I am pleased to announce that GENIUS People Magazine in Italy has published an article about my ongoing Spot The Arab project, aligned to my exhibition at Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea in Rome.
GENIUS People Magazine is a topical, bilingual publication based in Trieste in northern Italy, appearing both on-line and in print form, guided by Editor-in-Chief Francesco La Bella, and Project Manager Mariaisabella Musulin. It focuses primarily on contemporary arts and culture.
Click on the following link to read the article, written by Jonathan Turner:
After spending almost a month in Europe working on various projects, I flew into Sydney a few days ago. I seem to be more jet-lagged than I can remember previously, waking up in the middle of the night with the feeling that there is some kind of grey veil over my brain. In contrast, on the way over to Rome via Abu Dhabi, I experienced almost no jet lag and I was firing on all cylinders the very next day. They do say that jet lag is always worse in one of the directions….I can’t remember which one, but from this experience, I would have to say it’s going from East to West!
The time away was well spent. In fact it was amazingly spent!
Firstly, my exhibition, “Spot The Arab”, at Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea in Rome (see previous “blog” entries further down this page) was extremely well-received. I would like to thank Giuliano and Bruno, the two directors of the gallery, for their support and creativity in making the event such a resounding success. Who would have thought….an exhibition about prejudice and stigma, using the stereotypes of what an Arab looks like, staged in the Jewish Ghetto, in the home of the Catholic Church, staged by an Australian photographer. Anything is possible!
A big thank you to Jonathan Turner, my host in Rome. He is not only is an amazing curator and art critic (his input to my exhibition in terms of providing advice and various writings was critical to its success), but also the most generous and welcoming friend and host. He is also an accomplished cook and I was privileged to eat at one of the best tables in all of the Eternal City.
Next, I flew from Rome to Israel. I was asked to stage a fashion shoot as a practical pre-text to get me to the Holy Land. I shot for Refael, a stylish fashion boutique in one of the swanky parts of Tel Aviv. The shoot went very well and everyone was happy, including the designer, the model and the stylists.
The rest of the time I spent visiting parts of Tel Aviv (including a day splayed out on the wonderful beach that stretches the length of the city) and then Jerusalem and the Old City. I have visited Jerusalem before…but I never tire of the magic of this city and always try to make a point of wandering its streets and market place. A trip to Israel wouldn’t be complete without a meal along the sea-front at the old port of Jaffa, where the appetizers are brought out almost the instant you sit down, filling the table with all varieties of middle-eastern delights. I am always completely entertained by the voracious efficiency of the waiting staff, darting backwards and forwards at lightening speed, clearing the dishes from an entire table of 6, plates and glasses stacked and piled in the air, in one go! A big thank you to my host, Nitzan whose generosity abounds, as well as my dear friends Fabien and Refael, who made my stay such a wonderful and enriching experience.
After pigging-out on 5 days of hummus, I flew back to Rome for some more Insalata Caprese which, by the way, I can never get enough of. It doesn’t get much better than fresh, delicious Italian tomatoes, fresh basil, the most superb mozzarella di bufala from Naples, drenched with virgin olive oil. I think everyone, including Jonathan, was over my obsession with this dish by the end of my stay.
My exhibition is still running and I was asked to speak at a gallery visit organised by Giuliana Stella, an eminent art critic, curator and educator. This went very well. It was interesting for me to be able to interact with students from the Academy of Fine Arts and and members of the public, answer questions and hear thoughtful statements relating to my work. A big thank you to Giuliana for organising this event.
Finally, the end of the trip was approaching. I hurriedly made sure I had seen the most important things on my list.. .this included a visit to Naples and Pompeii….incredible! A quick trip to London to catch up with old friends….thank you Fadi.
And during the final week, the chance to meet up with more acquaintances from Italy, Scotland, Bosnia, Spain, Palestine, Canada and old friends who flew in from Malta and beyond. Thank you Marvic, Davide and Roderick.
Finally, a big thank you to all the people who welcomed me with such goodwill and openness during my travels and who contributed to the joys of the whole experience from start to finish. You know who you are. I also appreciate all my friends and clients here in Australia who I may have inconvenienced through my lack of presence over the past month. Thanks for waiting and allowing me the time.
My bags are packed and I’m sitting on the sofa, waiting for the taxi to take me to Fumincino where I will board my return flight to Sydney via Abu Dhabi.
What a wonderful stay in the Eternal City!
A huge thank you to all the people and friends that made this trip such a wonderful experience from start to finish. I promise to pass on all the goodwill and love that was so freely shared with me, to the people I meet along my continuing travels.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit London.
I visited some of the iconic landmarks in this grand lady’s cache….always impressed by the constant reminders of my Australian culture’s roots. I always felt some of these elements were so out of place in the hot desert-like climate of my childhood (the carefully manicured botanical gardens devoid of native plants, for example), but seeing all this “English” in the climate, light and environment it evolved in suddenly made a lot more sense to me.
