JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA —
This is Part One of a five-part series on
visual artists in South Africa
Continue to Parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5
The “Ginger Manifesto” caused shock and amusement when Anthea Pokroy released it in September last year at ‘Redhead Day’ in Breda in The Netherlands.
The document represents the South African visual artist’s satirical plan for people with red hair – often referred to as “gingers” and numbering only two percent of the globe’s population – to “rule the world” as a “superior race.”
Pokroy explained, “The ginger gene is a weak, or recessive, gene and I wanted to subvert this notion of gingers being weak.”
Despite the rise of several red-haired Hollywood stars and models on international catwalks in recent years, Pokroy said gingers around the world – especially children – continue to endure insults and even discrimination, just because of the color of their hair.
“We’re always kind of made to feel ugly and different. There’s a very specific western ideal of what beauty is and being a red-head hasn’t ever really fitted into that,” she commented.
Pokroy’s manifesto is a blueprint that speaks of a “ginger revolution” that would lead to a “ginger utopia.”
Pokroy, who herself boasts a mane of wavy, flame-colored locks, described her experience in Holland as amazing.
“There were over 3,000 redheads from all over the world there. For me it was almost like a little taste of what the ginger utopia would look like,” she said, laughing.
Pokroy said Redhead Day had fascinated her, especially “how this group of people, 3,000 large, just had this instant love and respect for one another – just because they had the same color hair!”
She distributed her manifesto to festival-goers to gauge their responses to it.
“There were a lot of weird looks and a few gasps, because it’s quite prescriptive. But then also people chuckled and laughed. I think the tone of the manifesto has a good balance between being a bit humorous and also a bit sinister,” Pokroy said, adding, “Those reactions really reinforced for me that I was on the right track with the project I was completing at the time.”
That project, called "I collect gingers," premiered in Pokroy’s home city of Johannesburg earlier this year.
It consists of photos of 500 people with red hair, shot by Pokroy over a period of two-and-a-half years. But, it’s much more than that, and critics have described it as one of the most remarkable works of art to have emerged from South Africa in recent years.
Pokroy joked that she “stalked” the first 100 or so redheads that she photographed in towns and cities all over South Africa.
“I was able to go up to just strangers in the street, in doctors’ rooms, in bars – anywhere.… I literally stopped my car a few times while I was driving, because I saw someone [with red hair] walking down the road, and I’d pull over and jump out and give them my ‘ginger card.’ I was quite excessive and extreme about it.”
But as word spread about Pokroy’s unique project, especially across social media platforms, South Africans began “collecting” gingers on her behalf.
“Everyone has a token ginger friend. So they were like, ‘I’ve got this friend or this cousin’ or whatever [who’s got red hair]…’and is willing to be photographed,’” she explained.
Pokroy shot all her subjects in the same way: unsmiling head and shoulder portraits, looking directly at the camera, in white T-shirts against a white background. All the photographs were uncaptioned.
“I wanted to emphasize their uniformity and sameness through their hair color. I wasn’t interested in things like their names and their favorite foods and where they were from,” she told VOA. “The photos are meant to be reminiscent of identity photos, passport photos – even [police] mug shots. It wasn’t my intention to create beautiful portraits that spoke of their individuality, their personalities.”
Although uniformity was her aim, Pokroy did order her images according to different shades of red hair – branding it a “fake hierarchy.”
“The way I see it is there are always levels of hierarchy, even within a single race of people. There are always [attitudes] like, ‘I’m more ginger than you are.’ So even within my ginger utopia, my ginger-only world, there were going to be levels….”
So Pokroy “sub-classified” her gingers.
“In my exhibition I displayed them in different panels – from strawberry blonde to dark auburn. I don’t really blatantly suggest who is at the top of the hierarchy and who is at the bottom.”
She didn’t have to. Her audiences often “projected their own judgments,” said Pokroy, and that added further value and meaning to her work.
“People would go up to the different panels, especially with the bottom and top ends of the range like the strawberry blondes and the dark auburns, and they would be like, ‘This person’s not ginger; they’re blonde!’ Or, ‘This person’s not ginger; they’ve got brown hair!’”
Pokroy recalled someone storming up to her and demanding, “‘Why is this woman in your collection?’ She was so upset! She was so angry that I had included her. [This woman continued] ‘I think she’s fake; I am sure that she’s a fake redhead!’”
Unwittingly, her audiences became participants in her work – for Pokroy’s photo collection was designed to serve a deeper purpose than as a mere collection of images of hundreds of gingers.
Apartheid and the Holocaust
“With 'I collect gingers' I meant to parody and to ridicule and satirize methods of race classification…and to parody people’s attempts throughout history of trying to be better or ‘purer’ than others,” Pokroy explained.
