Birth is a beautiful and violent affair. The birth of a star involves gravitational collapse; the birth of time, under the weight of infinite density, was the result of a literal Big Bang. The invention of God led to unending war, the invention of guns to uncountable deaths. The birth of one nation means the displacement of another. Ideas and revolutions are born from fundamental changes in socio-political institutions, which bring bloodshed. This leads to art, literature, and civil unrest. Identities—of civilizations, cultures, and individuals—are often the result of this unrest. Birth is inherently violent because it leads to death, beginnings to ends, no matter what. In about twenty billion years, the universe will collapse. What comes next is anyone’s guess. We enter this world screaming, and many of us leave the same way. That’s life.
The birth of an artist, then, is not so different. This leads to the invariable separation between individual and artist, between artist and artwork. The artist becomes a catalyst for the individual’s ideas, a vehicle for their voice. The lines between individual and artist rarely cross. Individual and artist are rarely friends.
Take Cape Town-based 20-year-old visionary Tony Gum. She’s much different than Zipho Gum—the chill and quiet individual, the behind-the-scenes student cramming for finals (“You know when the term is about to end,” she mentions, clearly spent, “but they drag it by making all the assignments due for the last week? This is an epidemic, and it needs to be stopped.”) while juggling the duties of Tony, the bold and flamboyant artistic extension of herself, an outlet. Tony’s first solo exhibition, at the time of this interview, was being simultaneously prepped for September’s FNB JoburgArtFair in Johannesburg. Finals and fine art. That’s the life of Zipho and Tony Gum.
“uTwiggy I,” (2015). C-type print on Fuji crystal archival paper, Dibond mounted, Ed /10. 50 x 39 centimeters. Courtesy the artist and Christopher Moller Gallery, Cape Town.
“uTwiggy III,” (2015). C-type print on Fuji crystal archival paper, Dibond mounted, Ed /10. 50 x 39 centimeters. Courtesy the artist and Christopher Moller Gallery, Cape Town.
“It’s actually crazy,” she tells me, “because when people meet me in person, they just say how bot—which is a slang term here in South Africa, which means boring—I am.” She laughs. “But I’m not actually boring. I just prefer to be a bit more calm in neutral settings. The reason I use Tony Gum is because I like to distinguish the difference between work life and private life. So I want people to see this side of me, which is an extension of who I am. But, at the same time, it’s kind of like, I like my private life. So don’t associate all that with my private life. Just have a normal conversation when you meet a person.”
So if you find yourself hanging with the coolest kids in Cape Town, don’t mistake Zipho for Tony, Tony for Zipho.
Observing Tony’s work—gorgeous self-portraits emboldened by color, tackling ambiguously political themes like race and commercialism—it’s clear that things could get a little exhausting being Tony all the time. Her website, for example, provides a preemptive repartee to the canned questions regarding her (Black) Coca-Cola series: “I think I’ve come to accept that ‘Why (Black) Coca-Cola?’ is the second most asked question in my life… What makes it awkward is that I know the true answer to that question but I’d rather dodge that bullet with a commercial response that’ll probably make you think ‘Wow, she’s so deep.’”
In other words, Tony would rather let the artwork speak for itself. And speak it does, loudly.
Her Instagram account—@tony_gum, under yet another monker, Naairobi—is one of the coolest and most interesting I’ve seen.
“Your Instagram is fantastic,” I tell her. “Gives me Instagram envy.”
She laughs, and it’s that cinematic and sincere throw-your-head-back laughter fit for a soda commercial.
But her Instagram feed really is something, highly curated, bold and dazzling: Tony and her friends decked-out in cool-kid streetwear all colorblock and tartan; Tony sporting a pair of Adidas Adilettes, feet matching both tiled floor and Persian Medallion rug with Kubrickian exactitude; everything natural and effortless and obsessively matched. The feed jumps with energy, and for once makes me appreciate the ubiquitous app.
I ask how she might describe her aesthetic.
“At the moment, I’m working on that whole Wes Anderson feel. Very subtle, the shadows kind of dimmed down. No highlights. Complimentary colors, which you are rare to find. I’ve been working with a lot of detail, so now I’m trying to transition to color, and working on the subtleness of it. I’ve been trying to tone it down a bit and see how I can challenge myself.”
“Mother (Black Coca-Cola Series)”, (2015). C-type print on Fuji archival paper, Dibond mounted, Ed /10. 70 x 81 centimeters. Courtesy the artist and Christopher Moller Gallery, Cape Town.
“Bunny Girl (Black Coca-Cola Series),” (2015). C-type print on Fuji archival paper, Dibond mounted, Ed /10. 70 x 81 centimeters. Courtesy the artist and Christopher Moller Gallery, Cape Town.
Changing pace, I say, “Photography and the image, I think, are inherently political. Do you believe an image can exist independently of a political message or motivation, however subtle?”
“No,” she says. “Personally speaking, I am very influenced by politics and social issues, especially within my own country. I’m a Freedom Baby, but there are also a lot of post-freedom, post-apartheid issues that we are dealing with as Freedom Babies. Learning about my history, or the history of oppression—I started learning about Black Consciousness around 17 years old, and prior to that, I didn’t know why we weren’t being taught this in high school, or even primary school, because it’s such a vital thing to learn for the importance of being proud, instead of always being taught, This is what happened, we were oppressed, okay, great. But we were never taught about being conscious, about being proud of being black. Once I started learning about it, I was like, Woah, that’s amazing. You can take a sensitive topic and make it something that is artistic. You can make it beautiful. That’s what I want to do with my work, because these issues are real, and I’m not the kind of person who will falter. If it’s happening, I want to talk about it.
“At the same time, I don’t want to impose my message upon people. I like to leave it open for interpretation. It makes me happy that people can read things the way that I portrayed it to be, but at the same time, people also grasp their own messages, which is beautiful. That means the work is open-ended. It’s also humbling to see people understand there is a social aspect to this artistry, that it’s not always just about fashion, it’s not always just about mainstream and commercial themes.” There’s a pause. “Wait, what was your question?”
We both laugh.
It’s easy to forget the world when you’re speaking with Tony Gum, her singsong voice pleasant and eloquent, or when you’re disappearing into her work, the patterns and colors and everything-in-its-right-place precision, making the world feel beautiful and ordered. But, as I write this, listening to our recorded conversation clear as a dinner date, bombs are literally ripping through the streets of Paris and Beirut. And you can’t pray for them, because prayer planted the bombs in the first place. You accept it, and hope that a little good—heart-shattering artwork, social and moral shifts in the right direction, the death of one political movement and the beginning of another—gets somehow born, that somebody like Tony Gum can turn mayhem into beauty, carnage to consciousness.
“I still don’t believe that I am an artist,” she tells me. “It’s such a huge title, and I’m still learning to become one.”