‘Kat’ in Xhosa Tony Gum’s mother tongue means cat in English. Black cats in most African cultures are synonymous with ‘bad luck’ or evil spirits. In this series, the artist in a deliberate, quasi-rebellious fashion places a double-headed black cat above her head, also reflected in duality. The black cat, Kat’emnyama, rests across both her heads and body upheld by a body adorned in black suite, and a head adorned in a white raincoat – Gum captures her state of dissonance, internal turmoil, darkness, however, emphasizing that both light and dark make for ‘a whole’ picture. We cannot embrace one side or aspect of ourselves without coming to terms with the other, no matter how scary, dark or broken. Boldly challenging cultural constructs for what eKat’emnayma represents among African people. Palms together, centered prayer position offer the definitive signifier, we are each predisposed to both enabling and experiences that manifest, when all seems overwhelmingly dark (double-headed black cat), when we want to believe the answers and solutions are outside of ourselves, they are always within, the moment we align to this eternal wisdom.
During the period of significant loss, Tony Gum adopted a black cat (she named Diesel) ‘Kat’emnayama became proxy for her anticipated role as nurturer. This relationship formed with Diesel Kat’emnyama, allowed her to self-reflect given very little was familiar anymore; in body, mind and spirit. Diesel held the mirror up to Tony’s spirit and soul – this red series, explores with intensity and dexterity, the inner-self, internal states brought to life in the external through Gum’s creative lens – photography, symmetry, monochromatic wash colour palette and her signature self-portraiture style.
Well aware of what is going on, but still is reckless. Became a person that was unrecognizable to self in relationships. Those closest to me bore the brunt of my emotional state of flux. Sometimes we have to experience a certain thing (even painful) in order to be closer to the ultimate self.
Reminiscent another young South African photographer, Phumzile Khanyile’s Plastic Crowns series, 2016 Phumzile Khanyile, born 1991 in Soweto, South Africa, through self-portraiture, explores what she identifies as, ‘the tragic boundaries of what my grandmother would consider a ‘good woman’, probing stereotypical ideas of gender, sexual preference and related stigmas and their relevance in contemporary society’. Challenging socio-cultural constructs, placing their narratives in focus, Gum and Khanyile make bold yet ethereal statements unequivocal about taking their ‘seat at the table’ of discourse on contestation, ‘self awareness’ and transformation.
Ode To She
Tony Gum’s exhibitions are by nature a dual and deeply engaging experience. In the first instance, it is an intimate still life, human encounter with the artist. Her arresting spirit captured as photographic canvas means, the viewer’s gaze lingers as though in conversation with the artist herself. A second aspect of the experience with Tony’s work is the story and narrative explored. Each aspect replies on and is, seamlessly woven into another. Her physical form and photography extended as methods of instruction, relaying the stories and personal perspectives of her world. Perhaps Tony Gum’s artistry offers a third dimension to ponder. The opportunity to witness life held constant, a reminder that in essence, each of us are works of art; we manifest in the physical, as canvas and vessel holding together our unique life’s story. Like the different stories in this exhibition series, our individual story comprises the spiritual expression of who we ‘really’ are; our ‘calling’, our ‘song’, our life’s ‘poem’ and ‘ode’.
Tony’s new work, ‘Ode to She’ is an invitation to experience the narrative of transition and transformation; the journey in Xhosa tradition known as, ‘intonjane’ when, a young girl ‘intombi’, bare chested, adorned in traditional beads and ‘imbaola’, a traditional natural body clay, becomes a woman ‘umfazi’ and later, ‘umama omkhulu’ or ‘ixhego’ – old lady. Different rooms in the gallery, symbolic of the distinct stages and processes of transitioning among Xhosa women, will also reflect the tapestry of rural life, thatched kraals, dry veld and cloud filled skies, symbolic of the complexity of early life years. In the foreground, each stage captures the extent to which women in particular, navigate multiple narratives. ‘intombi’ for instance straddles the dualities of rural and urban lifestyle. The use of an ‘Apple Iphone’ synonymous with 21st century lifestyle and the voyeuristic culture where the ‘selfie’ itself posits a ‘rite of passage’.
Black Coca Cola
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.
Twiggy was a 1960’s 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.
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.
*** PULSE Miami Art Fair prize winner 2017 (Best artist). ***
***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 (Zipho) Gum was born in July 1995. She grew up in KwaLanga in the Western Cape and then moved to Pinelands in Cape Town. She started blogging and using social media sites like Instagram from the age of 15. Her subject matter is predominantly about art, photography, music and life in general. Tony’s biggest influences have been the African photographers, Malick Sidibe and Zanele Muholi, as well as Nigerian novelist, Chimamande Adiche Ngozi. Tony is continuously inspired by their unique approaches in their different fields of creative work. Tony is currently completing the third year of her diploma in Film and Media Studies at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
Tony’s career as an artist launched when she was introduced to Christopher Moller, the director of the Christopher Moller Gallery, through Ashraf Jamal, Tony’s lecturer and prominent South African art critic. The Christopher Moller Gallery has been representing Tony Gum since August 2015.
Her photographsoffer the viewer a unique African perception of Western brands and culture. Her works celebrate the best parts of the African continent and of modernity. Tony, often mistaken for a man because of her masculine name, pleasantly surprises viewers as they realise that this young woman is fully involved in the conceptualisation and completion of all of her artworks, whilst featuring herself as various tenacious female personas in all of them. She offers a unique perspective on femininity – indicated through her confident expressions, rather than the use of clothing or make up. She provides a fresh and energetic zeal to the work, which she hopes will stimulate proactive thoughts and actions. Whilst she has carefully constructed each work to convey specific meanings, she wants her pieces to inspire all kinds of unique and interesting viewpoints.
Tony’s work is also strongly driven by the distinct lack of representation of African women in popular culture. This has been a genuine concern for her and admits that it has affected her self-esteem as a young woman. However, instead of complaining about it, she grabbed a camera and started shaping her own identity. In doing so, she has started creating an African model for popular brands, such as Coca-Cola, which were previously only represented by and for limited demographics. She understands the intimate link between a product’s image and the consumers who make these commodities part of their lives. She is creating a new prism with which to view contemporary African art and culture.