Egyptian artist embraces controversial traditions in newest video.
Art Radar speaks with Youssef Nabil about his hand-coloured black and white images and his second video featuring actress Salma Hayek.
Youssef Nabil (b. 1972, Cairo) is a self-taught photographer who has worked alongside American photographer David LaChapelle and fashion photographer Mario Testino. Inspired by the golden age of Egyptian cinema and portrait photography, Nabil works solely with black and white film, which he painstakingly hand colours. The artist has portrayed many well-known people including Catherine Deneuve, Omar Sharif and Sting. His “Self Portrait” series explores the transitory existence of life and what it means to be a global citizen.
Nabil’s work has been widely exhibited throughout the world and is in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum (Abu Dhabi), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (United States), Louis Vuitton Foundation (France), Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (Qatar) and the joint collection of the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum (United Kingdom).
How did you become interested in photography?
Actually, as far back as I can remember, I’ve had a very visual memory. As a child, I was introverted and didn’t talk much. I observed everything – people, my family. I enjoyed that more than talking. I guess that made me really develop the talent of carefully observing others. I love looking at people and I think this came through my work when I started doing portraits.
I also got into photography through cinema. In Egypt, cinema and films are a big industry. I watched a lot of films when I was young. I didn’t go to any sports activities. I would just come back home after school and watch a movie while I was having my lunch, watch a movie while I was doing my homework and fall asleep in front of the TV, while watching another movie. To me, life was and still is very visual. I can only think of images and welcome the idea of working as a visual artist – whether it’s creating a video or taking a picture.
I grew up in the 80s. There weren’t too many active photographers in Egypt at that time. We only had some studio portrait photographers, who were mainly Armenian and very old. They were still engaged in taking studio portraits of families but there weren’t enough jobs for them, so they started doing weddings. There was no Internet. We didn’t have enough money to purchase photography or art books and foreign magazines – I don’t even know if we could get them in Egypt. So, my earliest art “education” was looking at films, some studio portraits and paintings.
Did you ever have the chance to meet famed studio portrait photographer Van Leo by chance?
Not only did we meet, Van Leo photographed me several times. I first met him by chance. I was walking in downtown Cairo and saw a portrait studio. I wanted someone to print my black and white photos. I knocked and he opened the door himself. He looked at my work and ended up printing my work for a while.
I used to show him what I was doing, and he would also show me things that he had done many years previously and had never shown anyone. We spoke about photography in Egypt back then. For me, he was a mentor and someone who was probably the only photographer friend that I had at that time in Egypt. He was someone in my life who was very important to my career and was a very good friend.
You worked with American photographer David LaChapelle in New York at the beginning of your career in 1993. How influential was your time with him? Can you speak about one or two moments from that time that still stand out in your memory?
That was actually a very important period in my life when I just felt that somehow God and life showed me the way, because prior to that I wasn’t able to study photography, art or cinema in my country. In order to get into a programme, I had to know someone to introduce me to the Academy of Art. I wanted to study cinema, and the same thing happened. I applied again and again, but it was very difficult. I was so depressed. I felt like I had always wanted to be an artist, but I could not find a way.
One day, when I was photographing a friend of mine in Cairo, this guy came and wanted to know where he could buy films. He saw that I was photographing this very beautiful girl and he wanted to know where he could get models. I introduced myself and told him that I could help him find models. He told me he was in Egypt working for a magazine called Condé Nast Traveler and that his name was David LaChapelle. I didn’t know his work or anything about him, I just knew of the magazine. At that time, I was 19 years old. I was happy to help an American photographer and work on an international magazine. I helped him for a week.
During that period, I wanted to do portraits of Egyptian actors whom I loved, because I wanted to portray them the same way they were portrayed before, when I grew up, looking at the old movies in Egypt and in Hollywood. LaChapelle saw that I was trying to do something difficult in my country and wanted to help me. So, I went to work with him in New York as his assistant. We became like brothers and he believed in me.
It was my first time travelling to the United States. By that time, I knew who he was because he was showing me his work. He worked with famous people like Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol. I was really impressed that I could work with someone like him. I went to New York City in 1993. I had a black, stretch limousine waiting for me at JFK Airport that took me to his studio in the East Village. Like in the movies, really. It was a strong moment for me.
I don’t think that we ever sat down and talked about techniques. LaChapelle doesn’t do that. Mario Testino doesn’t do that, either. Nobody does that. One doesn’t sit and talk, you have to look and learn – it’s another way of learning. I love looking. Here I was, working with all the big names for campaigns and magazines, in a studio in New York City, learning how a real studio would function in a big city versus where I came from, where it didn’t even exist.
I lived with David in the same apartment. He had put a big statue of the Virgin Mary in my bedroom that he used in one of his shots. The statue was lit the whole time, because it was made of glass. It rose from floor to ceiling and I had a mattress on the floor next to the window. It was March 1993. I remember it was snowing. I was seeing snow for the first time in my life. Here I was, a Muslim guy coming from Egypt, sleeping on this mattress, looking at a snowy New York City and the only light around me came from the Virgin Mary!
