Articles

I Saved My Belly Dancer
By Natasha Morris, February 23, 2016

I Saved My Belly Dancer

By Natasha Morris

Youssef Nabil’s hand-coloured homage to Egypt’s Golden Age and the art of the belly dancer

On the distant and empty Egyptian coastline, the French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim lies asleep. As he dreams, mirage-like images are conjured before him: an upright line of old Egyptian military men, each donning a tarboosh, princes and princesses adorned with silk sashes, and – above all – a chain of belly dancers. As our protagonist waves in and out of his dreamlike state, there is one woman, clad in gold and a most vibrant red, who tiptoes into his thoughts alone. She is his belly dancer.

The 10-minute video, I Saved My Belly Dancer, marks a return to film for the Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil. His first foray into the realm of the moving image was 2010’s You Never Left, again starring Rahim alongside the French actress Fanny Ardant; but Nabil originally became known for his distinctive, meticulously hand-coloured silver gelatine print photographs recalling the glamour of the Egyptian film industry of the 40s and 50s. His films possess the same aesthetic: each frame is bathed in the muted, creamy hues of aged photographs. Whether moving or still, Nabil’s images are truly born when they are injected with the palette of the past. 

A return to film, five years later, was motivated by both the technical possibilities of the medium and the turbulence experienced in Egypt during the January Revolution of 2011, which the artist watched unfold from afar in Paris and New York City. ‘I inherently relate to film. My whole practice of photography has been inspired by cinema, and I really want to see my images moving’, he explains; ‘but around the time I had finished the first film, I read an article about the closure of 12 belly dancing clubs’. The artist noticed a change in society, then. ‘I saw [that] the idea of Egypt – my Egypt that I grew up in and that still lives within me – was somehow threatened by these ideas and impositions on our culture.’

As the figure of the belly dancer was vilified by the authorities, she came to assume the symbol of Nabil’s old Egypt. ‘The first thing that came to me was the title; I literally said to myself, I want to save the belly dancer’, he tells me. ‘To the authorities, she came to represent everything they hated: she is a woman, she’s dancing, and is using her body to express herself – therefore, she’s bad’. He soon came to the conclusion that ‘the whole thing, in their minds is the exact opposite of [what] I saw as an art form that I had admired since childhood’.

I Saved My Belly Dancer is ultimately about memory. The film is an archive of the mind captured by the camera – pieces of an Egypt Nabil wanted to save, redeem, and carry with him everywhere. ‘The only way to keep that Egypt alive was to make art about it’, he asserts. Themes of memory, nostalgia, and homesickness shadow what is a bewitching display of belly dancing enacted by Hollywood actress Salma Hayek, the film’s titular heroine, whose darker presence swells beneath the camp appeal afforded by the aesthetics of Nabil’s work. Both You Never Left and I Saved My Belly Dancer were originally conceived as self-portraits and visual interpretations of the artist’s deepest thoughts and emotions connected to the land of his birth. The former work dealt with the idea of leaving home and the relationship of this transition to that of living and dying. ‘When I left Egypt for Paris in 2003, I started doing self-portraits … and the idea of death was always on my mind’, he says, before making a connection to ancient Egypt: ‘[this rumination on death] might have something to do with being Egyptian; you know, the pharaohs were always so concerned with the afterlife, and I grew up having all of this in me’. Nabil’s oeuvre is an act of self-preservation, but also an act of preserving a history beyond that of his own: the history of a country and culture.

Born in Cairo in 1972, Nabil became obsessed with the ‘Golden Age’ of Egyptian cinema as a boy. For the young artist, the ultimate attractions of the age were belly dancers such as the legendary Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca, who undulated before rapturous audiences. But, whilst Nabil sat mesmerised by the glamour of the silver screen, watching films produced two decades before his own birth, he also found himself contemplating mortality for the first time. ‘Because I was watching a lot of old movies, I was watching a lot of dead people’, he remembers; ‘but to me, they were still inspiring and so beautiful, and I was in love with them’. After such experiences, Nabil began to observe life differently, this time with a desire to record experiences and show them to the world. This yearning ultimately led him to leave Egypt in a bittersweet separation that still reverberates throughout his personal and artistic lives. ‘I knew that I wanted to tell my story beyond [Egypt]; I wanted more freedom; so, I began to observe my life in Egypt with the sense of someone who only comes to stay for a short while, only to leave again’, he remarks. ‘It made me appreciate everyone I met and everything I did whilst I was there. As much as I love Egypt, I knew it couldn’t give me anymore than it had already given me.’