The artist, who’s Jewish, used Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa as reference points in creating her exhibition.
Pokroy referred to apartheid officials’ use of the ‘pencil test’ to determine race.
“The twisted logic behind this was that if they stuck a pencil in someone’s hair and it didn’t fall out then that person must be black,” she explained.
“And during the Holocaust there was a nose-measuring test where if your nose was a certain length then the Nazis said, ‘You must be Jewish.’ These are completely absurd ways to classify people.… I know lots of white boys that would fail the pencil test because they’ve got Afros!”
Pokroy maintained that 'I collect gingers,' in its own absurdity, critiques systems that seek to “pigeonhole” people.
To emphasize her point she also took hair samples from every ginger that she photographed and included them in her exhibition.
“I imagined that the ginger overlords of the ginger utopia would come up with all sorts of ways to ensure that the ginger race remained pure,” she commented. “I also created these identity cards which every ginger in the ginger utopia should have and on it is stuck a piece of [their] hair. And if you are caught and your ginger legitimacy and purity needs to be verified, then DNA testing could be done [on you] through that hair sample.”
Again, her work satirizes Hitler’s attempts to create a “pure” and “master” Aryan white race of people.
The last mocked minority
Pokroy described her choice to use redheads in her work as “extremely purposeful.” It was based on her conviction that “gingers are the last minority that can acceptably be mocked in societies around the world.”
She said "I collect gingers" represented a “commentary on the fact that all other forms of discrimination, like racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism, are becoming increasingly taboo. You’re entering difficult terrain if you mock Jews and black people, for example. But it’s still okay to mock gingers.”
To explain further, Pokroy said, “Imagine I was using something else, like my Jewishness, in this project. Imagine I called it, 'I collect Jews' and then I went and photographed 500 Jewish people and asked people to imagine a ‘Jew utopia.’ I doubt the powers-that-be would ever allow such a work to be exhibited.”
The artist added, “Imagine whatever I am saying [about gingers] and replace it with any other race or any other kind of form of religion. It’s very dark and it’s very sinister and it’s not meant to be fun and light.… In witnessing 'I collect gingers' I want people to realize that. I want them to chuckle at the work and then to become uncomfortable about why they’re chuckling. I want them to have goose bumps.”
She said her focus on people with red hair is “very different, because art and society in general have engaged with discrimination based on sexuality, race, religion, and so on. But hair color? To my knowledge there’s no other form of discrimination that’s targeted something as arbitrary as hair color. So it’s almost like taking quite a lighthearted element of society and using it as a symbol or a placeholder to discuss these very difficult and traumatic histories of discrimination.”
Pokroy said her exhibition asks the question: Is discriminating against someone based on their hair color that different from discriminating against someone because of skin color?
“I mean, skin color is because of genetics and pigmentation – and so is hair color. So I’m critiquing and almost ridiculing racism based on skin color,” she said.
Pokroy said her work has also instilled “ginger pride” among redheads, although that wasn’t one of her objectives.
“In a tongue-in-cheek way I developed this elite group of people,” she said, with a giggle. “And people desired to be part of it; they would say, ‘I want to be part of the ginger collection!’ Even people that weren’t ginger would come up to me and say, ‘But I get a bit of ginger in my beard’ and, ‘My hair looks a bit ginger in this light!’ And people were trying to convince me [that they had red hair] because they wanted to be part of this group of people that in history and in popular culture today have been ostracized.”
Gingers all over the world are now “offering” themselves to Pokroy as subjects.
“People send me emails and they say, ‘Please will you collect me.’ They’re almost objectifying themselves as these valuable things that warrant being collected….” She added, “It’s very interesting, the way that people have understood my linguistic play of objectifying gingers, and the way that they’re going with it and in fact collaborating with it…”
The “overwhelming” international attention Pokroy and her work continue to receive is tempting her to expand her project. “Because of that, the thought of collecting thousands and thousands of gingers is intriguing me,” she said. She grinned mischievously and asked, “Imagine having an archive [containing] every ginger in the world? How amazing would that be?”
Pokroy said she’d need a sponsor to complete such a massive undertaking.
“I guess a logical next step would be to bring large groups of gingers together to photograph them in some way, to move away from documenting them individually.”
Then she said, “I really do feel that I’ve started something big.”
Pokroy emphasized though that she remains wary of becoming known as “The Ginger Artist.”
“I know I have much more to offer than taking photographs of gingers,” she said.
Smiling, Pokroy added, “So I think what I need to be doing is working on this ['I collect gingers'] in the background for probably the rest of my life, but continuing to produce other bodies of work.”