OPINION: Other Images
They are arresting images. The kind that stop you in your tracks, and the kind that force you to return to them. You look again and start to make the associations, yet you're struck by the sense that what you are seeing is punctuated by difference. The images appear simple, but are out of the comfortable zones of association and easy recognition. These are challenging aesthetics.
There is something incredibly subversive about Tony Gum's 'Black Coca-Cola' series: a series of retro-inspired mock-print ads, where she imagines herself as a 1960s African woman who is a 'Black Coca-Cola Lady'.
The photographer, visual artist and creative constructs images that express a range of associations. She is pictured with a bottle of Coca-Cola strapped to her back, like a baby, with a crate of Coca-Cola on her head, red-lipped and head wrapped, and with all of the images challenging what is familiar. She riffs on the past, creating a layered, evocative picture series that is equally comfortable in our present aesthetic and visible across Africa's streets.
You can read the surface of these images, or delve beneath. These can be cool pictures, or subversive statements. Such is the nature of art and its deeply personal resonances.
In the spirit of the latter, the idea of subversion, Tony Gum's work has great personal resonances with the issue of recognition and representation. Last week, the Oscar nominations were released amid controversy, as no black actor was nominated for an award. Critics highlighted the fact that the film Selma, a historical drama documenting Martin Luther King Junior's struggle to secure the black vote in the south, and one that has been a favourite in awards season, was only nominated for Best Picture and Best Song. Much anger has emerged - with the recycling of familiar debates over "talent", race and representation in Hollywood and the academy itself, and it has provoked wider discussions of multilayered issues at play.
One of these issues speaks to the dynamics of seeing ourselves reflected, in full colour, in all contexts - but most particularly in mainstream society and popular culture. What is striking about Gum's images is the narrative fantasy at play in this reflecting, and the kind of agency that makes you want to revel in the artistic direction and vision. But that also invites a deeply personal reading of images.
On a personal level, the images speak to the creation of a self that is fully realised on her own terms and that resonates with multiple texts. Scholar Edward Said's Orientalism is one of the most important postcolonial texts, and it speaks about the creation of the colonised as an 'Other' who is not able to self-define and self-actualise. This Other will always see him or herself reflected as the antithesis of the coloniser, and locked in 'crude, essentialised caricatures'.
Beyond the work in question, there is a need for more images in the popular realm that subverts this binary logic and dichotomies and are is framed by a one-dimensional assertion of the African self that is defined narrowly. Gum's images seem to speak a lived experience, while simultaneously allowing multiple readings and signifiers. But they are also incredibly welcome at a time when issues of recognition and representation continue to dominate our headlines and our headspaces. They stand as a simple affirmation of existence. In a Walt Whitman-esque manner, they are a song of our selves.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler