‘Hegel, don’t bother me’. By Ashraf Jamal
In less than a year the South African instagrammarian-turned-artist has exploded onto the world stage. Poster girl for the Johannesburg Art Fair, Cape Town’s ‘it’ girl according to Vogue, shortlisted for the jury prize awarded ‘to an artist of distinction featured in a solo exhibition’ at Pulse in New York, Gum has indisputably captured the popular imagination. Did I mention that she has just turned 20? Youth and beauty is of course global capital’s elixir. But while the German photographer Juergen Teller is famous for launching the career of Kate Moss and widely regarded as the A-lister of grunge and a certain dark romanticism, the self-portraitist Tony Gum has done it all on her own, creating pictures that carry none of the ‘dirty realism’ which we misguidedly still deem cool. The magnetic appeal of Gum’s work lies in its deceptively beguiling innocence, for here is an artist who, like any strong designer, knows the palpable power of a rigged simplicity. What you see is what you get, but it’s what you don’t see and instinctively intuit which gives the work its kick. Best known for her afro-take on Coca Cola – a series which went viral and thrust her into the limelight – Gum has at the get-go had her eye coolly focused upon the interface of design-and-art. ‘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 in an interview with Sandiso Ngubane in Lake. Then comes the crunch. ‘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 … dark things, like coffee and Lazenby sauce to pass as coke’. Tony Gum is all about mixing up dark things and making them lite. Her first self-portraits as Frida Kahlo sum up this mix because we find the iconic Mexican artist rebooted as a mad-hatter replete with an inked-in crow-like unibrow, glittering goggle eyes, and a riveting smile. In one fell swoop Gum shifted Kahlo from tragic icon into an irresistible comic actress. What makes this move smart is that in shifting the pain Gum was also rewiring ‘dark things’. It is the refreshingly positive spin on the image-repertoire typically associated with the black body which gives all of Gum’s portraits their sucker punch, whether it be her afro-take on Coca Cola in which she remakes herself as the traditional Xhosa mama-as-bombshell, or bunny-girl, or girl-next -door bewigged with a crate of coke filled with Lazenby sauce; or when she revisits 60s style as a black Twiggy; or as ‘Free da Gum’ with the South African national flower – the protea - in her hair; or as Vladimir Tretchikoff’s blue-green lady, one of the most famous and most widely distributed poster-images on earth. Even Warhol couldn’t top Tretchikoff’s populist marketing genius. That Guy Richie chose to puncture a scene in RocknRolla with an eye-full of this iconic painting says everything about the perennial coolness of this emphatically low-brow work. As for Gum’s take on Tretchikoff – it’s her best spin yet.
Gum is fast becoming a master-purveyor of high-end trash art, or as the British art critic Julian Stallabrass dismissively phased it, ‘High Art Lite’. That Stallabrass’s critique directed at the YBAs (the 1990s Young British Artists) back-fired has everything to do with the fact that no Marxist tract can detract us from the bling, the blithe zest, and the dizzying crassness of art now. But then again, if Tony Gum were merely tapping into a populist zeitgeist it wouldn’t have the complex high-end appeal it has; an appeal which has everything to do with the artist’s refusal to reductively mainline identity politics, the Pavlov reflex which the design guru and ‘seer of Rotterdam’, Rem Koolhaas, provocatively defined as junk food for the dispossessed.What gives Tony Gum’s image-repertoire its power is its ability to make light of a very dark situation. She is not blind to the fact that black lives matter, but neither is she prepared to return to the pathological optic which fuels a historical grievance founded on racial and sexual inequality. Rather, Gum ups the ante, shifts the temperament, turns the tragic into spoof, the better to inoculate bigotry and pc-speak with a seductive and life-affirming ease of being in this world.
If African art – art from Africa – possesses a resounding global appeal these days it is not just because it is one of the last market outposts but because, at its best, it has the ability to help us to recover our global ethical humanity. Africa would give the world a ‘human face’ Steve Bantu Biko prophesied. And Tony Gum is all about riffing on this human face. Given an escalating global racial conflict, conveying this human face is an uphill, some might say impossible, struggle. The South African Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee got it wrong when he declared that ‘South Africa was as irresistible as it was unlovable’ because as Gum’s work shows us South Africa, and Africa at large, is as resistible as it is lovable precisely when we counter a pathological history the better to positively embrace the continent. This is what every free-thinking optimist anywhere in the world now realises. The notorious German genius, G.W.F Hegel, also got it horribly wrong when a century earlier he declared that ‘the Negro as already observed exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state’, that ‘there is nothing harmonious … to be found in this type of character’, that ‘this continent is no historical part of the world’, that ‘at this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again’. Tony Gum’s riff on this toxic cant might be ‘Hey girl, don’t bother me’, because when we stand in front of her photographs we experience a very different spin on self-realisation, worldliness, desire because what makes Gum’s photographs so special is just how beautifully out-of-synch they are with the dull and cruel banality of global imperial history.
South African, based in Cape Town