Young Artists and the Search for Identity

Different trials define each generation. Here, a Gen-Z writer tries to find those of her own through contemporary art.

Young Artists and the Search for Identity

When I began the research for this article, I wanted to see if there was a common theme in art made by people in their early 20s. I knew that people label art or music movements according to their decade’s events. Space-age pop comes to mind as an example of this; songs like David Bowie’s Space Oddity came out in the same decade that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

But I was immediately put off to find that there are few late Millennial or Generation Z artists highlighted in contemporary art news. I grew up at the cusp of those generations, and I had plenty of peers who were artists. So how could there be so little recognition for them in the fine arts?

I found the answer by seeing where they were publishing their art. A lot of it ends up on sites like Instagram or Tumblr instead of in major exhibitions. They post a combination of sketches, anime-like drawings, and fan art of pop culture characters like Sherlock.

But the problem is that this art didn’t satisfy what I was looking for. I wanted to see how young artists were making waves in famous galleries and museums. I wanted artists who could make history by representing my generation in the fine art business.

Entering art galleries and museums don’t mean the art is superior, but you can imagine that the artist had to jump more hoops to be featured in major publications than to post it to their website. So, I turned my eyes to contemporary artists in magazines like Artsy.

Below, I analyze the work of two young artists under 25 years old. By analyzing their work, I found a common thread that could help us define the next generation of artists.

Tony Gum

Tony Gum was born in Capetown, South Africa, in 1995. People consider her style a combination of maximalism and pop art because she mixes vivid colors with consumerist imagery (like Coca Cola). She has been featured by the Christopher Moller Gallery and in major publications like Vogue. In 2017, she won the Miami Beach Pulse Prize for a collection called Ode to She.

Ode to She is a great primer on Gum’s art. The series reflects on her identity as a Xhosa (a Bantu ethnicity of Southern Africa) woman. Gum poses in photographs that portray her growth to womanhood through the lens of her cultural traditions. In an article by IOL, Gum commented on her work, “... I wanted to reiterate the power and representation of Xhosa women, acknowledging their multifaceted roles, complex experiences of self, family, and society.”

Xhosa Woman – Umfazi by Tony Gum. “Umzafi” means woman. Courtesy of Christopher Moller Gallery.

Gum’s cultural heritage permeates all her work. In other self-portraits, she fashions herself to resemble famous female icons like Twiggy and Frida Kahlo with African twists. Her series, Black Coca Cola, is also a direct intertwining of outside cultures with her representation. Gum comments on her blog, “Figured Coca-Cola needed a black woman in their presence. This is evidently not a racist remark - just a proud one.”

Black Coca-Cola series, 2015. Courtesy of Tony Gum

Another highlight of Gum’s work brings out a personal, even vulnerable side of herself. Her piece, Sweet Saboteur, shows two of her in one portrait. On the right, she’s wiping the left’s tears — the left waves goodbye to the viewer. Most could not guess what this piece is about without context: It was about her abortion.

Gum’s piece is a portrayal of strength. In an interview with The Guardian, she explains that the experience made her stronger. Her peace is loaded with symbolism that sums up to one thesis: It was time to let go.

Tyler Mitchell

Tyler Mitchell is another young artist with a focus on identity. Born in 1995, the Brooklyn-based photographer grew up in Atlanta. In 2018, he became the first African-American to ever shoot a cover for Vogue, working for the September issue that featured Beyoncé. Now, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., has acquired one of his photographs into its permanent collection.

Celebrity photoshoots are not what Mitchell wants to be all about. Instead, he’s searching for a real connection between himself and the subject. What he wants is to present a genuine view of black identity, to get rid of the “thingification” of black people and turn an “honest gaze” to them instead.

He accomplishes this by photographing black people in vulnerable, innocent, and soft imagery. Mitchell had the opportunity to explain some of his pieces to the New York Times in May 2019. Among his work on the subject are Untitled (Topanga, CA I) and All American Family Portrait.

In Untitled (Topanga, CA I), two Senegalese men keep their arms anchored into each sleeve of one suit jacket. One man looks disdainful, and the other looks hopefully at the viewer. As they face opposite directions, they pull the jacket into tension, keeping them in place. Mitchell expressed that he finds power in the image as a portrayal of two men holding each other up.

Untitled (Topanga, CA I ). Courtesy of Tyler Mitchell

All American Family sees another man, a woman, and two babies in the photo. Each parent holds a child in their arms as an American flag stands tall behind them. The photograph was taken on Howard Beach, where race riots occurred in the 80s. Instead of chaos, this picture suggests a feeling of family, safety, and togetherness.

All American Family. Courtesy of Tyler Mitchell.

These all help break the stereotypes of black men as harsh and dangerous characters. He explains in this interview,

“I think, ultimately, I would simply like people to walk away understanding the power of images to rewrite history.”

The Common Thread

Gum and Mitchell’s artwork have a lot in common. They both explore gender; Gum shows what femininity looks like in her culture, and Mitchell challenges what masculinity (specifically in black men) looks like in his. They each connect gender to their race. Together, their work adds up to a common theme: an exploration of one’s identity.

Identity is an influential topic right now. News outlets publish papers critiquing identity politics or activism based on the shared experiences of people from a common race, gender, or faith. Even if these artists didn’t intend to be political, their work fits in the major debates of our decade. Aside from fitting the current political climate, you could also argue that expressing your identity is a fundamental trait of younger adults.

After all, how many people have felt confused in their early 20s? For many, that’s the time when they’re moving from university into the workforce. It’s a major step into adulthood and one that demands they develop who they are and what they want for their future. So, among all the topics that young artists could focus on, perhaps identity is the one that they would all share in common.

As a 21-year old, I have also had an identity crisis. Like Gum and Mitchell, my heritage has inevitably played a part in it as well. My parents immigrated from Cuba to the U.S. when they were very young. When I was born, they had lived in America for long enough that my upbringing was a mixture of both cultures.

But Cuban and American culture don’t agree on everything. For example, many Cubans encourage their children to stay home during college, while Americans like theirs to leave the house. As I grew up, I had to pick which ideas I wanted to live by. I had to reject some of the values that adults defined for me in order to build my identity.

There are plenty of other topics that young artists can tackle in our generation. Publications have commented on how bleak and absurd Millennial humor can be, and how Gen Z’ers want to pick careers they enjoy. Between all the memes and online comments that they post to support these observations, we can thank those who became contemporary artists for giving us a good reputation in fine art.


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