During our conversation, Nabil refers to the poem Ithaka (Ithaca) by C.P. Cavafy, the renowned Greek poet born in Alexandria. Nabil sees Cavafy’s poem as the ultimate ode to the journey of life, and one that encapsulates his particular feelings towards Egypt:

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

‘When I left Egypt,’ says the artist, ‘I felt that I had died, in a way; I had to start everything from zero and find my life again in a new place with new people’. As a result, You Never Left came to represent this rebirth, with Ardant appearing as a mother figure carrying Rahim as her son in a riff on the iconography of the Virgin Mary and the baby Christ. I Saved My Belly Dancer, on the other hand, tells Nabil’s story in a wider context. Through his lifelong relationship with belly dance, the artist articulates his anxieties towards an idea of a country he left and can no longer access, except by way of his own fantasies. As his dreams rapidly fade upon waking, Nabil’s protagonist remains asleep in order to facilitate his time-travel. As with most dreams, the setting is off-kilter and unspecific, a mnemonic mishmash supposed to be set in one place, but appearing as another. These visions, seen by audiences through Rahim’s nocturnal imaginings, are a mixture of the minimalistic landscapes of the Egyptian coastline and Nabil’s new environs in the guise of the deserts of the American Midwest.

The delicate and bittersweet score by Tunisian composer Anouar Brahem perfectly captures the notion of nostalgia as a ‘hypochondria of the heart’. Nostalgia was once thought of as an incurable condition in 17th century Europe, with the Swiss physician Johannes Hoffer identifying it as being inextricably linked to homesickness: a ‘sad mood originating from the desire for [returning] to one’s native land’, he called it. Indeed, the film features the creative efforts of artists from a spectrum of nationalities, from the Arab world and beyond, each contributing their own personal responses to Nabil’s memories of Egypt’s past.

The casting of Salma Hayek, an actress of Lebanese and Mexican ancestry, was an easy decision for Nabil. ‘For me, I always saw Salma as an Arab. Of course, she is a Latina and a Hollywood star, but she has Lebanese roots. Her name is Arabic, and she is physically very Arab’. Hayek, though, had never played an Arab role before. The two met by chance in Paris, and the admiration was mutual, with both Hayek and her father-in-law being avid collectors of Nabil’s work. Nabil told Hayek that he was thinking of making a second film, as well as that he saw her playing the role of the belly dancer; he had even gone so far as to create a storyboard with her in it. Hayek accepted immediately. She couldn’t look more natural perhaps, clad in a red and gold bedlah costume (true to the style of the 1950s), moving gracefully and intuitively across the sand. Rahim reprises his part as Nabil’s leading man, articulating what is ultimately, deeply personal autobiographical material, with great conviction. ‘He really translates my emotions perfectly’, Nabil affirms.

Unlike Samia Gamal, who broke tradition by dancing in high heel shoes (apparently to show that she could afford them), Hayek dances barefoot, taking the art back to its origins in raqs sharqi (lit. ‘Eastern dance’) and raqs baladi (‘country’/‘folk’ dance) before the mid-20th century. Her performance is at once earthy and tender, and partly improvised; she makes her presence known to Rahim by caressing his sleeping body in a choreographed embrace. It is a beautiful sweep of movement that emanates from the potent memory of Nabil’s first encounter with a real-life belly dancer at the age of six or seven. ‘We used to go to all the weddings in our family, and of course, the belly dancer is the evening entertainment everyone is waiting for’, he notes. ‘Sometimes, this would be at three a.m.; you’re tired, but no one can go home until she comes out’. Nabil remembers this particular evening vividly: ‘I was myself nearly asleep by this point when she finally emerged. I remember her perfume. She covered me with her red veil. I remember it going over my whole body, and then she moved away like a butterfly.’ The red veil is reimagined in Hayek’s own costume covering Rahim’s sleeping body as she dances above him; the belly dancer of childhood memory returns to tell him that the world of his dreams has not vanished.