Sadly, the events on the Tower of London took place during my stay. Long live London!
On May 30, John McRae presented his Spot The Arab exhibition to a group of art and architecture students from the Accademia delle Belle Arti di Roma. He gave a floor talk about his working methods and his subject matter to 50 students attending the courses of Allestimento Spazi Espositive (Exhibition Space Design) and Metodologia della Progettazione (Project Methodology), under the tutelage of Professor Giuliana Stella. Australian curator Jonathan Turner then gave a tour of the large-scale Blow-Up exhibition at Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea, also in the company of Rome’s leading pulp fiction novelist Pier Francesco Grasselli (Ho Scaricato Miss Italia, and All’Inferno ci vado in Porsche).
I just spent four days in Tel Aviv, working on a photoshoot for the upcoming Refael Boutique, focused on creating a new portfolio of images capturing contemporary womens fashion, combining style and minimalism with a flamboyant edge. Together with rising star Refael and stylist Oded, and the young Israeli model, Hannah, we shot a sequence of studio interiors and street scenes under the midday sun.
A historical survey of international photography, featuring the work of John McRae.
Staged in the prestigious Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea in the centre of the ancient city of Rome, Blow-Up is a review of a century of image-making, studying the innovations and dynamic nature of photography. Organized to coincide with the 2017 Venice Biennale, the Rome exhibition is entitled Blow-Up after the classic 1966 film by Michelangelo Antonioni, in which a photographer believes he has unwittingly captured a murder with his camera, in an ambiguous image lurking at the edge of the frame. The exhibition, curated by Giuliano Matricardi, also traces more than 20 years of the gallery’s activity in research in contemporary photography.
Blow-Up includes important photograph-based works by Nobuyoshi Araki (Japan), Matteo Basilè (Italy), David Byrne (USA), Erwin Blumenfeld (Germany), Sylvie Fleury (France), Thomas Glassford (UK), Nan Goldin (USA), Matthias Herrmann (Austria), Fritz Kok (Netherlands), Myriam Laplante (Bangladesh/Canada), John McRae (Australia), Francesca Martì (Spain), Tracey Moffatt (Australia), Erwin Olaf (Netherlands), Dino Pedriali (Italy), Maria Pizzi (Italy), Katharina Sieverding (Germany), Melati Suryodarmo (Indonesia), Inez van Lamsweerde (Netherlands) and Baron Wilhelm Von Gloeden (Germany). This multi-layered exhibition runs through mid-September, 2017.
The exhibition opening on May 18, 2017, was attended by many local and international figureheads, including artists (Francesco Impellizzeri, Myriam Laplante, Francesca Marti’, Jebila Okongwu, Maria Pizzi, Renato Grome, Francesca Tulli), collectors and journalists, as well as Roman nobility, designers, curators (Achille Bonito Oliva, Gianluca Marziani, Giuliana Stella, Jonathan Turner, Luca Barreca), the fashion crowd and many of McRae’s friends from Italy, Spain, Malta, Scandinavia, Australia and beyond (Laura D’Ambra, Stefano d’Argenzio, Federico Assenza, Marvic Camilleri, Chiara Cavarra, Stefano Cigada, Salahuddin Khan, Lorenzo Logi, Vittorio Mango, Maria Antonia Oliver, Vincenzo Persi, Rosa Purchas, Simona Rossi).
The exhibition features a solo show by Sydney artist John McRae. His ongoing “Spot the Arab” series, one work of which is currently hanging in the contemporary portraiture show at the Australian National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, is a suite of photographs exploring the stereotypes and prejudices of our attitudes towards Muslims today, McRae’s portraits are accompanied by a critical text by curator Jonathan Turner, who has regularly worked with McRae for the past decade. This is McRae’s fifth exhibition at Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea, the show is organized with the support of the Australian Embassy in Rome.
In Blow-Up, Francesca Marti’ is represented by two works: a diptych of black-and-white photographs of Cuban landscapes in torn canvas frames from her Tears series, and a new photograph from her series Cities in a Crooked Line showing a street-scene in Saigon, printed on zinc plate, then partly crushed. Tracey Moffatt, who has been selected as the artist in the Australian Pavilion at the 2017 Biennale di Venezia, is represented in Blow-Up by three older photographs. Meanwhile, a series of vintage prints by Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (1890s), Erwin Blumenfeld (1940s), and from Dino Pedriali (1970s), includes Pedriali’s quartet of cultural figureheads: black-and-white portraits of dancer Rudolf Nureyev, sculptor George Segal, film director PierPaolo Pasolini and artist Andy Warhol.
A section of the Blow-Up show is dedicated to photo-based works by eight women artists from the stable of Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea, all of whom have been featured in previous editions of the Venice Biennale.
John McRae– Spot The Arab – Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea, Rome
Text by Jonathan Turner
Spot the Arab is a project based on portraiture by Australian artist John McRae, as a summary of various themes, ideas and concepts aligned to how hereflects upon contemporary issues of religion, race, gender, orientation, nationality and freedom. He presents his work at Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea in a game-like yet very serious manner. It is a topical celebration of diversity, with a powerful message about tolerance.
