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May 2017 – John McRae Photography & Studio

FLOOR TALK – Arabs in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome

Jonathan Turner, Giuliana Stella and the students of the Accademia delle Belle Arti di Roma

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).

Pier Francesco Grasselli, Author


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.

REFAEL BOUTIQUE       Dizengoff 218, Tel Aviv

Rafeal Ivzi (Private Collection)

“Spot the Arab” Opening, Rome 2017

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.

Sylvie Fleury (France – Aperto, 1993 Venice Biennale)

Nan Goldin (USA – Real Venice, 2011 Venice Biennale)

Inez van Lamsweerde (Netherlands – Rietveld Arsenale, 2009 Venice Biennale)

Myriam Laplante (Bangladesh/Canada – Fondazione Bevilaqua La Masa, 2001 Venice Biennale)

Tracey Moffatt (Australia – Aperto, 1997 Venice Biennale, and Australian Pavilion, 2017 Venice Biennale)

Francesca Marti’ (Spain – Venice International Experimental Film and Performance Art Festival, 2015 Venice Biennale)

Katharina Sieverding (Germany – 1976 and 1980 Venice Biennales)

Melati Suryodarmo (Indonesia – Dreams and Conflicts curated by Francesco Bonami, 2003 Venice Biennale)

Il Ponte Contemporanea

Via Beatrice Cenci 9 / 9 A,

00186, Roma Italia

tel. +39 06 68 33 897

The exhibition runs through mid-September, 2017.


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 he  reflects 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

Supported by the Australian Embassy, Rome



John McRae at Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea, taken at the finish of the installation of the “Spot The Arab” show


I am taking part in an exhibition in Shanghai, China, as part of an Art Can Do fundraising project organised by ACAF (Australia China Arts Foundation)

(Double click to enlarge)
Installation shot – “Spot The Arab” series in Shanghai. (Double click to enlarge)




Super happy to be exhibiting, “Spot The Arab”, a new body of work, as part of their “Blow-Up” exhibition (See invite)


If you are in Rome between 18 May and 23 September…..drop in to the gallery and see my work.

(Click on the image to enlarge)