Away from the rosy nostalgia of I Saved My Belly Dancer, contemporary Egyptian dancers, bound by an increasingly conservative society sometimes find it hard to reconcile their profession with their faith. Accusations of debauchery have seen women arrested for performing in too ‘racy’ a manner. Dancers have often been heard whispering, rabbena, yitob ‘alena (‘may God relieve us’) backstage after shows. It is, all in all, a far cry from the art form that was once referred to as ‘classical’ in Egypt, the country where the suggested origins of the sensual-cum-social baladi routines received their greatest refinement: the beauty of the movements inspired by the serpent and the Nile since antiquity. The social discourse of ayb (shame) has worked its way into a performance that used to be the highlight of weddings, celebrations, and films. The series of prints accompanying the film in its eponymous exhibition at Dubai’s Third Line gallery harks back to this age of relative tolerance. Within each photograph, the belly dancer is posed in the centre, just as she would have been in the traditional portraits taken at Egyptian weddings, as the star everyone would have gone to see. ‘If you give women the right to be equal to men, to dance how they want, to expose their bodies and express themselves,’ says Nabil, ‘for me, this is the barometer of how open-minded a society and country is’.

Beyond issues surrounding the exposure of the female form currently surrounding belly dancing, Nabil had previously meditated on issues of concealment with respect to the headscarf. ‘I did a series of portraits with iconic Western women, from Catherine Deneuve to Alicia Keys, where they were clothed in the traditional Egyptian veil worn by both Christian and Muslim women in villages, even today’, he explains, going on to say that ‘for me, it was never a sign of segregation or inequality, and I wanted to articulate that. It’s actually a shared way of being, culturally’. Nabil tells me that the headscarf can be seen all around the Mediterranean, in Renaissance painting, and in images of the Virgin Mary. ‘Symbolically, covering a woman’s hair isn’t always imposing something she doesn’t want on her, or an act of separation between men and women; there can be a lot of power in it.’

Liberated from an unkind present, the belly dancer is finally saved by the Stetson-sporting Rahim on the back of a white horse. The two ride away from the sands of Nabil’s Ithaka, slowly, towards the American dream of Nabil’s adopted home. The sun sets on Rahim’s still-sleeping body, lying on the shore in a loose blue djellaba.

© REORIENT Magazine, 2016

Memories of a Lost Land
by James Parry - November 2015

Memories of a Lost Land

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 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. 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. "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."

In 2003 Nabil left Egypt permanently, quietly slipping out of the country without even telling his family and friends. Although he has since returned on short visits, he recalls how it "felt like a definitive departure, and that's what made it so painful." If the exit itself was difficult emotionally, the months that followed proved to have their own unexpected agony. "I suddenly found myself having lots of feelings that I hadn't anticipated," he confesses. "Senses of loss and estrangement, of exile and separation, and of unanswered questions. It was a terrible time. I had a 'mini-death', I suppose one could say." A series of self- portraits ensued as Nabil sought to articulate his own sense of dislocation and of longing for a country and a way of life that had passed, now clinging on only in film, print and the fading minds of a dying generation. "I felt that the open and cosmopolitan Egypt of the old days had gone, and that no one seemed to care," he laments.

Nabil left Egypt, but Egypt left him too in the sense that the open, pluralistic country he cherished had itself vanished. Yet Egypt is still with him in the form of his carefully crafted memories and symbolism. Different journeys, and to destinations as yet unknown. Meanwhile, critical acclaim and a host of international exhibitions had bolstered Nabil's reputation. "My art and career were going really well, but there were increasingly things that I wanted to say about Egypt, my Egypt," he says. His lifelong fascination with cinema was somehow inevitably going to lead him to create his own works of moving image, and in 2010 he released his first video, You Never Left. An eight-minute piece with actors Fanny Ardant and Tahar Rahim, the video represents a rebirth on the part of Nabil. "I wanted to reincarnate my lost Egypt and speak about how leaving it was like dying and then needing to find rebirth elsewhere," he explains. Rahim, acclaimed for his role in the award-winning French film The Prophet (2009), plays a character clearly based on Nabil himself, shown arriving in a lush paradise that stands as a metaphor for a vanished Egypt. Mixed religious and spiritual iconography abound, with Ardant playing an ambiguous role that could variously be Rahim/Nabil's mother, lover or simply Egypt herself. Compelling and haunting, the video marked a startling screen debut for Nabil.

