Cape Town’s Tony Gum is Documenting Her Evolution With "Ode to She"
Tony Gum has mastered the art of the selfie. Since the age of 19, the native Cape Town artist has visually documented herself, and her evolving ideas of African identity and womanhood, set against a backdrop of vibrantly printed sets, while wearing contrastingly striking fashions and performing dramatized versions of herself. Through sharing these portraits online, Gum has garnered an impressive social media audience and received high praises from publications such as Vogue and Elle South Africa. Yet despite her popularity on the internet, what sets Gum apart from today’s massive selfie culture is not her notoriety, but the fact that she possesses the rare ability to effectively communicate in a digital space without 140 characters, or a caption.
Now at the age of 22, Gum’s signature style has since transcended Instagram feeds and found homes on the walls of distinguished art galleries. This month her first solo exhibition “Ode to She” debuted at Christopher Moller Art Gallery in Cape Town with a celebration that incorporated song and dance from her traditional Xhosa culture, the primary inspiration behind the series of portraits currently displayed. The exhibit depicts Gum’s interpretation of traditional Xhosa coming of age transition ‘Intombi,’ by visualizing her personal journey of womanhood through the tradition’s various stages—childhood, adulthood, and elder-hood.
While traveling in Japan, Tony spoke with MILK.XYZ about the exhibit and how it’s aided in her growth and her understanding of self.
How long had you been working on this series?
“Ode to She” has been a lengthy process, more so in terms of its research and interpreting the stories and teachings bestowed upon me by the elders I continued to visit in the Eastern Cape. As an artist, discovering your work is really about discovering yourself and I had to take enough time to understand myself, my role, and my place as a young African woman in the context of the Xhosa people and the world.
What sort of research did you undertake for this series?
A bulk of the research that went into “Ode to She” involved visits and dialogue with my elders in the Eastern Cape. It was interacting and learning from the Xhosa women, who opened their hearts and homes to me while visiting so I could drink from the source of knowledge directly.
What was one of the most interesting things you learned about yourself or your heritage when conducting research for the series?
It’s easy for today’s generation to forget their heritage and culture, which in turn actually means you are forgetting who you are. Learning what it means to be a Xhosa woman and the dynamic role and power we have was important for me.
If you had to set this series to an album, which album would it be?
There is a variety of beautiful music currently afloat. I think ideally Solange’s ‘A Seat At The Table,’ and perhaps Simphiwe Dana’s ‘Kulture Noir.’ Both albums, produced by powerful women who embrace their heritage and celebrate females, speak volumes of the subject of heritage, culture, gender and identity within modern times.
What does womanhood mean to you?
Womanhood, for me, partly means resilience. It’s understanding spirit and the power one posses to make a difference, to effect change.
How do you select the fashion for your projects, what is it about Xhosa fashions in particular?
Xhosa attire combines form, function and style. What you wear at certain stages of your life reflect many aspects of your role at that time. The vibrancy and tactile nature of the garments add to your story. I generally decide after working through my research how to move forward with piecing the final work, including wardrobe together. I’m fortunate enough to be supported by a team of people who jump in to assist in spaces that I am not a specialist in. So I would have someone assist with the make-up and the styling, for example.
What made you start capturing yourself in your work? Why is this important to you?
My work has always been about self-discovery and self-expression. It made sense that I be the subject of my own work. Also, my work is a constant conversation that I would like to believe I have with the world when you view my artwork.
What are you currently working on?
With “Ode to She” currently on exhibit at the Christopher Moller Art Gallery in Cape Town until beginning November, it’s important for me to now continue this dialogue of us finding our own She within us. The time is now to engage, interact and discover people’s opinions of my work and what it means to and for them. This letter, song, poem that I have created is not for me alone; it’s for all of us to share.
“Ode to She” is on display at Christopher Moller Art Gallery in Cape Town until November 3.
Images courtesy of Tony Gum
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