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Multidisciplinary artist Tony Gum is taking her African roots to a global audience

Langa-born multidisciplinary artist Tony Gum’s capturing of everyday Black experiences, womanhood and heritage through photographic storytelling has amassed a global audience.

Tony Gum began blogging and posting on Tumblr about how she navigates her life and pursuits of seeking community, which naturally became integral to her practice.

She proved herself a forward-thinking artist using photography and social media for self-exploration. In 2015, Vogue US dubbed her ‘the coolest girl in Cape Town’ for her meticulously curated Instagram feed of her personal style and artwork.

It’s irrefutable Tony has built a reputation for herself by producing authentic artwork that depicts where she comes from.

Her exhibition, ‘Milked in Africa’, which showcased at the Fotografiska Museum of Photography in New York, indicated thorough inward work.

Tony uses herself as a lens to explore varying contemporary narratives of exploitation and commercialisation and highlights the role of heritage and culture in capturing African art history.

Recently, Tony featured in Origins, a docu-series by the MultiChoice group showcasing the craft, heritage and journeys of African storytellers who are set to reach the pinnacle in their own right.

In an exclusive conversation with Glamour, Tony tells us more about her origins, showcasing in famous photography galleries and what it means to her to be a part of a Showmax documentary.

Glamour: Tell us about yourself and your background.

I grew up in a household of three siblings in Langa, the youngest and the only girl. My father owns a bakery in Gugulethu, and my mother’s a nurse. So, I come from humble beginnings, a cute little pocket of family in which my grandmother was a wonderful feature, as were my extended family.

Your career began on social media and has blossomed. How do you navigate the current oversaturated and competitive online landscape, where artists battle for recognition? How do you ensure you stand out?

Standing out isn’t my priority, so it’s easy for me to navigate the internet. I refer to my humble beginnings and teenage years, alluding to playfulness and the childlike nature when approaching things that I may not have control over, such as new things, new beginnings, or anything I feel is bigger, beyond or daunting. Just being myself really helps with navigating that space, and you really tap into your individuality once you hone into that ideology. You stand out by nature. I don’t know what really makes you stand out. It’s not about performing, as such. It’s really about expressing what you have in the meantime without being afraid. I really want to go back to not being afraid. When you’re a child or teenager, you approach things with this immense confidence and fearlessness, whether with your peers or individually. You really have this reckless way of doing things.

Aside from the recklessness, I really love the bravery that comes with being a child. Also, the world is your oyster, and the essence of discovery is something I really hold onto, and I think perhaps that’s what makes me stand out. I’m not afraid to try new things, whether that’s what I’m known for or not, but I’m not bound to anything or anything that people may understand me to be as this journey of life is really mine to live.

Who inspires your artistic work, and why?

That changes often, but people really inspire me, mainly everyday people living their lives. Whether people from your street, neighbours, church members or schoolmates, they’re all just people doing their own thing and moving in their own realm without focussing on the internet or social media. But when it comes to my work, I enjoy the likes of John Yuyi, an Asian artist who also explores photography within her work but can transition those mediums in different practices, whether through video or sculptural pieces or exploring unconventional ways of figuring out modernity through the wonderful practice of taking pictures. I really love her quirkiness, uniqueness and complete liberation for exploring herself and using other people as her muses.

Tell us about the curatorial process of ‘Milked in Africa’?

I wanted to continue my body of work, which I’d developed from 2016 and the original pieces in 2017 and showcased a more organic state of secretion (having the milk taken out of the mammal). Africa is represented as a female fi gure who can produce a resourceful asset, which is milk. We see this milk in the early works in its natural state, either on the green fi gure [in one of the exhibition’s portraits] or in proximity to it. The works take on a more processed departure. The dairy system is a social commentary on the trajectory of the African, examining the archetypal, contemporary and commercial aspects of milk or the African. I liked the use of milk because it’s a common fluid that most if not all of us have access to. Humans or mammals secrete milk, and many of us have come into contact with it during our infancy or adulthood. It’s a relatable mixture with a lot of symbolism and metaphors, for example, don’t cry over spilt milk or milk someone for something are sayings I can subtly align to weighty matters such as colonialism, consumerism or globalisation. Hence the title ‘Milked in Africa.’

How did it feel to have the opportunity to showcase your artwork at the Fotografi ska Museum of Photography?

I began initiating that relationship in late 2019, hoping to have a show in early 2020; however, a backlog due to this pandemic led to the show exhibiting in 2022. I’m the sort of person that when things of this nature happen usually experiences low-key imposter syndrome. But the gallery kept communicating with me, approaching me with concrete terms. I had to step out of my funk because I needed to prepare work for the exhibition. I combat fear with fear, so I proposed extending my body of work, even though the gallery was looking to showcase my existing pieces – which they agreed to.

MultiChoice and Showmax are leading platforms. How did it feel to be approached to be on a docu-series broadcast by platforms of this magnitude?

During our initial call, MultiChoice asked me a few questions about my upbringing, which wasn’t the approach I expected based on my understanding of its campaign. These series are usually scripted, already designed, with the styling and everything in mind, and you just arrive as the talent. But this campaign was intricate and considered, which warmed my heart. My co-stars and I were invited to Joburg for our first briefing, which exposed me to how Showmax and MultiChoice pay attention to artists’ stories. Imagine meeting the director and art direction team, and they’re willing to share their ideas with you and are open to criticism and constructive editing. I was just, like, this is revolutionary! Our loved ones also got to share the show’s careful handling of our stories as they were involved in the filming process. I achieved everything I wanted to in my career within the short time filming this documentary. It helped me realise it’s possible to achieve anything I set my mind to and that I want to maintain this standard.

What are some of your highlights of being a part of Origins?

Working within my home township, kwaLanga, and within the developmental spaces that are progressing there, such as 16 on Lerotholi, a gallery opened by young Black people and managed by Thulani, who’s from the area. Also, having my older cousin, Mongezi, who I believe is a legendary artist, featured. Then, of course, having the opportunity to shoot with Manthe Ribane for The Plug, and with incredible artists. On top of that, I formed relationships with people behind the scenes of the campaign: Julienne, the stylist, who went on to style me for my trip to New York and the opening of my exhibition. It really was fruitful. It didn’t just live within the confines of the Origins campaign but bled out into my entire world.

From the origins of Langa to breaking into the international scene, what’s next for you?

I’ve been on this journey for a while, so I’m on the right path, attracting the right things at the right time. But there’s order to this chaos. I really know myself, the value I bring and the quality of work I gun for. I’m very specific when it comes to that, so I hope the best and bigger platforms are to come.

What advice would you give emerging multidisciplinary creatives and photographers who want to show at famous galleries?

Be yourself. There’s no secret other than believing in yourself and being authentic. And be consistent, whether in style, method or medium. Just gun for it and don’t be taken by the waves and trends on the internet because they might inform your currency, and you don’t want to model your value on that space entirely. I think it’s also important to spread yourself out and not base your work on a specific social media platform: I’ve used Blogspot, Tumblr and Facebook.

The Origins documentary is available on Showmax, featuring incredible storytellers.

This article was originally published in Glamour’s November 2022 Issue. Grab your digital copy here.

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