It’s a pretty big deal when Vogue US dubbs you the “Coolest Girl in Cape Town”. Or when OkayAfrica includes you in their list of ‘Top 100 African Women Making an Impact on the Continent.’ However, we prefer how she described herself in an interview with CNN, “Hi, my name is Tony Gum. I’m an artist in learning, filmmaker in training, [and] story teller in grooming.” Gum (Pronounced Goom) may be in her early twenties, but she already possesses a presence that is alluring and gracious. Represented by Christopher Moller Gallery, this artist is making waves at home and internationally. Before we fan out on why she’s an artist to watch, get to know her a little more by watching this captivating keynote she delivered at a Design Indaba Conference:
Artist in Learning
There’s power in seeking constant growth and knowledge. When asked by The Times whether this title was in anticipation of backlash, since she found her fame through Instagram, she responded, “”I believe that titles determine the person you become. I choose to go by ‘artist in learning’ because it serves as a reminder to stay grounded, enjoy what I do best and keep learning.”
She is her Main Muse
Yes, that’s her in many of her pictures and for good reason. In an interview with Design Indaba she explains, “I paint myself more so because I know myself best, and I take photos of myself because I know myself best. That has always been the case.” She further elaborates her point while speaking to Wanted Online SA, “We need to become more self-aware as women, and human beings, to understand ourselves. Because by understanding ourselves, so we may understand the next person.”
Her Design Philosophy
She is a strong believer in discovering and believing in your self-worth. That, as Africans, we shouldn’t have to be told or justify what your art is. We’re just going to put her philosophy here verbatim: “My design philosophy is ‘Africa is worth it, black people are worth it, people of colour are worth it, and as a whole the human race is worth it’. We need to show the importance of excelling as black people.”
“Black Coca” series
This ongoing project is a series of self-portraits that borrow from Pop Art imagery to create identities that she interweaves with the iconic Coca-Cola brand. On her blog, she expresses that the aim was to “show a pathway to embracing the West while remaining true and proud of one’s heritage.” As you’ve probably gathered from the video above, the Black Coca Cola series helped to catapult her into the limelight. And this all started because she was open to try something different and work with the resources that were available to her. Not to mention, seeking help/advice and feedback from relevant sources.
“Ode to She” exhibition
In 2017, Gum had her first solo exhibition which she defines as “a letter to self, a poem and song, a calling”. But for the people at the back of the class, the series was a depiction of what it means to be a Xhosa woman. A definition she discovered from her personal exploration and expectations, as well as, through teachings from the elders. She uses her trademark ‘selfie’ technique to capture the intricacy of womanhood in a contemporary world. But she also uses it to guide her audience to question what the impact of selfies is on our sense of identity. “I believe in honouring our individual truths. Our ability to pause, reflect, connect and celebrate that which makes each of us whole means we are better placed to recognise and respect this essence in others,” she says. The “Ode to She” photographic exhibition was a success on many levels. one being that it earned her the prestigious 2017 Miami Beach Pulse Prize where she received a cash grant of $2,500.
A Free Spirit with a Cause
There’s no doubt that her images are lively and upbeat. Plus, the use of self-portraiture as her main medium gives it an undeniable youthfulness. But beneath the glossy aesthetic, Gum’s photography is addressing issues such as taboos and prejudice, as well as, racial and sexual equality. For example, in her ‘Ode to She’ exhibitions, some of the works featured elements considered taboo when mixed in with tradition. This includes the use of a cell phone or adorning red lipstick in conjunction to traditional posture. It was her way of discovering what culture means to a young woman living in today’s society.
Tony Gum has achieved international recognition for her storytelling aptitude through dynamic means. By utilising a medium that is understood by many, she’s been able to make her art accessible across the board. But most importantly, she embarks on her journey towards self-actualisation with the openness to learn and grow; while encouraging others to do the same.