In August 2015, Vogue published an article entitled ‘Tony Gum Might Be the Coolest Girl in Cape Town’. In December last year, she was named by Elle magazine as one of 15 women artists who are changing their world – and ours, while CNN posted a video: Meet Tony Gum, social photographer superstar.
She has won wide acclaim not only at the Cape Town Art Fair but at Pulse New York and Pulse Miami. “Her work is visually very striking but also has a lot of layers,” said Helen Toomer, Pulse’s director. “Showing it was a no-brainer.”
And she’s only 22 years old.
Gum’s latest exhibition opens at the Christopher Moller Gallery on 29 September. As previously, her work is a love poem to the strong feminine. Typically bold, joyful, and inquisitive, her latest series once again captures individual portraits of herself in character: as commentator Lungi Morrison writes “the artist offers her entire being as canvas; body, mind and soul.”
Having examined female icons in the past: namely Frida Kahlo (Free Da Gum) and Twiggy (UTwiggy) Gum has now turned her gaze closer to home. ‘Ode to She’ is a celebration of the Xhosa female, in particular the journey in Xhosa tradition known as ‘intonjane’ when a young girl ‘intombi’ – bare-chested and adorned in traditional beads and ‘imbola’, a traditional natural body clay – becomes a woman ‘umfazi’ and later, ‘umama omkhulu’ or ‘ixhegwazana’ – old lady.
As Gum herself says, “Facing the ‘truths’ of who, what and why we are, ultimately means we also free ourselves to evolve as beings.” This is the context behind her image of the Xhosa elder whose broadly spread thighs hold up an espresso machine in place of a grandchild, “denoting the contrasting roles of the elderly in the context of 21st century lifestyle.”
The young Gum still describes herself as “an artist in learning, a filmmaker in training and a storyteller in grooming”. Through each of these aspects of herself she “gives voice”, as Morrison puts it, “to fundamental issues of race, gender, colonialism, globalization, and identity. Through the prism of her heritage Gum passionately offers this ‘Ode to She’ as an acknowledgement and appreciation for the magnanimous role played by women, past and present.”
Her gallerist Christopher Moller describes Gum as “Producing a new prism with which to view African contemporary art and culture.” Gum gives a uniquely African, if tongue-in-cheek, twist to contemporary Western culture. She is “a rapid-fire explosion into the art world.”
She is proudly feminine, and proudly African. Yet perhaps her most enduring and endearing characteristic is her irrepressible joie de vivre. “As is the case in all of Gum’s reboots,” Moller laughs, “allusion gives way to pastiche, deference to the spoof.”
“In less than a year Tony Gum has inspired, provoked, confused, and seduced the art world. The skill lies in the artist’s highly witty and playful seriousness. And need I add that Tony Gum also well understands the seductiveness of sheer beauty?”
As cultural analyst Ashraf Jamal describes it, “The magnetic appeal of Gum’s work lies in its deceptively beguiling innocence, for here is an artist who, like any strong designer, knows the palpable power of a rigged simplicity. What you see is what you get, but it’s what you don’t see and instinctively intuit which gives the work its kick.”
Next time you are heading over Kloof Nek, swing left at The Sunnyside Inn, and pop in to the Christopher Moller Gallery to view Tony Gum’s work for yourself. The exhibition opens 29 September until 3 November 2017. It’ll make your day.