SIMPLY RED: Anthea Pokroy with some of the redheads she photographed for her I Collect Gingers exhibition. Picture: EUGENE GODDARD
SIMPLY RED: Anthea Pokroy with some of the redheads she photographed for her I Collect Gingers exhibition. Picture: EUGENE GODDARD

FINE arts photographer Anthea Pokroy, from tip to toe a proud redhead with near-matching nail varnish and copper-coloured wristwatch, got the fever in 2010. It came as a panacea, gripping her after a noncreative spell in London left her feeling lacklustre.

Aching for some inspiration, she turned to her journals and found that "one theme kept on popping up", as if her "visual diaries" tried to tell her something by reflecting her own fiery visage back at her.

Reignited by the mythical desire that an overabundance of the reddish pigment, phaeomelanin, is said to cause in people, she set about compulsively collecting portraits of her own kind: "gingers".

The result, about two-and-a-half years and 500 pictures later, is I Collect Gingers, her latest exhibition.

As with its subject matter (red-headed people) it is no conventional exhibition, and prompts one to stop and stare as if to say: "Look, that’s odd."

It consists of several large panels, each with a collage of symmetrically positioned portraits uniformly photographed yet grouped into subsets of ginger categorisation: red, copper, burnt orange, strawberry blonde and so on.

It makes for a kind of red repetition, as if you are seeing double. But there are only two sets of twins in this show-of-glow, and only two of the twins are identical. Working from basic similarity to narrowed-down "deliberate likeness", Pokroy forces viewers to make their own definitions and delineations.

In a South African context, this seduction of subjective subclassification has a prickly, burning tinge of historical consciousness, and is exactly what she set out to achieve.

"My whole intention with these panels was to create and construct a narrative that viewers would reconstruct in their own minds. It’s quite a reductive and almost racist way of viewing a group of people. It’s like the notion of some people looking the same because of their physical qualities."

Pokroy is aware that the off-colour and tongue-in-cheek approach of I Collect Gingers to classification may not sit well with many people, given South Africa’s embarrassing legacy of pencil tests and other race-related matters.

"You can’t call gingers a race. I can’t equate the prejudices gingers experience to the prejudices others do. I’m just providing an alternative perspective on this weighted and oppressive obsession we have with skin colour."

Interestingly, Simply Red pop singer Mick Hucknall feels very strongly about "gingerism", claims to have been called "ugly" because of his hair colour, and that prejudice against red-headed people should be seen as a form of racism.

Not going so far as to call it racist, Pokroy believes just using the epithet "ginger", especially coming from one, amounts "to reclaiming a previously derogatory term in a cool and quirky kind of way".

To a certain extent it appeases the past, turning the teasing she used to suffer on its head through a swift shift of semantics: "It wasn’t out of control but I was often made to feel ugly and different because of my hair colour. I grew up with the feeling that I wasn’t attractive because I didn’t fit the ideal of beauty — being a blonde or brunette."

Back in the day when the hatred for "redd hedes" amounted to open gingerphobia, "those of infernal hair" could be banished and burnt based on what was treatised in books such as the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), a prosecution manual penned by German Catholic clergyman Henrich Kramer in 1486.

The residue of such superstition can no doubt be seen in the ridicule of today, much watered down but still lapping at the heels of gingers.

More recently, in 2011, leading sperm bank Cryos International announced that, because of low demand, semen from red-haired men would no longer be accepted.

It is all a little too serious for Pokroy, though.

Commenting on her first solo exhibition, she says: "I think its merits are that I’m using a light-hearted and kind of popular, almost faddish, subject to deal with interesting and ridiculous notions on race, classification and genetics."

She says that, apart from the deeper-lying explorative side of I Collect Gingers, it also has wide appeal: "It’s accessible and aesthetically interesting but there are people who just don’t engage. They come in here and say: ‘Aw, that’s so much fun.’"

The manifesto included in the exhibition, penned by Pokroy and distributed last year at the annual Red Head Festival in the Netherlands, is certainly none too serious. It declares that: "We strive for a ginger utopia. A world where red-headed people not only are not ridiculed and ostracised, but where our tonal superiority is envied and celebrated."

With a tally of about 2% of the world’s population, the manifesto urges its subjects to "procreate with other gingers" so this figure can rocket to about "64%".

Pokroy’s imagined Republic of Red even includes ID cards and "references" an imaginary country, Fook Island, created by Walter Battiss along with people, fauna, flora, currency — the whole bang shoot. Battiss apparently even travelled on his "passport", collecting stamps from countries such as the UK and Australia.

Pokroy says that, initially, she never anticipated the project acquiring such a fanciful life of its own: "At the first shoot in August 2010, I invited seven gingers. Some were friends and others friends of friends. They were supposed to have come one after the other but they all turned up at the same time.

"When they all started talking about what it’s like being red, there was this inherent sense of community, of shared experience. I started questioning what makes a race; what makes a community, a nation? What elements define these things?"

Word got out on Twitter and other social media about I Collect Gingers. It was no longer necessary for her to accost people in bars, clubs, and parking lots, soliciting them with business cards for the project.

"I was annoying to have around. Spotting gingers was all I could think about. We would go out for supper and I would see someone and go and talk to them."

Along the way, I Collect Gingers picked up a few sponsors, including a grant from Business and Arts South Africa. With some clever crowd-funding, pre-selling a publication cataloguing Pokroy’s participants, I Collect Gingers became a project much bigger than a few hundred photos in grand frames.

The virtual threshold to the project’s dedicated site (Icollectgingers.com) is stomped through and Pokroy’s inbox is still bombarded by people interested in signing up for her ever-growing archive: "I think this is just the beginning. The thought of collecting thousands of people across the world excites me. But for the time being, I need a break. Working on this project cost a lot and took up a lot of my time. For the past two-and-a-half years I didn’t really have a life."

Besides running a nonprofit emerging artist support centre called Assemblage, Pokroy also works as a freelance gallery photographer.

"I definitely want to continue with this project but not right now. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as the ginger artist. I don’t want to be like one of those artists trapped by the project that got them going. I’m all gingered out."