“The solo show has been built around a large photo installation, a retrospective of my portraits since 2002 on the theme of the illusions and stereotypes of what is an Arab today. This looks at 20 people, photographed over the past decade in numerous countries and from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Each person poses with props, often imposed by me, and enacts the role of what they consider an Arab to be today. The sitters include men, women and transgender people in the “guise” of Arabs, Muslims or people of the various factions of Islamic faith. It focuses on social fictions of femininity/masculinity, recurring themes in my work. I have asked each model to exactly describe how they identify, since in this way, we can over-ride preconceptions, stigma and prejudice.”
McRae works within an international context, purposely blurring the lines between accepted norms while questioning such topics as nationalism, nomadism/migration and gender roles. In the past, he has created photo series in New York, Italy, Malta, Lebanon and Shanghai, as part of his complex research into the concept of shifting border-lines, psychological frontiers and the role of the portrait in society today. His work confronts the politics of imagery.
“I tend to create works in series, often spanning different continents and time-lines, so that my shows introduce a multi-faceted and shifting perspective, never a single cultural viewpoint. My specific fascination is using the camera to break down stereotypes and visual codes, and today, this is more important than ever. In my portraits, I try to capture sly or hidden messages, and then juxtapose these with more blatant aspects of drama, styling and emotion, whether it is authentic or staged. It is always about intimacy versus theatricality.”
Ali, a Lebanese-Australian national raised in Paris but who is currently based in London, has frequently modeled for McRae over the past decades. He, for example, provides a sharp description of how he defines his own identity. This gives additional weight to the complexity of McRae’s portraits.
“My ethnicity is Arab, I see myself as Semitic too. I also have Persian lineage,” Ali explains. “Gender is very fluid in the male body that I adore, so I project Macho Male. My religion: Agnostic, Neo-pagan, Baphomet Worshipper, Hermetic Qabalist, Neo-Platonic, Sacred Whore (I go as ‘London Arab Master’ these days). I love Shia-Islam too.”
“Only some of the models actually consider themselves to be Arab,” adds McRae. “Others from a broad variety of faiths have personally told me their open views of tolerance across border-lines. By mixing it up, this show aims to diffuse. In the current climate, I am drawing people’s attention to the aspects of how fear can be imposed or transmitted through a model wearing a simple costume, head scarf or beard, and how society and the media can radicalise the innocent.”
This is John McRae’s fifth exhibition at Galleria Ill Ponte Contemporanea in Rome since 2005. John McRae’s work is primarily portrait-based, as demonstrated by his solo shows at GrantPirrie Gallery (Sydney), Mate (Berlin), ACAF (Shanghai and Sydney) and The Center (New York); such group shows as La Folia (Madness) curated by Achille Bonito Oliva for the 2010 in Ravello Festival in Italy, and Sailor Style at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney; his inclusion in many Australian portrait prizes (People’s Choice winner 2013 Australian National Portrait Gallery Prize, for his portrait of the late Margaret Olley), the Blake Prize, Olive Cotton Award, Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Award; and the publication of his imagery in numerous books and magazines in Australia, China, Germany, USA, Italy, France and beyond.
One work from McRae’s Spot The Arab series (Matuse) is currently featured as a finalist in the 2017 National Photographic Portrait Prize at the Australian National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, and it was also included in the recent thematic exhibition at the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum near Naples, entitled “You no speak Americano original – Integration, discrimination, racism”.
John McRae explains this portrait. “In my studio, I gave Matuse a bag full of clothing and asked him if he would select a “costume” and put it on, which he did. Wearing simple Arab dress, I intentionally depict Matuse as a metaphor for certain prejudices and negative attitudes, conscious or unconscious, that our society at times has been conditioned to project. Here, I have purposely but subtly imposed such terms as “radical” and “fundamental” onto my willing subject, a modern young man who normally goes about in jeans and a t-shirt. Matuse is of Middle Eastern descent, and he is also a practicing Muslim. He confronts the camera with openness, calmness and stillness. For him, the clothing is merely fabric, and not a signifier of any political stance or pretext. He also remains an honest young Aussie.”
Matuse is a contemporary musician and performer who calls himself a ‘spiritual rapper’. In McRae’s portrait, it is interesting how the regal symmetry, the formal pose, the ornamental frame and Matuse’s austere attitude make him look stately and in command. He demonstrates an imperial detachment. But he is not expressionless. He approaches McRae’s camera lens with a direct confront. Any initial assumptions about who he might be are totally over-ruled.
John McRae: “As a viewer, can you tell who is Arab, who identifies as Arab, and in the end, how is this important, anyway?”
Spot The Arab, as part of the larger Blow – Up exhibition of contemporary photography at Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea, is supported by the Australian Embassy in Rome