Its biographical allusions made it an understandably challenging work for the artist. "Even now, I find it very emotional to watch You Never Left," Nabil admits. "I see feelings and emotions that I've felt all my life now translated through the characters and the imagery." The subject of death and resurrection is one in which Nabil has always been interested. "We talk a lot about death in Egypt," he explains, "and about how life is transient and temporary. We are all just visitors, our future and destiny preordained." Ironically, the making of the video highlighted some of the restrictions in contemporary Egypt that had prompted Nabil to leave several years earlier. He tells me how he would love to have filmed there, but red tape and a seemingly endless cycle of necessary permissions would have made it almost impossible. Instead the video was shot in Morocco, where more relaxed attitudes to depictions of the human body (Rahim is lightly clad in much of the video) were also more conducive to a successful project.
This month sees the release of Nabil's second video, I Saved My Belly Dancer, starring Tahar Rahim again, this time alongside Salma Hayek, in a 12-minute eulogy to the dying art of belly dancing. "The art of belly dancing is a symbol of all that we have lost in Egypt over the last few decades," says Nabil. "When I was growing up, belly dancers were very respected and sophisticated artists, the supreme practitioners of an indigenous cultural form dating back to the Pharaohs. Their costumes were fabulous works of art in themselves." Today the status, reputation and abilities of belly dancers in Egypt are totally diminished, the former artistry all but forgotten as conservative values have sought to denigrate such traditions and drive them to the periphery of social decency and acceptability. Shocked by this shift, Nabil pays a personal tribute to the tolerant and pluralistic Egypt that once nurtured diversity and freedom of expression.

Shot between London and Arizona, the video recounts the story of a young man (Rahim) who has fallen asleep on a beach – thereby dovetailing neatly with the closing sequence in Nabil's first video, You Never Left, in which Rahim's character is seen rowing out to sea in a small boat – and begins to dream of his 'old Egypt', of the monarchy, belly dancers, film stars and a glamorous cosmopolitanism. With the sand around him littered with the dead characters of this symbolic lost land, a last-surviving belly dancer (Hayek) comes, wipes his tears and reassures him that she is still alive. She then performs a final valedictory dance – a farewell to the Egypt that once was – before the two ride off together (he dressed as a cowboy) into a Western movie-style sunset in the United States, where the young man is now settled. Rebirth is thereby achieved again, from death comes new life, and the continuity of our collective story is maintained.

In both videos Nabil has articulated with great elegance and poise his own sense of loss and estrangement whilst also carefully highlighting the healing power, energy and renewal that come from creating a new life elsewhere. The characters played by Ardant and Hayek in his videos are the chord that ties him still to Egypt; they nurture and sustain, ever dependable and serving as the font of ultimate salvation. Yet whilst they provide their satellite with an enduring source of cultural identity and nourishment, their quasi-surreal status reminds us that memory is nothing if not selective and that our intrinsic sense of belonging is perhaps not as fixed or as stable as we might think. We all take certain things with us when we travel, physically or otherwise, and our choices may defy rationale or explanation. "I suppose I've simply chosen what it was that I wanted to save from my Egypt and always carry with me," concedes Nabil. "I need to keep these things as part of my reality. There may be nothing more to it than that."

© Canvas Magazine/November 2015

Technicolour and the silver screen: Youssef Nabil – interview
by Lisa Pollman, October 2015

Technicolour and the silver screen: Youssef Nabil – interview

by Lisa Pollman

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.


*originally published on Art Radar

Youssef Nabil in Spotlight
Los Angeles Review of Books. February 5th, 2015

Youssef Nabil in Spotlight

By Michael Kurcfeld

Any new medium clings for a while to the conventions of the medium it succeeds. Just as early cinema looked a lot like theater, so early photography often emulated classical narrative painting. In the portraits of Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil, the subjects are contemporary but they are tinged with a desire for the subjective hues of painting. It is, in a way, nostalgia for an earlier photography that was most often seen in vintage postcards colored by anonymous hands. But Nabil adds his own unique blend of mixed media, vignette, and melancholic sensibility to create a body of work that is fluid in its recall of eras past.

Nabil grew up in Cairo, where his early shyness led to his love for old movies, and for their gaudily colorized posters. When he first developed his skills as a photographer, he favored black-and-white images. (His stints under Mario Testino and David LaChapelle showed him “how a real artist studio functions in the West.”) But when he came around to wanting his work to have color, he had no interest in using color film. He sought out the last remaining portrait studio colorists, remembering the hand-painted images that were prevalent when he was a boy. From these dozen fading retouching artists in Cairo and Alexandria, Nabil learned the technique of layering watercolor onto black-and-white photos. He experimented further as his career took off, and eventually applied his signature style to the faces of friends, randomly met strangers, and the famous. But he never stopped making self-portraits that expressed his social and existential concerns, particularly about the unsolvable puzzle of mortality.

