John McRae: “Spot The Arab”

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Spot The Arab is an ongoing project based on portraiture by Australian artist John McRae, aligned to how he reflects upon contemporary issues of religion, race, gender, nationality and freedom. He now presents his striking colour photographs in a solo show at Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea in Rome, 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 the social fictions of femininity/masculinity, which are recurring themes in my work. I have also asked each model to exactly describe how they identify, since in this way, we can help to 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 Australia, Italy, Malta, Lebanon, Israel, China and the US, 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 Arab portraits, exhibited at Il Ponte Contemporanea, a gallery in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome, only two kilometres away from the Vatican.
“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 I admire, so I project my version of 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 come from a broad variety of faiths. They have personally told me about their open views of tolerance across border-lines. By mixing it up, this project 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, a head scarf or beard. It is about how society and the media can radicalise the innocent.” One of the models, Francis, an easy-going French Canadian acrobat, told McRae how he was often insulted by strangers on the street or labelled as a Taliban sympathizer, simply because of his heavy beard and dark features. In the world today, prejudice takes many forms.

This is John McRae’s fifth exhibition at Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea in Rome since 2005. John McRae’s work is primarily portrait-based, as demonstrated by his previous solo shows at GrantPirrie Gallery (Sydney), Mate Gallery (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 photography prizes (People’s Choice winner 2013 Australian National Portrait Gallery Prize, for his portrait of the late painter Margaret Olley); 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 about integration, discrimination and racism at the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum near Naples, entitled “You no speak Americano original”.
John McRae explains this portrait. “In my Sydney 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 calmly confronts the camera with openness 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 Australian man.”

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 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 concludes: “As a viewer, can you tell who is an Arab, who identifies as Arab, and in the end, how is this important, anyway?”

Spot The Arab, is part of the larger Blow – Up exhibition, a review of contemporary international photography including important works by Matteo Basile’, Erwin Blumenfeld, Tracey Moffatt, Erwin Olaf, Dino Pedriale, Katharina Sieverding and Inez van Lamsweerde, at Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea in Rome (via Beatrice Cenci 9/9A). Supported by the Australian Embassy in Rome, McRae’s solo runs through September 15, 2017.

Did you Spot the Arab? Find out here and read the personal statements by the Spot The Arab models

John McRae – Spot The Arab – Galleria Il Ponte Contemporanea

STA.1 Amirah I, 2017 – Sydney, “I’m Egyptian. I identify more as African than Middle-Eastern or Arab, and I express this through my dress sense and fashion.”

STA.2 Lauren, 2016 – Valletta, Malta. Maltese. “If I have to think of myself in terms of culture, nationality, ethnicity, etc … no, I don’t identify myself as an Arab or with Arabs. However my belief in general is that we humans are all the children of God (irrelevant in which God you believe), having the same fears, hopes, feelings and dreams.”

STA.3 Lauren & Roderick, 2016 – Valletta, Malta. Roderick: “I am male, gay, atheist and proud to be Maltese. Am I Arab? A slight part of me, yes, let’s say 25%.”

STA.4 Elle, 2007 – Sydney. “I am a mix of backgrounds, Danish on my paternal side, German, Scotttish and Irish on my mother’s side. I would argue that Australia has a lack of identity, so to say that I identify as Australian is a complex statement. But I have strong links to rural and remote Australian lifestyles.”

STA.5 Vanity Fair, 2017 – Sydney, Australian.

STA.6 Francis II, 2017 – Sydney. French-Canadian.

STA.7 Maya, 2016 – Roma. “I am 100% Arab. I am Palestinian.”

STA.8 Mertim, 2012 – Sydney, Turkish.

STA.9 Amirah II, 2017 – Sydney, “I’m Egyptian. I identify more as African than Middle-Eastern or Arab, and I express this through my dress sense and fashion.”

STA.10 Adil, 2014 – The Dead Sea, Masada, Israel/Palestine. Paris-based Morroccan, identifies as Arab.

STA.11/STA.12 Ivan I and Ivan II, 2017 – Sydney, mixed Italian/Maltese descent. “My religion is for us to love one another and to have our little prayer of gratitude each day for what we have in life. I come from a very Catholic background.”

STA.13 Tuur, 2011 – Sydney, Norwegian. “I would describe myself as a European Caucasian Atheist Male, living in a society built up on Catholic values. I am a believer in equal rights for all and freedom of speech.”

STA.14 Fabien, 2017 – New York. “I identify as a French-Moroccan-Latvian Jewish man, now based in New York.”

STA.15 Matuse, 2016 – Sydney, Lebanese-Australian. “I identify as human being firstly, and I also identify as an Arab. My avatar is a mixture of many things … Arabian, Mesopotamian … so above all, I identify as a traveling stranger.”

STA.16/STA.17 Naomi 2 & Naomi 3, 2016 – Sydney. London-based Egyptian, identifies as Arab.

STA.18 Jess, Bruno and Lily, 2016 – Sydney. Australians, with mixed Danish and Croatian heritage.

STA.19 Romain, 2017 – Sydney. Born in France, lives in Marseilles, proudly identifies as Arab.

STA.20 Mathieu, 2017 – Sydney. “Although I come from a West Indies-Caribbean background, I identify myself as Arab, since I feel a strong connection with Arabian cultures. My nationality is French. My ethnicity is Mixed. My religion is Christian. My faith is Love. My gender is Male. My heart is the World.”

STA.21 Lorenzo, Sydney 2017 – “I do not identify as Arab, but I do identify as Anglo-Mediterranean, which overlaps with Arab to the extent that Arab is a component of Mediterranean, and the Mediterranean is the communal pond around which civilisations have traded commercially, ideologically and genetically for millennia. More broadly, the values I identify with most strongly are: Anglo-Mediterranean, humanist, urban, liberal.”