I would soon figure out what Tony’s antidepressant is: a rebellion against boredom. That is why, she tells me, she gave up fashion blogging in spite of the fact that the glossy mags were pining over her.
INTERVIEW: SANDISO NGUBANE
PHOTOGRAPHY: HAYDEN PHIPPS
“I don’t think I should be here in the company of people that have worked so hard to be where they are.”
“I still don’t think of myself as an artist, but rather as an artist in learning.”
These are just a few of the things that came up when I spoke to Zipho Gum about her work. At the 2015 Jo’burg Art Fair, she became the poster-girl of the whole Fair, sharing the limelight with much more established artists like Mohau Modisakeng. Unlike most artists, however, Zipho is no Michaelis alumni, but she is Tony Gum – the blogger and Instagrammer whose Black Coca-Cola series is without doubt engraved in the memory of all who have seen it.
Made as an Instagram post, her first image in the Black Coca-Cola series, titled “Pin-Up Lady”, saw Gum assuming the character, a black woman with a crate of Coke bottles perched on her head in the way black African women, across the continent, are known for being able to expertly balance heavy loads on their heads. The red crate, her white-and-red stripe top, Tony’s own brown skin and nicely kempt fringe falling over her forehead and close to her thick eyebrows, stand out in stark contrast against a backdrop of green leaves. The composition is striking indeed.
“I was bored at home and I was, like, maybe I should just update my blog because I hadn’t done that in a long time,” she says. “I didn’t even have any coke, there was just a crate full of bottles at home, so I mixed up a whole lot of things, dark things, like coffee and Lazenby sauce to pass as coke.”
I’m enthused by the child-like playfulness in her crafting of that image, which caught the attention of many, garnering record likes on her Instagram page and rampant sharing of her blog post, where she wrote:
“Figured Coca-Cola needed a black woman in their presence. This is evidently not a racist remark – just a proud one. A woman derived from the 60s, as well as an African woman (which explains why the crate is on my head) merged into one to create an image of a Black Coca-Cola lady. An image relatable to every Mom, Pink and Larry.”
This was in 2014, but her journey from blogger/instagrammer to performance artist – and a very well received one at that – begins in earnest at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, where Tony set out to solicit some advice from her film theory lecturer, the renowned cultural analyst Dr. Ashraf Jamal. “When I saw the Coca-Cola series, I was immediately struck by the cool wit, the fresh spoof on commodification, the interplay of tradition and the contemporary,” Ashraf says of his student’s work. “It’s a wildly effortless take on the now! Here was a young artist – a young black woman – who has arrived at just the right time, to turn around the vision of Africa in the greater world. An artist who – contra the history of pain and underdevelopment – embodied ‘high art lite’.”
Ashraf introduced Tony to gallerist Christopher Moller, and the two of them became responsible for taking her to the Jo’burg Art Fair. “She was a rapid fire explosion onto the art world, and we like it like that! Her composition is precise, direct, in your face, with no tricks. You get what you see, and what you see seems so straightforward until you think about it and realise that you are in the midst of a very different post-postmodern afro-global creature.”
I’d personally first met Tony in cyberspace, and she’s obviously now light years away from the days of being cast as the South African Tavi Gevinson, which is what we tend to do as South Africans – it’s not good enough unless it can be given some Western comparison. Meeting her at Clarke’s gallery on a Monday morning to chat about her work, her quiet confidence is unconcealed behind her generous smile and unpretentious, slightly shy, but unflinchingly wise gaze. I’m reminded of Chanel Oberlin, the mean-girls type character on the TV show Scream Queens, and her question to her nemesis, Grace Gardiner: “You’re so confident without being mean. What antidepressant are you on?”
I would soon figure out what Tony’s antidepressant is: a rebellion against boredom. That is why, she tells me, she gave up fashion blogging in spite of the fact that the glossy mags were pining over her. That is why, after discovering Steve Biko, along with a few of her friends, she started a blog and even shot an amateur doccie. “It was cute, but short-lived,” she says of the blog, which they named The Conformist.
Humble would be too boring an attempt at describing Miss Gum, but I can’t think of any other adjective in a world filled with overnight social media stars, who, at the drop of a hat, are often referred to as ‘icons’. Many of them allow the hype helium to infiltrate their heads, lifting their feet off the ground. My conclusion is that this young lady’s feet still remain firmly on the ground. At least for now.
I ask her what it felt like being called “probably the coolest girl in Cape Town” by British Vogue. “I don’t think they know a lot of Capetonians. Vogue is great but that’s not the be-all and end-all of everything. Coolest person? There are so many cool people in Cape Town, and South Africa, but I was grateful that they had me in Vogue.”
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