The Coolest Kid in Cape Town's exhibit at NYC's Fotografiska illustrates that nothing beats the original.
South African fine artist Tony Gum has milked the international art scene for years — and now she's decided to let them know their place. The multifaceted award-winning creative recently completed her Milked In Africa residency at New York City's Fotografiska museum, her cheesiest project yet. In 'MIA', Gum uses dairy products to illustrate the fact that what is replicated cannot outshine the original.
The Cape Town native, Gum, began her career by snapping colorful portraits on her iPhone, and has continued to create around the image she trusts the most in the world: her own. In Milked In Africa, Gum's image manifests as the Green Subject, the ultimate Urbanite, and city girl in the process of returning to self. Our understanding is this; the Green Subject's image has been "milked" -- reproduced, processed, and packaged into so many versions that differ from the original. Throughout the exhibit, we're introduced to the various ways that the Green Slay Mama is forced to engage with and attempt to return to the milk extracted from her. But, as the dairy symbolism shows us, what is processed and trendy will always have a shelf-life, while the original has no choice but to be.
We spoke with the artist about her latest exhibition, keeping it in the family, and the importance of community.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
"Milk of Human Kindness" (2018) by Tony Gum Image courtesy of KarlaOtto
How did Tony the artist come to be?
I was born into it. I came to be as a result of crisis as I entered the teenage phase – I made a residential move, and that was pretty jarring for me. I needed to find a place for playing, even though my environment was not necessarily encouraging of that. The internet came into the mix and my world and horizon completely expanded. I started creating with a younger cousin, and our playtime turned into work. The level of dedication to create things and put the hours into whatever I was interested in sparked the beginning of my career.
I also come from a family that is pretty artistic; it's filled with siblings who went to Korea to study history and fine art, and my mother had dreams of becoming a fine artist, but the political times insisted on her being a nurse.
So, it was a matter of universal alignment?
Yes, you really can’t run away from your purpose. Another sign of the stars aligning was my trajectory into fine art after I had done Black Coca-Cola on my blog – it was a commercial idea that I would’ve loved to pitch to Coca-Cola. I didn’t know that my lecturer at the time was an art critic, and I initially wanted him to assist in drawing up a proposal but, instead, he introduced me to a gallerist, and that’s where I really entered the art world.
A lot of your art is centered on your identity as a Xhosa woman and around African culture. How do you feel translating that to international audiences?
That's not my priority – the translation would make me palatable. All I know is that I am growing up in an urban world and you'll find in the work that there will be a lot of parallels that you can pull from it and commonalities that we draw from. We're all in the age of the internet so our differences are not going to be that far from each other. We're going to connect and meet in the middle somewhere or another.
This work, specifically, pivots to a space where the subject herself is really Westernized, and she takes on a more urban approach to things. And that's also a reflection of where I am in my state of being, as a Xhosa woman. That even my reach of culture and tradition is being diluted because I'm a city dweller. It's also an extension of wanting to pay an ode to history and culture, it’s my personal endeavor in connecting with who I am and my identity. So, balancing both worlds is quite important to me because that is how I identify.
Image from Tony Gum's 'Milked In Africa' exhibition at NYC's Fotografiska
The internet has definitely opened us up to the fact that we really are a global village. It’s all about community.
Exactly, it's just about community. And you'll find that community exists in ambiguous spaces too, right? It’s not black or white, even in the retelling of our own history and culture.
Certain nuances in the work will not be strictly Xhosa, or African, or if there is a description of such sorts. However, I know that there's this gray space that I exist in and that will be a common ground. Even without translating, it goes without saying that people receive the message – that's when you kind of know that you're speaking from a good place. So, yeah. There's no need for translating what's from the heart.
What would you say are the central themes in your work? The golden thread?
It’s just being a City Girl.
Love that for you.
It’s funny, but it's something that I'm slowly wanting to embrace, strangely enough. Just being an "urbanite." That's what I see from this character in my earlier pieces and in these latest works. She is an “Urban Sweetie” and there's nothing that's changing her perception of things right now.
From my earlier work to now, you can tell there's a clear distinction of where she's at – mindset, body language, dress. But now within the latest works, they're not existing in the most organic state. So what was once created from her in her original state is now processed.
And that’s what you’re communicating in 'Milked In Africa'?
Yes, and maybe we can go as far as saying that it's been homogenized and now exists in different forms of dairy products. Whether that's the cheese, ice cream, or the milk bag itself – they all have a shelf life. It means that it's been processed and made uniform down to a point where it reaches its expiration date. We may not know when the expiring date is, but with this body of work particularly I didn't want to explore a silver lining. Whereas in the earlier pieces, there always was. In my 2017 piece “Milk of Human Kindness”, you see the figure pouring the bucket of milk over herself – a sort of return to self, the essence of the minerals. Or, just the value that the African has back to its roots and so on. Whereas this work offers no solution.
Personally, I had gone through my own things, and looking for a solution robbed me of my experience of just living life in the present moment. So, I couldn't even provide a solution for myself, and I really can't provide a solution for a body of work. And trust me, I can't provide a solution for other people.
And funny enough, the silver lining within the work found me more than I was looking for it.
"Half Full, Half Empty" (2016) by Tony GumImage courtesy of KarlaOtto
Who is ‘Milked in Africa’ for?
I'm not really speaking to the other, I'm talking to a very specific audience. It's work that is supposed to be introspective. Even the blurb that is attached to the milk box is supposed to speak to you, the last line says “being MIA has little to do with this show", with this milk. It has more to do with you. The person who's reading this, the person who's experiencing this, and the person who's going through their own internal turbulence. You may have not come to the surface with them, or maybe haven't had the time to confront them just yet. But, you're going to have to eventually go through this, it's going to happen without you being prepared for it, right?
The figure doesn't exist at the end of the exhibition, it's just products. And even the illustration itself is trying to stop the motion of what is happening to her. But it's supposed to be followed up with information that speaks to this green figure being invited on a TV show reviewing the new sensation, which is this milk that has arrived in this new country. She's one of the guests on the show who will be tasting and reviewing this milk. So, there are a lot of strange surrealist moments that she's experiencing within this work, even photographically, and that I'd like to explore more. Her crisis point in the movie is longer than usual, and I want it to last. I want it to stretch out a little more. Perhaps the good times are not coming... maybe the bad times just last a little longer than they should.
You’re both the art and the artist, but I love that you describe the green figure as "she,” – it's a separate being from you. What is that relationship like?
I purposefully separate myself from my work because that would mean I'm in a very volatile conversation because the work emotes a lot of feelings and a lot of real-life experiences. So, it's important and imperative that I separate that. I'm just speaking a narrative that I relate to but don't have to exist in. I have a choice. I am a fully functioning human being and I can close it off.
The last time I took a picture was in 2019 before I took these pictures in 2021. I just didn't feel like doing it. We've literally just gone through a pandemic and life really just was not the best. So I couldn't show up to myself, nevertheless showing up as an artist. So there needs to be a dissonance between, or separation between, the two worlds. Even not using my real name in my workspaces because I need that separation. So it's not me. It's a symbolic experience.
You're just the vessel through which the message is translated.
Absolutely. There you go.
Spilt Milk (2016) by Tony GumImage courtesy of KarlaOtto