Egyptian artist-photographer Youssef Nabil muses on loneliness and longing, with his biggest solo exhibition yet at Palazzo Grassi in Venice
A man and woman embrace. They stare into each other’s eyes as they part amid a vast desert of golden sand. They do not know when they will see each other again. Then, onto the scene comes a group of veiled women and men in traditional Egyptian dress – they are part of the man’s reality, his culture, and his homeland. The scene from Egyptian artist photographer Youssef Nabil’s film You Never Left (2010) relays feelings of leaving and longing that permeate his work. Set in an allegorical place that serves as a metaphor for a lost Egypt, it offers parallels between exile and death, love, and life. The eight-minute film stars Fanny Ardant and Tahar Rahim, and is the first film Nabil ever made. It is currently on view in the artist’s first major comprehensive survey exhibition, Once Upon a Dream, at Palazzo Grassi. The 13th-century Venetian palace turned contemporary art museum has been owned by French businessman François Pinault, founder of Kering and father of its CEO, François-Henri Pinault, since 2005. Along with the Punta della Dogana, the museum houses part of his private collection, which includes several of Nabil’s works.
Curated by Matthieu Humery and Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Once Upon a Dream is Nabil’s largest exhibition to date, revealing more than 120 works spanning his career. It is staged alongside a show on the first floor dedicated to the work of the late photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. “This is the first major show devoted to an Arab artist to take place at Palazzo Grassi,” states Humery. “The question of exile at the heart of his work is particularly strong in light of the global migration crisis. Furthermore, Nabil’s work is striking for its oriental references. Venice, the city where East and West met, is thus the perfect venue in which to celebrate his work.”
Born in Egypt in 1972, Nabil grew up in Cairo with movies filmed during the golden age of Egyptian cinema. “I grew up watching films all the time, especially with my mother,” he recalls. “Most of the time they were old films and the actors were already dead. It was then that I discovered the power of cinema and the idea of keeping someone alive through art.” From a young age Nabil became obsessed with death. “I fell in love with these beautiful people who were already dead,” he says. “I wanted to take photographs of everyone I loved before they died or before I died.” Nabil was a teenager during the Eighties, and as a young artist, he discovered the work of Ana Mendieta, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol. The latter’s relationship with cinema is also something that Nabil shares, but it was after seeing Frida Kahlo’s image in a biography about the artist in New York that he became particularly inspired. “I loved the fact that she turned her pain into art and that she made her personal life public by creating artwork about it.”
In 2003, the artist left Egypt for Paris, where he was invited to partake in an artist’s residency by the French Ministry of Culture. He stayed for three years and then moved to New York. In 2018 he returned to Paris, where he now resides. “There’s a small death that happens when you leave home,” he says. “I felt like I died to be reborn somewhere else with new people and a new life.”
Largely known for his photographs of Egyptian and international celebrities, it’s nearly impossible to not instantly recognize a Nabil portrait. Catherine Deneuve, Omar Sharif, Tracey Emin, Zaha Hadid, Robert De Niro, and Marina Abramović are just some of the many icons from the worlds of art and film that Nabil has shot. Like all of his photographs, each portrait is made using the distinctive technique of hand-coloring silver gelatin prints. “In this way I remove any remnants of present day reality,” he explains. The resulting works showcases a glossy, old world glamour and a powerful feeling of nostalgia, as if they, too, wrestle with the nature of time.
All three of Nabil’s films are on display at Palazzo Grassi. His second film, I Saved My Belly Dancer (2015) took three years to make, and was produced by Ridley Scott’s production company RSA Films and stars Salma Hayek and Tahar Rahim. “The idea came to me when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt and started indirectly through social acts, attacking nightclubs, especially where belly dancers were dancing. They managed to shut around 12 clubs.” Nabil was in New York at the time. “These poor women were being targeted,” he says. The title came to him first. “Who was going to save our belly dancers? I wanted to create a video about my love for the art form,” says Nabil. “It may be the oldest art form in Egypt, derived from the time of the pharaohs,” he explains. “I wanted to save in my memory the idea of the belly dancers as I knew it.”
Nabil’s latest film, Arabian Happy Ending (2016), is 28 minutes long and incorporates numerous edits of kissing scenes from Egyptian movies, revealing moments of lust and love while inadvertently exploring socio-political tensions looming in the Middle East. “I wanted to talk about our sexuality as Arabs because it is a huge taboo,” says the artist. “I think if you give people the right to love freely in this region, many issues will be solved.”
A crucial component of Nabil’s oeuvre is his self-portraiture. Aligning the walls of Palazzo Grassi are numerous of the artist’s intimate renderings of his face and body found in a variety of scenes, such as Self- Portrait with Roots (2008) shot in Los Angeles and in which we find the artist lying amid the long amorphous roots of a tree – almost as if he were a root himself in need of stability and freedom.
His self-portraits capture his feelings of loneliness, exile, and longing. They also play with the notion of time. There is no time in Nabil’s work. It lives and dwells in some other dream world, where certain moments from reality become preserved forever, never again to be obscured by the harsh grips of everyday life. As Nabil states: “Life is like a movie. There is a beginning and an end to it, like in each film, but we don’t know how long the story will last. It might be a long or a short movie, like life.” What remains is art. Youssef Nabil. Once Upon a Dream is on at Palazzo Grassi in Venice until 10 January 2021.
Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia