Cape Town-based visual artist, film student and Instagram enigma Tony Gum has been in the South African consciousness for some time, both as founder of the Local Collective YouTube channel and as a blogger at tonygum.blogspot.co.za.
This was where many first discovered the 21-year-old’s Black Coca Cola series, and her easy flair for quirky and thought-provoking self-portraits, which had American Vogue dubbing her “the coolest girl in Cape Town’’ last year.
Gum’s work displayed an awareness of consumerism in the age of globalisation, the need for the reclamation of imagery and the population of alternate narratives other than the usual tropes of victimhood.
Having shown at various art fairs and recently exhibiting at Pulse Miami Beach Contemporary Art Fair (at Art Basel Miami) last week and the Pulse New York Contemporary Art Fair earlier this year, she spoke about her ever-evolving canon and why she is reluctant to call herself a fully fledged artist.
How was the United States?
It’s a great space to be in. Miami is different to New York. When it comes to the exterior, people [in Miami] are impulsive, they want to show off. When it comes to the art world, you will meet a person and they will want to buy immediately, whereas in New York, people take a lot more convincing, but it’s a good convincing.
You started with self-portraits at home, “rebelling against boredom”. At what point did you think this was valuable or commodifiable?
It wasn’t just boredom. I was curious. I wanted to explore how a black woman could be placed in big brands such as Coca-Cola. So I found value in investigating that relationship. At the time I didn’t really know what I was working with. I only saw a commodity when people became responsive and when there was interest from galleries. The intention wasn’t to end up in the gallery but since they also saw the gap, we started to play with the value of it.
What sparked your inquiry into this subject?
It was just the lack of representation. I am a black girl who is young and all I could see in media was everything besides me. To change how I was feeling, I had to put myself in that position.
How did you first make contact with the gallery world?
That bridge was shortened by Ashraf Jamal [who teaches film to Gum at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology]. He did all of that admin for me.
Why call yourself an artist-in-learning when you should take all the credit for your ideas?
I love learning. It’s not necessarily a title to demean myself or rob myself of any credit. I’d like to be an artist who is ever-evolving. I make a conscious decision to learn in public. And this title brings with it a humility I want to hold on to.
Your gallerist, Christopher Moller, says you “are like a rapid-fire explosion into the art world, and we like it like that”. How do you feel to be at the centre of this storm?
I’ve been creating since I was very young so I have been waiting for this storm to happen. I’ve been blogging and making videos since I was 15 years old. I just understood the importance of documenting. But now it has become a bit overwhelming because I have been so used to just doing it and not receiving such feedback.
Have your priorities changed?
When I entered the film world it was for the same reason, the lack of representation. My stories and my approach are different now.
You refer a lot to gender and race but your tone is a lot less prescriptive compared with how the discourse usually is in South Africa.
My work is directed at this discourse, it’s just that my methods are different. I believe that having a sense of hope as a black person and a female body in this society is important. I’m using my mediums to reimagine how the conversation is looked at.
The Fader recently claimed you as one of “18 US artists changing the way people look at America”. In that context, what do you make of the idea of contemporary African art and what it means in the world?
For me it just goes to show that all our stories and narratives are interlinked. We all have the same problems we need to deal with. But as Africans we need to have even more of our work out there and not have value by being placed in The Fader. While I support every artist placed on that list, as Africans we need to be in platforms where we are recognised as the people we are, and not mistaken.
Which artists of your generation do you feel are subverting the pretences of art?
Pap Culture. They are doing amazing things when it comes to speaking on conversations that are uncomfortable. They speak on social issues, like the role of women in society, rape culture and anything current. It’s light-hearted conversations but ones we need to be having as the youth. I haven’t seen a lot of South African YouTubers, but it is slowly becoming predominant.
Who do you consider your mentors?
I have direct mentors and indirect mentors. My brother Senzwa Gum, my cousin Noxolo Mafu and my lecturer Ashraf [Jamal] are my direct mentors. Senzwa and Noxolo are my critical advisers.
My indirect mentors would be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zanele Muholi. Those are people I look up to. When it comes to visuals, Zanele because she also does self-portraits. I think the conversations she creates around the work are needed. Chimamanda is my mentor when it comes to storytelling.
What’s your sense about the gallery system and its place in an artist’s trajectory?
From conversations, I realise that people have different experiences with the art and gallery system. Starting on my own to now has been a dramatic change. Had I not had that encounter, I’d still be working at home. Not that I would not be in this space eventually, I just think that the gallery space and all these things that have happened [when the international art world noticed me] have quickened the process and evolved my work more.
Your latest body of work is a series on rural Xhosa women and your relationship to them culturally. As someone who grew up in Cape Town, how important was it for you to do work that examines your Xhosa heritage?
I’m driven by my identity and heritage and growing up in Cape Town I’ve had little experience of cultural customs. It was important to “go back home” and learn from my people. I spoke to Queen Dalindyebo of abaThembu, the Queen Mother and the Queen of the Ndamase and the people from the Mpinga clan, which is my clan. I needed to dispel the myth of women not being seen in a high light and they did that.
They reiterated that women are the foundations of mankind in a literal sense. She must look after the household and the homestead. She takes care of the cattle and the kraal. She oversees everything because of the circumstance [of migrant labour] where the men were away. So women ended up taking care of everything. As umXhosa you go through phases where you learn things from your clan and, as you marry, you learn new customs. All of what they had to bear made them stronger.
Follow Tony Gum’s work on Instagram @tony_gum