Is your video You Never Left (2010) a nod to the social commentary and art history that LaChapelle often references in his work?
It’s actually a very personal story. I consider it a self-portrait. When I left Egypt in 2003, I found myself in a new place. I was invited by the Ministry of Culture to live in Paris for a few months. I really liked Paris and applied to stay for three more years. At that time, I didn’t tell anyone in Egypt that I was leaving for good. I knew that I would never come back or be based in Cairo. I would go as a visitor. I did not tell my family, my friends. No one. I just took with me whatever I could and left.
At first, I started developing this feeling that I had never felt before about life, my life, also about the place that I am living in, my country. Even when I was living in Egypt, I always felt that I was a visitor. So when I came to Paris, I knew that I was a visitor there, as well. I knew that I would only be allowed to live there for a few years and then I would have to leave. This actually made me think of my whole life – the fact that we only come here for a certain time and then we leave. So, I wanted to talk about this in my “Self-Portrait” series.
I started doing a lot of self-portraits when I first came to Paris. Everywhere I went, I would bring my camera and take a self-portrait, connecting this moment. I don’t look at the camera most of the time, because it could easily be about anyone else. It doesn’t have to be me looking at the camera. I don’t see the importance of the face being shown.
The idea of the film came about during all of those years outside of my country. About the idea that leaving is dying. When I left, some part of me died. I was hoping to be born again, somewhere else and find life again in a place that I didn’t know – which was Paris at that time. I discovered as well that my country never really left me. I always had Egypt within me. I wanted to make a video about it.
In 1997 and 1998, you worked in Paris with fashion photographer Mario Testino. How did this impact you, and in what ways was it a different experience from working with LaChapelle?
Again, we first met in Egypt. Mario Testino came to Egypt and wanted an Egyptian assistant to work with him on a job that he was doing for British Vogue. I knew he was a fashion photographer and I knew of his work. I worked for him a week in Luxor, together with model Linda Evangelista. I told him that I wanted to work outside of Egypt. He invited me to work with him in Paris in 1997. I worked with him for 18 months until the end of 1998. This again, was another great experience. He is such a positive person and fun to be around. It was like being in a family. With David, we were both young. I was 19 and he was 28. It was just the two of us. During my time with Mario, it was really like a big production, with so many assistants around.
When I met David and Mario, for me those were both signs that I was on the right track. Mario saw my work and felt that I was serious about my photography. Both he and David encouraged me a lot and believed in me. We’re all still in each other’s lives in different ways and remain friends. Now that I look back and think about it, even if we had lived in the same city, we probably never would have met. Although I was young and didn’t know anyone, I still met both David and Mario in Cairo, my beloved city, where I couldn’t study art but was offered the opportunity to work with two great artists.
After Mario, I went back to Egypt and decided “That’s it”. I am not assisting anyone anymore. I need to show my own work and have my first exhibition. That was 1998 and I had my first show in 1999. I was the first photographer to do this in Egypt.
In your “Portrait” and “Self Portrait” series, you use a method of hand-colouring your photographs. Can you explain how this process works and why you are drawn to it?
All my work is black and white that I hand-colour with paint. Even in my videos, I am trying to do that in post-production. I use the same colours, with the same degree of colour. My red, my skin colour, my blue, which are all very typical of my work now and is the palette I am using. The idea, actually, is very simple. I was inspired by old movies and I always want my photography to look like images from that time period. I first started with black and white, and then wished to see my work in colour.
Colour film really didn’t speak to me as a medium, and I didn’t like how it felt. I wanted to learn how to paint on black and white pictures the same way that old films actually were – technicoloured and hand-painted. I had to look for the last studio-portrait retouchers in Egypt to learn this old technique from them, which I am still applying on my work today.
Do you feel that you have more control using this technique versus the use of colour or digital photography?
No. It’s just a feeling, I think. Black and white photography spoke to me and I felt that it translates to how I feel and what I want to say. It provides the depth and the dimension that I want to have in each portrait and then when you colour it, you still keep that character, that personality, this old feeling that I want to keep in the work. To me, coloured film was something else. Suddenly we jumped to another era, another period, another medium, another language. It wasn’t my language.
Do you feel that you have the capacity to understand the character of those who you portray? If so, how is this aspect illustrated in your work and is it important?
It’s not exactly the goal to understand the person in front of me. When I do a portrait of someone, I want to grab some feelings from this person. It’s like a mirror sometimes. Sometimes when I look at them, I think I am looking at myself. We shoot until I grab that feeling from them. It’s like a painting. You know when it’s done. It’s done when it’s saying what you want it to tell. With a portrait, it is the same thing.
