Zipho Gum was 15 and a little bored on an overcast summer’s day when she first lifted a red crate of empty coke bottles on to her head.
It matched her white and red striped top and cherry-painted lips.
Her cousin Sipho, who was 12 then, captured the moment on her mother’s point-and-shoot camera.
Gum’s family had just moved from Langa to Pinelands in Cape Town. She was missing her friends in the township and looking for an alternative means to amuse herself.
She recalls: “So you put the photograph on the internet, and people like it. You take another picture, put it on the internet too, and, oh my word, they like that too!”
And so, self-portraitist Tony Gum was born – Zipho Gum’s flamboyant, creative persona. She’s now 20 and has built up a following worldwide of people who love her stylised online photographs that combine iconic brands, patterns and colours, ranging from the bold to the whimsical.
Black Coca-Cola series by Tony Gum - Christopher Moller Gallery
Milked in Africa by Tony Gum
Free 'Da' Gum Series by Tony Gum
Some of her pictures pay homage to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, showing Gum with flowers in her hair and a unibrow; another has her on a cast iron balcony at the five-star Mount Nelson Hotel, and a few show her playing around with Coke bottles.
She has her own blog and 18 400 followers on Instagram.
City Press interviewed Gum at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town on Friday after she delivered a speech at Design Indaba 2016. Gum’s speech was one of 41 Design Indaba seminars delivered to 2 500 delegates by top creative speakers, including British singer-songwriter Imogen Jennifer Heap of popular band Frou Frou and star architect Christian Benimana from Rwanda, who learnt Mandarin to study at Tongji University in Shanghai.
Born to Winkie, a nurse at the Nompumelelo Special School in Gugulethu, and Frank Gum, a bakery owner, Gum was described as perhaps “the coolest girl in Cape Town” by international style guide Vogue magazine in August.
Now represented by Cape Town’s Christopher Moller Gallery, four of her photographs can still be viewed at the Cape Town Art Fair at the Cape Town International Convention Centre until 4pm today.
In the first week of March, she will exhibit in New York at the Pulse Contemporary Art Fair, where she is one of 15 artists nominated for The Prize – a jury-awarded cash grant for an artist at the fair.
Gum has previously said her sources of inspiration include the work of American film director Wes Anderson – particularly the intricate compositions in his 2014 movie The Grand Budapest Hotel; Russian pop painter Vladimir Tretchikoff; and Senegalese photographer Omar Victor, known for his use of flowers.
As Gum started reading more widely – particularly the works of Steve Biko – her fashion shoots acquired a political edge.
Her pictures elicit questions around gender stereotypes, women’s bodies, pop culture and race.
“As I read about black consciousness, I started to steer away from strictly fashion. I wanted there to be a message,” she told City Press.
“Once I started learning about being conscious, about being proud of being black, I was like: ‘Woah, that’s amazing, that’s what I want to do with my work.’”
Gum is a second-year film and video production student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and some of her recent work relates to the Fees Must Fall protests.
“I support Fees Must Fall 100%. Fighting for education is worth every scream and scratch. I was pleased to see no increase [of tertiary fees], but ultimately the goal is free education,” she says.
Surprisingly petite, Gum is every bit as beautiful in real life.
Creating a striking silhouette in cream embroidered heels, which belong to her mother, a red pencil skirt, which is a hand-me-down from a church friend, and a favourite striped jersey, her smile glowed across the theatre foyer.
Gum is not entirely comfortable with the title “artist”, saying she prefers to think of herself as an “artist in learning”.
She told the Artscape audience: “Personally, I could not accept the title ... I was scared of celebrating myself. I didn’t want to seem self-centred, which is ironic, as I take selfies as my art. This whole thing is a journey and I believe I am an artist in learning.”
Gum matriculated at Pinelands High School and worked at a call centre and in retail before turning to art. She credits her creative family for her own artistic knack.
“My mother used to want to paint, but she became a nurse to earn a living, you know.”
She says she has learnt to plan each photograph carefully, drawing sketches and mulling over the finer details for hours.
Where does she find the resolve to juggle her art, exhibition deadlines and student exams? Gum says US author Spencer Johnson’s self-help book Who Moved My Cheese? helped her to learn self-discipline.