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The power of ‘personal experience': An interview with Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil

Youssef Nabil - Self-portrait, Essaouira 2011 Hand colored gelatin silver print Courtesy of the Artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris/ Brussels

Youssef Nabil, Self-portrait, Essaouira, 2011. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

The Palazzo Grassi Museum in Venice, Italy, is hosting an exhibition of more than 120 photographs and three films by the renowned Egyptian artist, Youssef Nabil, until January 10, 2021. “Once Upon a Dream,” curated by Matthieu Humery and Jean-Jacques Aillagon, “gathers together more than 120 works that trace the artist's whole career.”

Born in Egypt in 1972, Nabil is one of the world's most iconic photographers and artists, whose works have been featured in exhibitions and museums worldwide in the past decade. Nabil paints on black-and-white photos and creates compositions that depict his subjects as unattainable. His technique mixes painting and photography, inspired by hand-painted movie posters of the 1940s and 1950s, and is reminiscent of the pre-digital world.

Nabil's photographs are a combination of nostalgia and idealism, deconstruction and beauty, reality and illusion, and ultimately, the product of the photographer's sensitive intervention in shaping the final work. In the process of forming his work, painting is as important as photography. He says that each of his photographs is the product of his personal connection with the subject—a relationship that differs from one photo to another and which ultimately makes every photo different from another.

Nabil eventually turned to making films. In an interview with Global Voices, he explains his use of this new medium for artistic expression, his photography, and his relationship with Egypt.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Youssef Nabil at his exhibition in Palazzo Grassi Museum in Venice, Italy, in September 2020. ©Matteo De Fina.

Youssef Nabil at his exhibition at Palazzo Grassi Museum in Venice, Italy, September 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist, ©Matteo De Fina

Omid Memarian: You are well known for your photography and your portrait-paintings, in particular. You have also made three films, Arabian Happy Ending (2016), I Saved My Belly Dancer (2015), and You Never Left (2010). What does making a movie give you, as a medium, that you don’t get from photography?

Youssef Nabil: In my mind, I’m always making a film when I’m doing my photography. I always prepare in a way that I’m telling a story. I take care of every detail. I want the photos to feel like scenes taken from a film. So films have been the inspiration behind my photography and the reason I started taking pictures in the first place. Even technically, the painting on my photography comes from the cinema, from the old hand-painted movie posters, portraits of movie stars, and Technicolor films. I wanted this vintage feeling to be in my photography, with a contemporary approach. I never wanted to use color film. We are talking about a time before the digital era. In the early 90s, everybody used color film, and I still wanted to shoot in black and white and use the same old photography technique for painting. So moving from photography to films was a natural progression. It was something that had to come. Now I’m thinking of doing a long feature.

Youssef Nabil - Marina Abramović, New York 2011 Hand colored gelatin silver print Courtesy of the Artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris/ Brussels

Youssef Nabil, Marina Abramović, New York, 2011. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

OM: How did you start doing portrait photography?

YN: They are the people I wanted to meet: all the actors and actresses are iconic figures I grew up watching on TV and in the cinema. I just wanted to meet these people because I have this significant awareness of the moment, an awareness of the time people die, as those did before us and the ones after us. I discovered this at a very young age, and for me, the camera was maybe the only medium that could freeze a moment and make it eternal. Whether they were actors or my friends and members of my family or even myself, for me, it’s an encounter, a meeting, a moment with people I might meet once, and whatever is left is the work we did together.

OM: You grew up in Egypt and left in 2003 when you moved to Paris for an art residency, and then lived in New York from 2006 until 2018. How has your upbringing affected your art, mainly your uniquely hand-painted portraits?

YNAll my work, whether it's the technique or the subjects, comes from my personal experience. What inspired me to paint my photos came from Egypt. When I was a kid growing up, I used to sit in the back of my family's car. My favorite thing was to spot and watch all the movie billboards along the way. Cairo was big in cinema. We called it “Hollywood on the Nile.” I grew up watching all those movie posters in the streets, all hand-painted. At our house, we also had a lot of hand-painted family portraits. I wanted to keep that in my work. It comes from the experience that I was in touch with and what life offered me over there.

