Anthea Pokroy collects gingers. When I hear that, I imagine her standing up at a support meeting, guiltily surveying the room and then confessing. I also am mildly reassured. Though not a collector, I am a ginger and find myself drawn to other redheads and unusually interested in characters like Homeland’s Sergeant Nicholas Brody, portrayed by Damian Lewis, Desperate Housewives’s Bree van de Kamp, News International’s Rebekah Brooks and now Pokroy.
It appears that once you start, there is no holding back. In just over two years Pokroy collected more than 500 gingers, photographing each one of them.
Her solo exhibition I Collect Gingers opened this week, showcasing a series of portraits presented in 10 “hair groups” — a spectrum that ranges from strawberry blonde to dark auburn, cross-referenced against skin and eye colour. The groups constitute a racial classification invented by the artist, with subclassifications.
“It’s human nature to create hierarchies, but I haven’t suggested who is the low[est] — I wanted the viewer to impose that,” says Pokroy.
What started off as an exploration of ginger identity has become a playful but powerful musing on the implications of a ginger utopia, from identity cards to meetings, manifestos and goals to increase the ginger population.
A file fat with consent forms from gingers lies on Pokroy’s desk at her Newtown, Johannesburg, studio. It contains signatures and hair samples collected from each subject — probably an unrivalled ginger DNA database.
“I didn’t set out to do this,” she says, giggling, and adds: “In fact, I don’t think I knew what I was doing at the start. But an artist has to have conviction and be committed to an idea.”
The project started with a group portrait of gingers. “I graduated in 2007 and went to London, where I found it very difficult to make art. When I came back in 2010, that’s all I wanted to do.”
Marked by difference
Shooting gingers was initially a way of exploring her own identity. “I always wanted to photograph them; in a way it was the idea of a self-portrait.” Pokroy also researched the portrayal of gingers in art and literature, compiling a long list of flame-haired luminaries — including the biblical King David, Elizabeth I, Malcolm X and Vincent van Gogh.
“I wasn’t the first person to think about using gingers,” she says. “Even the creators of TV series South Park had a ginger episode.”
Anyone who has grown up ginger knows what it is to be marked by difference — from mild insults to bullying, references to orang-utans, carrot tops and Duracell batteries. My own ginger experience was nowhere as dramatic as that of many others. I recall a few insults and more frequent remarks made by great-aunts about my childhood bad temper — “It’s the red hair,” they would say and roll their eyes.
But I also remember my grandmother spending an entire evening putting rags in my hair to create a mass of ringlets that would allow me to attend a fancy-dress day at school as Shirley Temple.
And then there was the time I was stopped in a shopping centre when I was nine and handed a small oil painting of a seascape by an artist who was displaying her work. “It’s because of her hair,” she told my father. At that stage, it was flaming-red curls.
There’s a strand running through the ginger experience that Pokroy speaks of. She says there are “consistent similarities”, a notion whose universality she confirmed when she attended Redhead Day in the Netherlands in 2012 and one she has been determined to explore.
Documenting the collective experience — good and bad — raised the question for her of how people are grouped together. “What defines a community, a nation, a race? Is it experience, lineage, features? Hair colour seems such a random basis on which to discriminate, as ridiculous as skin colour. It’s all genetic and pigment based.”
This line of inquiry led Pokroy to ask the cheeky question of whether gingers could then be defined as a race. Her research led her to the most dangerous aspects of racial classification — to eugenics and notions of racial purity so beloved of the Nazis and apartheid’s grand wizards. As a Jewish South African, it resonated deeply with her.
“I looked at how people were classified based on superficial features — the ridiculous pencil test or the nose-measuring test used in Nazi Germany in the search and desire for racial purity.”
The exhibition dwells on ambiguity. The headshots are against a white background, each as neutral as a passport photo but also possessing an otherworldly quality. They give no hint of any specific time or location. In Pokroy’s words, the intention is to cause the viewer to question whether the grids of portraits belong to an “imagined history, suggested future or forthcoming revolution”, perhaps even a ginger super-race.
Her work was strongly influenced by ideas relating to museum archives and display. The rows of identically shot portraits bring to mind covers of Time magazine in times of tragedy, on which each victim is given a last resting place in print, a final farewell headshot or a rogues’ gallery of perpetrators, the kind you see when the police release their most-wanted lists. Look closer at each photo, however, and that impression is disassembled. There is a quality of lightness to the photographs and some really cute ginger babies.
“The experience I want the viewer to have is to stop for a second and second-guess whether what they are viewing is real or not,” the photographer says.
Pokroy’s project has at times skipped the bounds of art and fiction, with some observers seizing on the content as a mark of ginger pride and a real call to arms. “I can see how it could instil ginger pride, but it’s not solely about that,” she says.
Art is not about literality. This exhibition is intended to provoke. It plays with the idea of racial classification, putting the artist in the powerful position of being the creator.
Gingers make up two percent of the world’s population and are the result of a recessive gene. This led to a now-dispelled rumour that an Oxford University study had predicted the ginger population would die out by 2060.
Says Pokroy: “By collecting, I am subverting the notion of weakness and of minority. By putting as many together [as possible], there’s the impression that they are actually more abundant. I am trying to make them more powerful than they really are and give them a status they don’t really have.”
In a world in which national boundaries no longer easily contain our identities and the lack of digital borders suggests possibilities for new communities that were previously never imaginable, a ginger world is an amusing prospect.
Her project to collect gingers has gathered viral intensity and has been given impetus by digital culture, with interest driven by social media, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, filmed flash mobs and video interviews. Pokroy even used a crowdfunding site to pay in part for the publication of the exhibition catalogue.
Her subjects now contact her. “Everyone has a token ginger friend,” says Pokroy, laughing, “and people hearing about the project would immediately say: ‘I know a ginger’.” The network effect has ensured a growing waiting list of gingers who want to be photographed.
I ask whether the exhibition feels like the culmination of effort or a step on a longer path. “The idea of growing it into thousands is very exciting for me. But I am nervous about pigeonholing myself as the ‘ginger artist’. After this I am definitely working on a different project … so many different possibilities.”
I Collect Gingers is at the Speke Photographic gallery at Circa on Jellicoe, Rosebank, until March 2