Tony Gum

Tony Gum

***15 Women artists who are changing their world – and ours.***

***Tony Gum has been named by Inner Circle as one of South Africa’s top three young artists to invest in.***

*** Vogue voted Tony Gum “The Coolest Girl in Cape Town.” ***



Tony Gum’s fresh and energetic imagery has attracted national attention. With gusto she is producing a new prism with which to view African contemporary art and culture. Her latest project Black Coca – Cola features an array of projected identities that she has beautifully spliced together with the global iconic Coke brand. Coke has conventionally been famous for their pop culture branding and Gum has successfully melded the pop feel with dynamic Xhosa garb, ‘African exotic’, ‘Afropolitan’ urban chic and the archetypal ‘Bunny Girl’. Through the power of the visual, Gum aims to show a pathway to embracing Western brands, while remaining true and proud of one’s heritage. Her inspiration and message behind the Black Coca-Cola series, is creating an African representative for the popular beverage, giving the coke brand a uniquely African feel. Her imagery creates an intimate link between the brand and the ‘people’. Gum is proud of her African heritage but she is equally happy to fuse with Western brands, she has the best of both worlds.


This piece addresses the Western pre-conceived notion of femininity, and how society views dress as a form of self-expression. Western views of femininity do not leave room for cultural practices, namely dress, to be seen as a freedom of expression for such women. Gum identifies with the other, addressing how traditional forms of dress that differ from Western views can be seen as restricting to freedom of expression. Gum’s proud pose challenges the pre-conceived ideas and re-contextualises the idea of femininity through confidence. This empowering representation is done so in a creative and beautiful way, accepting that femininity is expressed in a variety of forms. This message creates spheres for positive influence on self-acceptance and being proud of your tradition.


Tony Gum’s series of three photographs, ‘Free da Gum’, is, once again, a pithy pun. A direct allusion to the iconic image of the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, Gum’s retake and remix is, despite the allusion, by no means derivative or honorific. As is the case in all of Gum’s reboots, allusion gives way to pastiche, deference to the spoof, for it is not Gum’s aim to merely set up a series of inter textual references; she is no mimic, and is by no means seduced by the postmodern culture of quotation. Let’s start with the title of this series of three images – ‘Free da Gum’. While one immediately splices the link with the Mexican artist – both in name and image; Gum’s Frida has the iconic unibrow and the floral headdress – what immediately becomes apparent is that Gum is far more concerned with the liberatory power of Frida Kahlo’s image repertoire. Her ‘Free Da’ seems immune to pain, oppression, even the misogyny of the art world. It is important, here, to remember that Gum is reprising this uplifting trans figural redaction of Frida Kahlo. It was in the 2014 Johannesburg Art Fair that Gum’s Frida first took flight, assuming a role as enabling as Delacroix’s famous painting of liberty, for here Frida nee Tony Gum does not assume the stern visage typically associated with the pained Mexican art, but an intoxicating, even deranging playfulness. From what Gum achieves in that 2014 take on Frida Kahlo is as much a critical reboot of the African body – and that of the African woman in particular – as the icon of suffering.

Tony Gum, after all, is a groundbreaking ‘millennial’ African artist who fully understands the double-speak typically associated with discourse around so-called African art. Her role is to deconstruct prejudice, enflame desire, and broker a more enabling vision of Africanity. Her ‘Free Da Gum’ series – with its direct allusion to the culture of the ‘born-free’, as well as the youth revolt with has swept across South Africa’s campuses since March 2015, operate as triggers and spoofs for a time of radical unsettlement. Gum’s trick, however, is not to protest but to insinuate the competing narratives which currently engage us – revolution, transformation, Africa in the New Global World. In this regard Tony Gum is on point. That her images received wide acclaim at Pulse in New York and at the Cape Town Art Fair reveal just how unerringly canny this artist is. In less than a year Tony Gum has seduced, inspired, provoked, confused, and seduced the art world. Her ‘Free Da Gum’ series is one of a number of bulls-eyes, which the artist is hitting. 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?


iSnap is a reflexive piece by Gum inspired by a similar family portraiture style she became aware of in both her Grandma’s and mother’s era. A traditional floral curtain framed the backdrop, a floral bouquet was present, and in each portrait the matriarch was seated while her husband stood closely behind. Inspired by the generational similarities in portraiture style, Gum has created a modern day version of these traditional family portraits. She had duplicated key elements from each portrait, like the traditional floral curtain backdrop and the bouquet of flowers, thereby carrying over the family traditions.

However, unlike portraits from previous generations Gum is seated alone, as a modern single woman who is not yet married. She renders the portraits in subject matter to the contemporary yet emphasises the importance of family heritage, memory and nostalgia. These traditional elements create a thread of family connectivity throughout the generations. This celebratory piece pays homage to the generational aspects and traditions that have made her who she is.


Twiggy was a 1960s English super model at the height of pop culture. uTwiggy, Gum’s unique African conceptualization of the iconic woman, is a fusion of traditional African culture with the archetypal Twiggy imagery. Each photograph in the Twiggy series is refreshing, light and playful as Gum effortlessly splices together symbols of African culture with the quintessential Twiggy pop feel. Gum’s images celebrate her African heritage while embracing the iconic Western brands. Gum’s message behind the Twiggy series is to embody conventionally white Western pop icons with a fresh black feel. In doing so she has created an African model for these popular brands. Gum has succeeded in proclaiming her pride in her African heritage while simultaneously embracing Western culture; she has the best of both worlds.




