“I wanted my photographs to be seen as paintings” – Egyptian artist and photographer, Youssef Nabil
Youssef Nabil is credited with capturing an era of Egypt through his lens that transports viewers well beyond the borders of the Middle East. Here Buro 24/7’s columnist Hatem Alakeel speaks exclusively to the artist…
Please let me introduce you to Mr. Youssef Nabil. As many of you may have noticed from my collection campaigns I have a passion for photography, a vision, which is often inspired by my favourite photographers including Herb Ritz, Mario Testino, Helmut Newton and of course, Egyptian visual artist, Youssef Nabil.
Nabil who started his career in 1992, went on to produce unique and distinctive hand-coloured silver gelatin prints, capturing the likes of Catherine Deneuve wearing a Tarha — an iconic image which highlights a moment in history whereby western artists began to dress in traditional clothing. Many other artists have also been subject to Nabil’s lens: Tracey Emin, Gilbert and George, Nan Goldin, Marina Abramović, Louise Bourgeois, and Shirin Neshat; singers Alicia Keys, Sting, and Natacha Atlas; actors Omar Sharif, Faten Hamama, Robert de Niro, Natalie Portman, Rossy de Palma, Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Huppert and Isabelle Adjani.
The Cairo-born artist has also extended his images into epic exhibitions too, with his first video, You Never Left, featuring actors Fanny Ardant and Tahar Rahim debuting in 2010, ahead of his second video in 2015, I Saved My Belly Dancer, with actors Salma Hayek and Tahar Rahim. The one-of-a-kind presentation moves and transports us to the many magical dreamy facades of the Arab world. What I love about his work is that there is this constant recognisable nostalgia, which immediately transports us to a time in Egypt during the glamorous King Farouk era, yet it still shows a very modern and contemporary relevant side to the city.
Thanks so much for taking the time to discuss your work Youssef. I see so much nostalgia in your art. Do you feel that your earlier days as a photographer had more substance than today?
It’s not so much about nostalgia as it is the fact that I’m no longer inspired by what I see, most of the time. So for me, it’s important to remember where we come from in order to move forward. For me it’s also my way of keeping the Egypt I know, and its true idea, alive and the only way of keeping it alive and real, is to make artworks about it.
Without a doubt you are one of the most prominent and pioneering Middle Eastern artists who has paved the way for many. Tell us about the beginning of your journey in Cairo? Did you always know that you wanted to pursue photography?
I’ve always wanted to pursue art in general. I knew that was the only thing I could do in life. So after high school I applied to the Academy of Arts in Cairo as well as the Academy of Cinema, I was refused everywhere. It wasn’t an easy period for me so I decided to make my own art.
When you first started creating work as a photographer, did you feel that being a Middle Eastern artist worked for you or against you?
I am Egyptian and my story is Egyptian. I can’t pretend to be from anywhere else, even though I’ve lived in New York and Paris. I’ve always spoken about my culture in my work. So for me it wasn’t exactly a choice, my work is personal and in my work I can only think of speaking about my own life.
To you, which shoot do you feel has shaped the Youssef Nabil ethos and signature style?
I can’t really choose one as each project represents a part of me — how I was thinking at that time, how I felt and how I expressed myself. For example, some of the work I did in the early 90’s when I was 19-years-old, I can’t do now. When I look at them, I remember that part of me.
You made the international leap! Exploring new markets is a dream for many young Middle Eastern artists. It can also be a big risk to take. When is this risk justified?
When I left Egypt in 2003, my idea was to live for a few months in Paris, which turned into three years! Then in 2006 I moved to New York. I knew by then that I couldn’t go back to Cairo, simply because of my work, because photography as an art form is still not appreciated, so I had to leave.
What do you treasure the most about Egyptian culture and heritage?
Middle Easterners are very modern and sensitive people; they love art, music, dance, cinema and ballet. I always tell my friends about the singer Oum Kalthoum, because for me she represents the Egypt I love, and this Egypt is what the West needs to know more about. Oum Kalthoum came from a simple village and started her life by studying the Koran, remained religious in a modern way and managed to become the most known singer from the Middle East. I once had a conversation with my friend Anohni (the lead singer of the band Antony and the Johnsons) who loves Oum Katlhoum. We spoke about her for so long, that’s how international she is.
You first met David LaChapelle in Cairo. Tell us about that time…
I worked with David in the early 90s, when I was about 19 or 20 years old. It was an invaluable experience for me to work with such a visionary and an established talent. He came to do a photo shoot in Cairo in 1992 and that’s how we first met. We then continued working together in New York between 1993 and 1994. He was and still is like a brother to me. We are still in touch and meet every time we are in the same city.
From there, you went on to work with Mario Testino. Tell us about the moment from your time working with him?
I met Mario in 1997 in Cairo, when he came to shoot Linda Evangelista for British Vogue. Then, I continued working with him in Paris between 1997 and 1998. It was great working with him, Mario has a unique eye, a great sense of humor and he was a very generous mentor. Now when I look back on things, working with David and Mario and having met them both in my city, Cairo, was just the best school! But I didn’t want to become a fashion photographer, my calling was to create art and exhibit art. I also wanted to study how to paint photographs.
I’ve always believed that talent is not something that can be taught
Catherine Deneuve wearing a Tarha… How did this photo come about and what was your vision.
I wanted to talk about the idea of the old Mediterranean veil, which covers your hair with fabric – then it was normal and worn in a completely different manner from what we’re experiencing now. For me, it’s has always been part of this region and its culture. From depictions in Renaissance portrait paintings, to women in Spain, Italy, Greece even in upper Egypt, the veil has always been part of this region, without being a sign of religion, nor a sign of separation between men and women. So I wanted to talk about it and photograph cinema icons I loved like Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, Anouk Aimée, Charlotte Rampling and Claudia Cardinale, among others, wearing the black veil I loved.
What is style to you?
I wouldn’t call it style. I think when it comes to art, your work is you and whatever you decide to do reflects your personality, your thoughts and your soul. So every time you create a new work, another part of you is revealed. With time this becomes what your work is about, it becomes a reference in art. Staying true to you is what is most important for an artist.
More is more or less is more?
Less is more.