A fashionably dressed Xhosa woman from the Bantu ethnic group of Southern Africa sits tall and proud as she delicately holds a modern blush applicator and lipstick. Her eyes, covered in a painted white mask, look towards the viewer as if to say, “Here I am.” Behind her is a simple rural landscape, while on her head she balances an elaborate headdress made of sticks and fabric. The work, Xhosa woman – Umfazi (2017) is by South African visual artist Tony Gum. It captures a remnant of her heritage while also providing a taste of the contemporary world that binds us all today. The Xhosa woman in the picture is none other than the artist herself who assumes her role with grace and confidence. As in all of Gum’s portraits, the Xhosa woman becomes a social commentator—giving voice to issues of race, identity and gender as prevalent in South Africa as they continue to be elsewhere.
A true millennial talent, Gum is a photographer, stylist, sculptor, model, and illustrator—trades she reveals on her Instagram feed of 46,700 followers, her blog and her The Local Collective vlog where she showcases her home city with her friend Phillia. All these digital delights have seen her rise in fame over the last several years. Artsy named her among its top 10 young artists to know at the 2015 Joburg art fair, and most recently, she was awarded the prestigious 2017 Miami Beach Pulse Prize for her Ode to She, a photographic exhibition displayed at the Pulse Art Fair whereby she expressed and celebrated what it meant to be a Xhosa woman. Gum was selected from 15 other nominees by a panel of art world experts to receive $2,500 in prize money. Represented by Cape Town-based Christopher Moller Gallery, Gum has gained wide recognition for her Wes Anderson-style palette that sees her use costumes and various props to pose in stances reminiscent of classic African studio photography. Her socially charged imagery is a celebration of her culture and her generation. “I wanted to do something different and also allow our generation to think but also allow our generation to understand the significance of our history and its impact on our present-day realities,” she says.
Free Da Gum I. 2016.C-type fuji crystal archival print, Dibond mounted. 150x100cm. Edition M of 10
Born in 1995 in the township of KwaLanga, a suburb of Cape Town, to a Xhosa family, Gum moved to the verdant suburb of Pinelands at the age of eight. She grew up in a family that loved all things creative. “My mother pursued art during her university years but couldn’t continue due to the political circumstances at the time,” she says from Cape Town. “She also loved to play the piano. My father is a baker so he works a lot with his hands. My two other siblings were great at drawing.” Yet Gum didn’t think she would become an artist. Her goal was to do something “more professional.” Her blog allowed her to artistically dabble in fashion and art, and explore the world around her—South Africa’s multifaceted social landscape. She took a gap year after high school to decide what to do and her creative initiatives took off. “My mother then told me to just pursue what I love and if it’s photography and image-making just go and do it,” she says.
At school Gum remembers taking a particular history class that made her more aware of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), a grassroots anti-Apartheid activist movement founded by Steven Bantu Biko that emerged in South Africa in the mid-1960s. “At the time I saw this as very liberating for us and to understand that we have a different perspective of history where it is not necessarily this black sadness,” she remarks.
Gum’s beguiling self-portraits reimagine the very notion of branding with tongue-in-cheek afro punk style. The artist has established her voice through seminal works such as Indian Lady, Black Cola, uTwiggy, iSnap, the Milked in Africa series and the Free da Gum series. The latter pays homage to the legendary Frida Kahlo, and Gum donned the Mexican artist’s trademark floral crown, unibrow and a range of vibrantly patterned gowns to assume the persona of the great artist. In recent years Kahlo has been elevated to the status of fashion and pop icon and a major source of inspiration for many black artists for her determination, passion and bold oeuvre. In Free Da Gum’s manifesto, Gum aimed to “deconstruct prejudice, enflame desire, and broker a more enabling vision of Africanity.”
Mother from Black Coca-Cola Series. 2015
It was during Gum’s first year at university that she took her Black Coca-Cola Series (2015) to Instagram. Dressed in her dynamic Xhosa garb, Gum poses with an array of beautifully rendered iconic Coca Cola bottles. In the series, she embraces Western brands while remaining faithful to her African heritage. The series caught the attention of Christopher Moller of Christopher Moller Gallery, who has represented Gum ever since, exhibiting her work throughout South Africa and at major international art fairs. “This is my third official year in the art world and it has been a very gambling, gruesome and exciting time to be able to do what I love,” she says. “I never thought this would be the path I would take. With Christopher we went straight for the big guns. He’s taken the risk and we have been flying high.”
Issues of race and gender in South Africa continue to run through much of Gum’s work, predominantly the idea of being from the indigenous Xhosa tribe. Her Ode to She series explores such ideas through Gum’s gusty portrayals. “I grew up as a Xhosa girl, my parents are of Xhosa heritage,” she says. “I don’t know what goes behind the scenes of these sacred rituals but they are a part of who we are and our culture and our identity.” Gum went to the Eastern Cape where Xhosa people originate. There she met with everyday women to gain an understanding of their role in society. Gum was particularly keen to gain insights about the roles Xhosa women occupied beyond the construct of domesticity. “A lot of our history and our culture is not documented in books and not given out in curriculums,” she says. “I began to gain a connection between what is traditional and what is urban and what is happening in our way of life. And what I understood is that there needs to be a connection between the two entities because at the end of the day if don’t understand what was before, if we don’t reviltalise it in some way then it will not stand the test of time and it will become increasingly elusive.”
Milked in Africa – Milk Someone. 2016. C-type print on fuji crystal archival print
Gum’s work is about reconciling the contemporary with the traditional. During her her late teens and early twenties, Gum, alongside her peers, formed the movement ‘The Point is Not to Conform’. “The more I browse through ‘African’ images, the more I feel the extra urge to love to be African (which I do), but let’s forget the fact that I am an African and remember that I am South African,” writes Gum on her blog. “I could really say that I hate how modern South Africa is, but that’s not going to solve anything (if there is anything to solve).” Tradition, according to Gum, can have its host of challenging moments, particularly when linked to a troublesome present. Still, it is about being proud of one’s idenity. “In actual fact, what is the essence of being South African?” she writes. “It feels like our diversity ‘rainbow nation’ has caused some serious issues which point to the reality of our lack of shared identity—but then again, it goes back to culture [...] I honestly wish we were a country that spoke one language. That way, maybe—just maybe, we wouldn’t have the growing numbers of youth who think they are something else beyond who they really are. But I could be wrong, I could be very wrong.” Tonygum.blogspot.ae