In less than a year the South African instagrammarian-turned-artist has exploded onto the world stage. Poster girl for the Johannesburg Art Fair, Cape Town’s ‘it’ girl according to Vogue, shortlisted for the jury prize awarded ‘to an artist of distinction featured in a solo exhibition’ at Pulse in New York, Gum has indisputably captured the popular imagination. Did I mention that she has just turned 20?  Youth and beauty is of course global capital’s elixir. But while the German photographer Juergen Teller is famous for launching the career of Kate Moss and widely regarded as the A-lister of grunge and a certain dark romanticism, the self-portraitist Tony Gum has done it all on her own, creating pictures that carry none of the ‘dirty realism’ which we misguidedly still deem cool.  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.  Best known for her afro-take on Coca Cola – a series which went viral and thrust her into the limelight – Gum has at the get-go had her eye coolly focused upon the interface of design-and-art. ‘I was bored at home and I was, like, maybe I should just update my blog because I hadn’t done that in a long time’, she says in an interview with Sandiso Ngubane in Lake. Then comes the crunch. ‘I didn’t even have any coke, there was just a crate full of bottles at home, so I mixed up a whole lot of … dark things, like coffee and Lazenby sauce to pass as coke’.

Tony Gum is all about mixing up dark things and making them lite. Her first self-portraits as Frida Kahlo sum up this mix because we find the iconic Mexican artist rebooted as a mad-hatter replete with an inked-in crow-like unibrow, glittering goggle eyes, and a riveting smile. In one fell swoop Gum shifted Kahlo from tragic icon into an irresistible comic actress. What makes this move smart is that in shifting the pain Gum was also rewiring ‘dark things’.  It is the refreshingly positive spin on the image-repertoire typically associated with the black body which gives all of Gum’s portraits their sucker punch, whether it be her afro-take on Coca Cola in which she remakes herself as the traditional Xhosa mama-as-bombshell, or bunny-girl, or girl-next -door bewigged with a crate of coke filled with Lazenby sauce; or when she revisits 60s style as a black Twiggy; or as ‘Free da Gum’ with the South African national flower – the protea – in her hair; or as Vladimir Tretchikoff’s blue-green lady, one of the most famous and most widely distributed poster-images on earth. Even Warhol couldn’t top Tretchikoff’s populist marketing genius. That Guy Richie chose to puncture a scene in RocknRolla with an eye-full of this iconic painting says everything about the perennial coolness of this emphatically low-brow work. As for Gum’s take on Tretchikoff – it’s her best spin yet. Gum is fast becoming a master-purveyor of high-end trash art, or as the British art critic Julian Stallabrass dismissively phased it, ‘High Art Lite’. That Stallabrass’s critique directed at the YBAs (the 1990s Young British Artists) back-fired has everything to do with the fact that no Marxist tract can detract us from the bling, the blithe zest, and the dizzying crassness of art now. But then again, if Tony Gum were merely tapping into a populist zeitgeist it wouldn’t have the complex high-end appeal it has; an appeal which has everything to do with the artist’s refusal to reductively mainline identity politics, the Pavlov reflex which the design guru and ‘seer of Rotterdam’, Rem Koolhaas, provocatively defined as junk food for the dispossessed.

What gives Tony Gum’s image-repertoire its power is its ability to make light of a very dark situation. She is not blind to the fact that black lives matter, but neither is she prepared to return to the pathological optic which fuels a historical grievance founded on racial and sexual inequality. Rather, Gum ups the ante, shifts the temperament, turns the tragic into spoof, the better to inoculate bigotry and pc-speak with a seductive and life-affirming ease of being in this world.  If African art – art from Africa – possesses a resounding global appeal these days it is not just because it is one of the last market outposts but because, at its best, it has the ability to help us to recover our global ethical humanity. Africa would give the world a ‘human face’ Steve Bantu Biko prophesied. And Tony Gum is all about riffing on this human face. Given an escalating global racial conflict, conveying this human face is an uphill, some might say impossible, struggle.  The South African Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee got it wrong when he declared that ‘South Africa was as irresistible as it was unlovable’ because as Gum’s work shows us South Africa, and Africa at large, is as resistible as it is lovable precisely when we counter a pathological history the better to positively embrace the continent. This is what every free-thinking optimist anywhere in the world now realises.  The notorious German genius, G.W.F Hegel, also got it horribly wrong when a century earlier he declared that ‘the Negro as already observed exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state’, that ‘there is nothing harmonious … to be found in this type of character’, that ‘this continent is no historical part of the world’, that ‘at this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again’.  Tony Gum’s riff on this toxic cant might be ‘Hey girl, don’t bother me’, because when we stand in front of her photographs we experience a very different spin on self-realisation, worldliness, desire because what makes Gum’s photographs so special is just how beautifully out-of-synch they are with the dull and cruel banality of global imperial history.