I wanted to study art or cinema, but for two years, every art school in Egypt rejected me. It was a difficult time for me, so I decided to make my own art. I called my friends from school, and I borrowed a camera and a few years later I wanted to paint the black and white pictures that I took of my friends. Being inspired by old films, I refused to use color films and learned how to paint black and white prints. I had to learn the technique from the old and last remaining studio “retouchers,” as they were called. I wanted my work to look like a painting. I loved the combination of photography and painting. Of course, I took all that with me from Egypt to New York. It came naturally, not something I decided to do.

Self Portrait with Roots, Los Angeles 2008 copy

Youssef Nabil, Self-portrait With Roots, Los Angeles, 2008. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

OM: How do you choose which color to use for a photo?

YN: It's a very personal and spontaneous decision. I like a certain degree of the color blue, and I use it a lot in my work, and from that, a lot of people now can tell it's my work. And the same with the skin color or a particular red that I like and I use a lot. All decisions that I make are very personal.

OM: All three of your movies deal with social issues of our time in a troubled region: from speaking of sexuality to exploring the feeling of “leaving and longing, many years after you left Egypt, to freedom. What has been the reaction of the art world to raising these issues in your work? Has this also affected how you do your photography now?

YN: When I talk about personal feelings or personal experiences, concerns, and the culture I come from, I always try to link it on a universal level. So everyone can relate to it. In “I Saved My Belly Dancer,” I talked about this art being always attacked indirectly by some people in the Middle East because they say, it’s immoral. The film is more about what you want to save in your memory to live with you, even if it’s no longer a part of reality. In my case, I chose to speak about a belly dancer. It could be someone you love that is no longer a part of your life or memories from childhood in your country that do not exist in the country you choose to live in. So for me, it was about memory. In “You Never Left,” I’m talking about the idea of when you decide to leave home and go somewhere else, your country never leaves you. I felt a mini death happening to me, and I had to be born again in a new place, and I think anyone who decides to choose a new place as a home can relate to it.

Youssef Nabil - Your Life was just a Dream , 2019 Hand colored gelatin silver print Courtesy of the Artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris/ Brussels

Youssef Nabil, Your Life Was Just A Dream, 2019. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

OM: In your photos, you somehow remove the element of time and reality and take them to a unique space that seems to belong to our memories. What’s your thought process in creating such qualities?

YN: I never plant it. Some things come from me, my character, my life, how I see people, how I express myself, how I want the message to be felt and seen, and all the things that I cannot put into words. That’s why I take pictures. That is my vision of the world I want to share. That’s probably why I don’t make people laugh or why I photograph myself from the back. I don’t decide these things. Even with paintings, how can you choose when the work is done? When it says what you wanted to say. So I make decisions in a very natural and spontaneous way.

Youssef Nabil - Catherine Deneuve, Paris 2010 Hand colored gelatin silver print Courtesy of the Artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris/ Brussels

Youssef Nabil, Catherine Deneuve, Paris, 2010. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/ Brussels

OM: Which artists have the most influence on your work? And how have they shaped your artistic experience and the way you look at art?

YN: It’s definitely cinema that shaped my vision. Old movies. Whether Egyptian, European, or American. I grew up in the 80s in Cairo. That was before the internet, cable TV, and mobile phones. Later on, I learned about other artists, especially in New York, like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. I was very interested in what was going on with the American art movement in the 80s. Especially Andy Warhol, but I don’t want to say that he is my inspiration. In the 90s I went to New York and discovered more artists; Frida Kahlo’s first biography book was just out in March 1993, and I was reading that in New York and I was very touched, moved, and fascinated by her story because she was mainly turning her pain into art, she was only making art related to her personal life. I love Jean-Michel Basquiat. I love every artist whose work is personal—no matter their medium or what they do. I just need to feel that there is something personal.

Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana are the Pinault Collection‘s contemporary art museums in Venice, Italy.

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