Coca-Cola and Black Cats: Unpacking the Work of Tony Gum
Riding horseback on an elephant-sized cat, taking a selfie with a bucket on her head, making Nespresso in the desert—Tony Gum’s selfie art is distinct, to say the least. At 24, the South African multimedia artist is part of a group of creators whose careers developed almost entirely through social media. Posting the first photos of her work to Instagram at 15, Gum has spent the nine years since presenting her views of womanhood, blackness, and nature to the world in galleries and 3x3 digital frames.
Gum first went viral in 2015 with her series Black Coca Cola. In it, the artist confronts one of the most ardent symbols of Americana. In one shot, she carries a crate of coke on her head like a water basin. In another, she carries a large bottle, like an infant in a fabric baby carrier. With each shot, the door to conversations about consumerism, female labor, colonialism becomes wider.
Her artistic style is informed by her Xhosa (a South African people traditionally living in the Eastern Cape Province) heritage and her complex relationship with pop culture. Her work blends photography, film, graphic design, painting, and sculpting in a method that is both captivating and direct.
Gum’s most through-provoking work is 2018’s Rock Cause Analysis. The series was inspired by the concept, “root cause analysis,” a science and engineering method used to identify the root cause of faults or problems. The collection sees Xhosa woman carved into stone or ‘rock to dig into the socio-cultural systems developed to exclude women, “the bedrock of civilization, to their detriment. The work frames the discussion around both modern pre-colonial injustices to show viewers the social pattern. Other noteworthy series include Indian Lady, which addresses the Western pre-conceived notion of femininity, and how society views dress as a form of self-expression; and Ode to She, an invitation to experience the narrative of transition and transformation through Xhosa coming-of-age ceremonies.
This year, she debuted Kat’emnyama, recently on display at Christopher Moller Gallery in Cape Town and set to appear in an undisclosed space later this month. The series was inspired by the Xhosa word “kat” which translates to "cat" in English. The fashion-inspired series focuses on the mythology of the black cat and the artist's own debates about identity. In it, Gum can be seen riding a large black cat, surrounded by flames in cat-like makeup, and carrying a large cat on her shoulders. The collection speaks to her state of dissonance, internal turmoil and darkness while emphasizing that both light and dark make up our identities.
Gum's work stands out for its unabashed look at Western brands and culture through an African lens. Invested in moving conversations about feminism, consumerism, and social inequity, forward, she represents a generation of empowered African women using their canvas to reflect the changes they hope to see in the world.
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Cape Town, what’s good? 29 days till we exhibit new works from the ongoing series, Kat’emnyama. ✍🏿 Although Intombi Endala (2019) falls under the series Kat’emnyama, the premise is deeply tied to the principles of Ode to She (2017) which explores a woman’s rite of passage within the Xhosa culture. Intombi Endala follows the movement of a young girl transitioning into womanhood- ripened by life’s lessons.
Writer - Amber Nicole Alston
Amber Nicole Alston is a New York-based beauty and culture writer. Her work frames urban life, fashion, and beauty around specific histories and cultures. In addition to writing, Amber also styles and conceptualizes fashion shoots.