Too many issues were becoming taboo and the ability to openly challenge traditional views of masculinity, sexuality, women, physicality and love was constrained by an increasingly reactionary atmosphere
Liberated from an unkind present, the belly dancer is finally saved by the Stetson-sporting Rahim on the back of a white horse. The sun sets on Rahim’s still-sleeping body, lying on the shore in a loose blue djellaba.
by James Parry
A passion for the golden age of Egyptian cinema first led photographer and artist Youssef Nabil to portraiture and the stylish reinterpretation of classic figures and techniques. James Parry discovers how his quest for liberation is now taking him into the realm of video, with dramatic results.
It made sense to meet at a railway station. A place of constant and countless arrivals and departures, a symbol of the myriad journeys – both temporal and spiritual – that are undertaken by millions of people every day. So it was that Youssef Nabil and I met at St Pancras Station in London, in the foyer what was arguably the grandest of all the former railway hotels in the British capital. “So much of my life is spent on the road,” says the artist, who hails from Egypt and currently has studios in New York, Paris and Miami, “that sometimes it’s hard to keep track of exactly where I’m heading.” It’s a telling observation from a man who has come a long way, in various senses, from his childhood growing up in Cairo to a role now as one of the most creative and distinctive international artists working through photography – and now making his second hugely impressive foray into the realm of video.
The young Youssef was fascinated by films from Egypt’s halcyon era of cinema during the 1950s and 60s, and especially by the glamorous actors who starred in them. “I find more used to ask my mum about these characters and she’d say, ‘Oh, they’re all dead now’,” he recalls. “So I somehow found myself in love with a lot of beautiful dead people, entranced by how they had become immortalised on film and in photographs and were therefore still alive, at least to me.” Early ideas of being a film director were temporarily set aside in favour of a career in photography, inspired in part by a friendship with Cairo-based Van Leo, the legendary Armenian-Egyptian photographer who specialised in studio portraits of the very actors in whom Nabil had developed such a keen interest. Nabil’s own early works (often comprising shots of tableaux acted out by his friends) were inspired by film stills and their sumptuous retro quality caught the attention of David LaChapelle, who hired Nabil as his assistant when on a shoot in Egypt. Soon the budding artist was on a fast upward trajectory that took him to New York and then to work with Mario Testino in Paris.
By this time Nabil was perfecting what has since become his trademark technique of hand-colouring his silver gelatin photographs to give them a dreamy, ethereal quality and sense of timelessness. His portraits of iconic figures – drawn primarily from the worlds of literature, music, art and cinema in the Arab world – resonated with nostalgia and poetry, rekindling past cinematic glories whilst also helping forge a new sense of extrapolated cultural identity for Egypt. Yet at the same time Nabil was feeling increasingly estranged from his home country. “Working with the themes and subjects to which I was increasingly drawn was becoming more and more difficult,” he recalls. “I didn’t feel completely free to express myself, nor did I feel at peace,” he says. “Departure was the only course of action left to me.”