institute, but is mostly distributing her work independently. Social media is crucial for this independence, and is how she allows a larger audience access to her work. The internet has distinct bias, hidden behind a mask of neutrality: a Google Image Search for ‘woman’ results in a overwhelming majority of non-Black women. Or another search for ‘superhero’ only results in Marvel and DC characters from commercialized, American and male-centred narratives and representations. This brings to light the relevance of Masombuka’s work as a young woman of colour in realizing and materializing the necessity of creating digital threads about African cultures and African people, as well as pushing the idea of the superhero. Her hashtags on Instagram (#NdebeleSuperhero #BlackGirlMagic #Representation #Ndebele #SouthAfrica) map out a digital construction of the Ndebele superhero. Through a Google or Instagram search of these hashtags one can play a modern form of connect the dots to reveal an algorithmic make up of Ndebele culture as interpreted and celebrated by Masombuka. This stretches the archival work being done by her to more than just visual representations referencing and bringing to the fore Ndebele culture. Here a digital footprint is being made and preserved through code and fibre.
The commercialized superhero narrative, which often involves violence as a medium for transformative direction or the undoing of evil, is reworked by Masombuka. She takes the photograph, clothing and a creative concept inspired by Ndebele culture as her source of strength. Evidence of this can be seen in her latest project titled ‘Time’, a series of photographs coupled with a poem by Thembisile Mkhatshwa. The project refers to the process of passing down knowledge and the tension between generations in postcolonial contexts. One image from the series shows a female figure sitting in a field wrapped in orange silk, and dried lemon slices covering her face. The contrast between the texture and colour of the grass and the fabric, draws the viewer’s eyes. The posture of the figure – calm yet commanding – works together with the lemon slices to create a mysterious godliness, evoking visual recollections of African sculptures that portray spiritual deities. This immediately transfers the figure to into the realm of the supernatural. This too, demonstrates the transformative power that art possesses, daring people to think about themselves, their experiences and their cultures differently.
Masomuka’s images remove the illusion that African cultures are static and occupy anachronistic space in the world. Masombuka breaks down the cold and constructed divide between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, demonstrating the way in which these two seemingly separate concepts cross over and take up space simultaneously. The lemon slices in the images, which have been dehydrated to varying degrees, are symbolic of generational differences. In the images that represent the youth, Zana touches on the zesty spirit of youth with fresher lemons and garments fabricated from green leaves. This speaks to the connection between the youth and their ability to adapt culture coupled with a yearning for ancestral and historical knowledge. The palm leaves attached to the arms of the figure mimic wings, again referring to image of the superhero. Another photograph with a figure holding bowls while kneeling, represents the older generation. This generation is still coming to terms with the disruption and manipulation of their cultural identity, and how they are trying to mend and keep alive the knowledge they do have. Masombuka addresses the collective clout these generations possess when they comes together. When viewed in this way ‘Time’ is also a kind of call to action, expressing the idea that the time is now for African people across generations to work collaboratively to reclaim, relearn and to rebuild to sustain cultural practices and knowledge systems.
Dear elders, those who possess the knowledge, see
us, recognise us, we are young
Give us the seed to plant fruit for the next generation
Allow the cycle to continue, as we will do the same
when the time comes
Time is not on our side
The time is now.
– translated extract from the accompanying poem for ‘Time’ by Thembisile Mkhatshwa.