What I am trying to say is that I work with them on creating a feeling that I am aware of and at the same time not aware of. I am trying to tell a story. The stage is set and I tell them about the story. We meet and talk about how they are going to be dressed, where this is going to happen, how I want the make-up, the hair, the feeling. We are creating a moment. I am interested in grabbing that moment and grabbing that feeling, showing a part of them and their souls that they are not aware of yet – more than trying to understand them, really.
I work unconsciously a lot. I am not there, even when I am working with them. I feel like I am somewhere else. Sometimes, when I am working with someone like Catherine Deneuve, I totally forget who she is. Only later, when I am looking at the contact sheets, I realise “Oh my God, she was there in front of me and we were doing this.”
In a recent discussion with Isabelle Adjani, you talk about experiencing the “culture of our ancestors” even if we don’t realise it.
We spoke about it because Isabelle is half Algerian and half German. I feel that I am very connected to the Mediterranean. I feel at home if you put me by that sea – be it in Athens, Italy, Egypt or wherever. I just feel connected to that part of the world. My father is half Lebanese and half Greek and my mom is Egyptian. I couldn’t be more Mediterranean! I feel that there is definitely something about this part of the world that pulled me back to create over there, talk about and portray its people.
In this discussion, I was mainly referring to the series where I photographed iconic actresses such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, Anouk Aimée, Charlotte Rampling, among others, wearing a black veil. I wanted to talk about the idea of the Mediterranean veil. The Mediterranean way, this piece of fabric is worn on a woman’s head, which is completely different from what we’re experiencing now in all of the debates about who is covering more. For me, it’s part of this culture and it’s always been there. The Virgin Mary has one, as do so many Renaissance paintings. In many portraits you also find them. It has always been a part of this region, without being a sign of separation between men and women.
You’re about to release your video with actress Salma Hayek. Please tell us about it.
I Saved My Belly Dancer, the new video that I am doing right now, is with Salma Hayek and Tahar Rahim, the same actor who did You Never Left in 2010. It’s going to be exhibited first at Galerie Nathalie Obadia from 6 November 2015 [until 4 January 2016]. So, I am going back and forth to London for post-production.
The video talks about belly dancing, which for me is the most unique art form in our Oriental culture and is traced back all the way to the pharaohs. I grew up watching old movies. At that time, Egypt’s famous belly dancers were very respected, loved and appreciated. Now, this art form is being attacked because it’s considered vulgar. I wanted to show this part of my Egyptian culture.
The whole thing is shot in a dream sequence. The main character (Tahar Rahim) dreams of the old Egypt – the Egypt that he once loved and no longer exists. He realises this world is no longer there and all the belly dancers are dying. One remaining belly dancer (Salma Hayek) comes in his dream and comforts him. She is still alive and therefore, his world is not dead. She dances one last dance for him before he takes her with him to the American desert, which is where he lives now, in a very ‘Western movies’ kind of scene. The idea is more about memory and what is left to live within us, even if it is no longer part of reality.
Was it a natural progression for you to move from painting and photography to this particular medium? What challenges do you face when making a video that you do not when working with hand-coloured photos?
It is actually very different, yet somehow familiar, because I am used to directing people and telling stories. The only difference for me was that the camera was different. The camera is on, taking more and more expressions. It was something magical for me – to take more than that moment. It’s not only that one shot, it’s about the whole moment and what’s going on.
It is definitely different than photography, but it is something that I really enjoy experiencing. Personally on an emotional level, I always wanted to work with films, do films and see my photography moving and be able to tell the story in a different way, not only through one picture but through film or a video – the same way I grew up watching the films that I loved.
The other part of it is that I am not used to working with people. When I am by myself and I am working with someone, I don’t have an assistant with me. I paint by myself. The whole thing is very intimate for me, very personal for me.
During filming, I literally had 75 people around me, all of them wanting to ask me something, wanting me to approve something, see something. I also had to direct the actors. The whole thing was actually a very big production. On the other hand, I enjoy the fact that I could work with a team, a group of people who were all here for the same purpose, which was creating my vision. This vision had been in my mind for years and I’ve been working on this video now for the past three years. Just to have everyone with me on that journey towards my goal was very comforting and magical.
- The puppeteer: Wael Shawky’s ‘Cabaret Crusades’ at the Mathaf and MoMA PS1 – July 2015 – Egyptian artist depicts difficult history between Western and Arab cultures with marionettes
- Realism in Rawiya: Photographic (her)stories from the Middle East – in pictures – May 2015 – the first female photography collective shines a light on life in the region
- “Let’s play”: Egyptian artist Nermine Hammam on the credibility of images – interview – March 2015 – Cairo-born Nermine Hammam challenges imagery, myth and fantasy found in mass media with her mixed-media pieces
- Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi revives history through staged images – September 2014 – artist shines spotlight on Iran’s traumatic revolution by recreating deaths of well-known figures through “By an Eyewitness” series
- Palestinian photographer Steve Sabella declares independence through mental images – book review – September 2014 – monograph explores artist’s freedom in photographs of life under occupation and exile
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