Tony Gum, Milked in Africa @Fotografiska

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 photographic works, framed in white/brown wood and unmatted, and hung against white/red walls (some with a green stripe) in a series of rooms on the third floor of the museum.

The following works are included in the exhibition:

  • 4 c-prints, 2015
  • 16 c-prints, 2016, 2018, 2021
  • 1 set of 4 c-prints, 2021
  • 1 installation of stainless steel refrigerator with artist designed milk cartons
  • 1 installation of rotating conveyor belt with 10 glass enclosures covering shrink wrapped cheese
  • 1 video

(Installation and still shots below.)

Comments/Context: Tony Gum’s staged self-portraits have a splash of youthful swagger that we’re starting to see more often in contemporary African portraiture. In her own search for identity, she has channelled the aspirational stylishness and cool of Malick Sidibé’s late 1960s party pictures and then leveraged that vibe into more contemporary set-ups, where she can actively play with the trappings of colonialism, pop culture, and consumerism and wrestle with the tropes that often define the visual representation of Black women. Her vibrant results follow along from some of Zanele Mulholi’s recent self-portraiture efforts, but with a different kind of salty brashness and winking confrontation.

Gum first started to gain broader art world attention with her 2015 series “Black Coca-Cola”, which forms a kind of short introductory prelude to this exhibit. In it, she stages herself in the kinds of pictures we might find in cola advertisements, playing tongue-in-cheek female roles. In various images, she’s alternately a mother (with the 2-liter cola bottle swaddled on her back like a baby), a woman carrying a case of bottles on her head, a stately Xhosa lady in traditional dress, and a playful Playboy bunny-style waitress, and in each case, the photograph is close enough to what we’ve become used to seeing that her jaunty satire bites with effectiveness.

Gum began her newest project “Milked in Africa” back in 2016 and has continued to evolve its meanings and motifs over the subsequent years. In the self portraits from 2016 and 2018, Gum has covered herself in green body paint, and staged herself in red-lipsticked poses that allude to women as a source of milk production. Green might typically be a color used to represent the land, and with the idea of being “milked”, Gum is certainly playing with associations of exploitation and colonialism; in some of the early images, Gum has added a layer of yellow to her breasts, perhaps to signify them as producers of golden wealth. Milk symbology is then added to the self-portraits in many visual forms: in milky white paint dripping from Gum’s gripped/covered breast; in the breast feeding of a white baby (a plastic doll) by Gum wearing a white Madonna-like headscarf; and in a glass jar of milk carried on Gum’s head (half full or half empty, depending on your perspective). A year or two later, the images continue to explore these themes, with Gum holding a Bible half covered by milky white paint; Gum with a dripping milk bucket covering her head; and Gum back again with the white headscarf, this time posed with a taxidermied South African springbok. In each of these setups, female fertility and richness is being exploited, and Gum has consistently posed herself in traditional ways that signal a resigned sense of passivity.

This submissive mood changes dramatically in Gum’s most recent images, where the green-covered artist now takes on personas that revel in newfound commercial success. The simple milk motifs, white paint, and yellowed breasts have been replaced with more aggressive hop-hop styling, with Gum sporting a tall sequined hat with a white Adidas-like triple stripe, grills on her teeth (that spell out MILK), and plenty of ostentatious bling (some of it with Gum’s own stylized M logo) on her wrists and fingers. In these pictures, she poses with bags of milk, blocks of orange cheese, and an ice cream cone, seemingly enjoying the products of her success. In one image, she holds a cheese block up to her ear like a smartphone, her lip raised with irreverent confidence; in two others, she smashes her face against glass (or the flat bed of scanner), pulling her face and the bling on her hands into playfully distorted grotesqueries.

The idea of mass production is then developed further by Gum in additional photographs and installations. One line of thinking experiments with the everyday motif of the milk carton, with a full commercial sized refrigerator placed in the gallery, its open door revealing shelves and shelves of customized milk boxes. Two photographs show us the opposing sides of the carton. The first plays with the missing person listings that are found on some milk cartons, with Gum offering her own face and the caption “Have You Seen This African?”, followed by a fictitious contact number at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Resources. The other offers a not-so-typical listing of nutrition facts, where the text has been replaced with a short irony-laden message teasing out the dual MIA messaging (milked in Africa/missing in action). All of these boxes and the surrounding gallery spaces have a coordinated green-and-white graphic design theme, making the faux commercialization all the more convincing.

Through doorways hung with transparent plastic yellow flap curtains, a second installation fills the central gallery space. It recreates the conveyor of a cheese factory, with the belt turned into a never-ending oval, where shrink-wrapped blocks of cheese sit under glass and slowly rotate around the room. A close look at the cheese blocks finds that some of them are starting to leak greasy yellow goo and decay, the rot taking more noticeable shape as a blackened block in one of the nearby photographs. A second image depicts a shrink wrapped cheese block covered in indecipherable date stamps, the “freshness” of the whole enterprise called into question.

Finding the right artistic mood between impertinence and outright mockery, or between indifferent disdain and unfiltered contempt isn’t always easy, but Gum seems to have a natural sense of where an incisive strike will hit best. The strongest of her images, from both her projects, offer playful ridicule with a seam of deeper, more urgent scorn underneath, asking us to think again about the seemingly simple visual joke or reference she has offered us. In this way, her work is quietly deceptive, luring us in with parody that goes on to deliver a much more potent and enduring punch.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. Gum is represented by Christopher Moller Gallery in Cape Town (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2022 by 5 Continents Editions (here) and Magnin-A Gallery. Hardcover (23.5 x 31 cm), 86 pages, with 45 color illustrations. Includes essays by Renée ... Read on.

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