Gum's self-aware, playful and parodic works are seducing the African art world - watch out New York, writes Ashraf Jamal
The Cape Town Art Fair has come and gone, but the art buzz lingers on. The art world has never been bigger or more inclusive. More people go to museums, buy books on art, stay abreast of its scandals, and, more generally, simply enjoy art.
Running concurrently with the Cape Town Art Fair we've had That Art Fair. Peddling art "fresh out of Africa", That Art Fair is a more continental brand, designed to reconfigure the bigger picture - what Africa is, or what it imagines itself to be in the greater world.
Art out of Africa, or art from the African diaspora, is hot these days. Every dealership, museum and cultural centre wants a piece of Africa . Decorative yet potent, the best African artworks now operate as global change agents, redefining our humanity by offering us a different optic through which to interpret it.
It is in this greater context that Tony Gum has exploded onto the scene. In less than a year she has come to define an empowering, generative and playful vision of the continent.
Not everyone is a fan, however. As one anonymous critic remarked, Gum's work is "Elle Décor hip, pretty and nice to look at, but not dangerously challenging".
My question is whether art always needs to be "dangerously challenging". South African art has largely been about being contrary, aggressive, ideological and reactive. Millennials, however, are not necessarily buying into our blame-and-shame game. Rather, they seek experiences or projections that more optimistically rewire, defy, forget, or overturn our pathological optic.
This is where Gum comes in. Her art is deceptively glib, easy on the eye, and, all importantly, it offers saccharine reincarnations and spoofs of the past. Her take on Frida Kahlo, for instance, is not one that returns us to the pain at the core of that artist's life, but one which transfigures and exorcises that pain - and by extension the pain of Africa - the better to inoculate us and spirit us forward.
Similarly, by taking on Vladimir Tretchikoff, Gum reboots one of the most iconographic global images, The Green Lady/The Chinese Girl.
A photograph doesn't translate experience, it quotes from it, John Berger said. This is precisely what Gum does. Her works are self-aware, parodic, playful, and irresistibly lite. Indeed, after the British Marxist critic, Julian Stallabrass, one could define Gum's photographs as High Art Lite. While Stallabrass never intended this description as kindly, it is becoming bracingly clear that all around the world what is most desired is not art that is "dangerously challenging" but art mashed up with design which delights in its own frivolous and ephemeral abasement.
Gum was the poster girl for the Johannesburg Art Fair, is Cape Town's "it" girl according to Vogue, and has been short-listed for the jury prize awarded "to an artist of distinction featured in a solo exhibition" at PULSE in New York this month. Asked how she feels about success, she tells me that she "doesn't really know how to feel".
"I know I'm expected to feel overjoyed, but I'm just merely doing it for the execution and not really the feedback."
I'm not sure whether to believe her; Gum after all has long been an Instagrammarian, powered by the engine-room of "likes".
Contrasting social media with the art world, Gum points out that the latter is "a very strict world, very traditional, and people like myself are the sore thumbs sticking out". Whether Gum can truly be described as a "sore thumb" is also debatable, but then she has irked many precisely because of the seeming effortlessness and seductiveness of her photographs.
Thanks to Adidas and Robbie Naidoo of the Design Indaba, Gum has been sponsored to fly to New York where she will be opening her first solo show through PULSE and Cape Town's Christopher Moller Gallery.
While there she intends visiting the Museum of Modern Art, with every hope that one day soon she'll be gracing its walls.