Being ginger, I’ve had to fight my way out of a baying throng of murderous persecutors more times than I’d like to remember. So when I found out that artist Anthea Pokroy’s first solo exhibition was called I collect gingers, I thought I'd finally found someone who understood what it was to be hate crimed because of your hair pigment. So far, Anthea has “collected” over 500 redheads, photographing them bare-shouldered against a neutral background. A sample strand of hair is also collected from the photo subjects at the time of documentation. I don't really understand why, but I can only imagine that Anthea – as someone who wishes to create "a ginger utopia" – only has the most noble of plans re: advancing the cause of the ginger race.
I rang the South African artist to find out more and discuss how modern-day society's treatment of people with red hair compares to the Holocaust and Apartheid. Whaddya know, turns out she’s ginger, too.
Anthea, with some of her "collection"
VICE: Hey Anthea, a/s/l?
Anthea Pokroy: I was born in Johannesburg and studied a BA Fine Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand. As an artist, I work primarily in photography as well as in video, installation and performance.
That's great. So why did you start photographing gingers?
As an artist and photographer, I was always very interested in the beautiful and romantic colour palette of a redhead. Being a ginger, perhaps there was a bit of vanity there too, and a need to explore my own identity. After my first shoot with seven gingers, I started noticing a very obvious, inherent sense of community and collective experience amongs the “otherness” of the gingers.
What kind of questions did that throw up?
What defines a group of people, a race, a nation, a community? Is it genetics, is it a shared experience, physical features, facing similar prejudices? I started doing research into different systems of classification, of inclusion and exclusion. Obvious examples are the systems used in the South African Apartheid and the Holocaust, and the presence of eugenics, and both of their desires and quests for racial purity, with keeping what they thought was a superior race “uncontaminated”.
So the actual gingerness is kind of irrelevant.
I almost feel like the colour red becomes a placeholder for anything else, a distinction between people: it could be white, black, Jewish. It's supposed to be about all the things that can be substituted for anything, things that distinguish and classify people, and things that make people different or the same.
Right. So you could have picked, I don’t know, freckles.
Gingers are the subjects that I have chosen to work with because I am one, and feel that I can speak from within my own “group”. I am not trying to speak for another. So I am taking this group of gingers, essentially taking a group of people that are genetically similar, and playing with the idea of what a world would be like if it was dominated by this single-coloured “race”. I begin to imagine and construct a narrative of a ginger utopia.
What's the deal with the Ginger Manifesto on your blog? Do you really strive for a ginger utopia with a bunch of us forming a master race?
The Ginger Manifesto is a satirical text that seeks to reference past oppressive systems that have sought to create a single-raced “utopia”. There is meant to be an element of humour and ridiculousness in the text, while at the same time making people feel dramatically unsure and uncomfortable.
Where do you find your gingers?
For the first 100 subjects I would literally stalk people in bars, clubs, shops, doctors rooms and on the street. Then the word started to spread – people joined me on my quest and started “collecting” gingers for me. People began to approach me to be a part of this elite collection that I created. I have a waiting list of over 500 people from around SA, and from other parts of the world, who are still waiting to be collected. I managed to grow my national network globally by attending the Redhead Day in the Netherlands in September last year, where I photographed gingers from around the world.
How do you think being a ginger person has informed your understanding of prejudice.
The prejudice that I experienced was mild compared to the stories shared by the people that I have photographed. I was called the usual names of that time, like "carrot top". I always felt ugly because of my different coloured hair and pale skin – Western ideals of beauty mostly lean toward tanned skin and blonde or brown hair. The majority of people that I interviewed were bullied and teased growing up. Many had changed their hair colour at some point in their lives to hide from being a ginger.
What’s the deal with everyone being mean to us, anyway?
I believe that it is, unfortunately, human nature to create difference and to “other”. We’ve gone through really traumatic histories of racism, homophobia and anti-semitism, so those "isms" are now taboo – they aren’t often spoken about or discussed in a comfortable manner. They may be considered hate crimes now.
So we’re just digging deeper into the barrel of ways to be horrible to each other.
We have discriminated on the basis of skin colour, religion, culture and sexual preference. So what's left? Hair colour. Gingers are the only group in the history of the world that have been discriminated on the basis of hair colour. Gingerism is almost the last acceptable form of prejudice. However, hair colour, like skin colour, is a genetic and pigment-based manifestation. Both seem a ridiculous basis to “other” – be it to create superiority or inferiority. Are you worried about the possibility of a ginger genocide?
I am not saying that the prejudice gingers experience can be equated to those histories that have ended in unequal rights, apartheid and even genocide. Again, hair and the colour “red” become placeholders to deal with these real and prevalent notions. Ok, I’m not offended any more. Thanks, Anthea!
Follow Monica on Twitter: @monicaheisey
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