Nabil emphasizes the influence of his passion for film of all kinds, not only in the glamour of Egyptian movies, but that of Europe and Hollywood. “Cinema is life,” says Nabil. “And life is cinema, in a way. When you look at someone’s life, there’s a beginning and an end that we can’t know until it happens, nor how long life is going to last.” He chooses directors and stories that bring something deeper to his understanding of existence. “Some directors, some movies do that, they have the effect of ‘white magic’ on people.” At the same time, he has absorbed the lessons of art and singles out Frida Kahlo as a touchstone. “I loved the fact that you could turn your suffering into art. I was 19 when I discovered her work, and it was the first time I understood that you can show your very personal story in your art, painful or not. She was a big inspiration.”

Nabil admits to a penchant for posing strong women who are intrepid and unapologetic about their work and place in society. One of his favorite subjects is Fifi Abdou, a renowned belly dancer and actress who defied taboos of exposed female flesh and public sensuality in the Arab world. Others include Marina Abramovic, architect Zaha Hadid, and British artist Tracey Emin, with whom he has become friends. Nabil’s art has transformed the figures of artists and performers he admires, including celebrated European actresses such as Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, and Isabelle Adjani — whom he has often shot wearing traditional black veils. Intentionally or not, his Veil series alludes to mourning and chastity, though Nabil is more focused on the formal beauty of a classically draped and framed visage, as seen in countless Renaissance paintings. It also serves to connect him to his Egyptian heritage, as part of a fashion tradition with a pragmatic basis in the local climate. And there is another element. “I also think it brings some peace to the wearer,” he says, while not keen on speaking further about the garment’s religious overtones.

Nabil’s alluring images are a window not just on his country, which is perhaps less known in fine-art photography circles, but also on the artist’s expressive inner world. Taking a deeply personal route that fuses photography and painting, it belies the notion that the camera is wholly objective. “There’s something romantic about it, this combination. One of the mysteries of life, I guess.”

Los Angeles Review of Books. February 5th, 2015

Isabelle Adjani en conversation avec Youssef Nabil
Paris, October 2013

Isabelle Adjani in Conversation with Youssef Nabil

Youssef Nabil: I woke up today thinking of that bird, the hummingbird. Do you like hummingbirds?

Isabelle Adjani: Hummingbirds are blue, aren't they?

Y.N: They're often blue. And small. You see them posing in mid-air flapping their wings very fast.

I.A: Yes, that's right. They're very pretty. I don't know where in the world you find them.

Y.N: I've seen a lot in Los Angeles and South Africa. But they're rare birds. And that made me think of you.

I.A: Because they're blue?

Y.N: Because you are very rare!

I.A: (laughs) That's why you thought of a hummingbird, because you're going to color me soon. Will I be hummingbird blue?

Y.N: Your blue eyes will be even bluer, for sure. And I often paint blue backgrounds, too. Why have you stopped making movies several times?

I.A: I don't stop making movies.

Y.N: For a period of time, I mean.

I.A: I have no sense of time. Unlike many people, I'm not preoccupied by life slipping away, and I don't try to fill the time allotted to me in this earthly incarnation. I live like someone who is going to die and be reborn tomorrow. In one of your interviews, you said, We leave all the time, we die all the time. That's pretty much how I live the life of my days, but with a form of timelessness in this preemption of mortality. For me, taking a break-making films or not- makes no difference even if, socially, it may have an impact. One may be judged, misunderstood, by those who "observe." But I don't try to fill space and the media. On the contrary, I sometimes feel a fundamental need to remove myself, and that leads me to "surf." I "surf" in my life, to some extent. It doesn't preclude having an artistic approach that would be mine alone because I'm a very hard worker when I'm out there.

Y.N: So you don't see time going by. Time has always preoccupied and perturbed me, you know. I'm obsessed by the idea of not having enough time to realize all my projects and ideas. I would have loved to see fifty or a hundred Fellini movies, for example, but he ran out of time. Death took him. It occurred to me, in childhood, that we are nothing but passengers in life. That realization was a painful discovery. I was sitting watching an old Egyptian movie on TV in Cairo. I was maybe five years old and I asked my mother who all those actors were and what had become of them. She replied, They're all dead! What a shock it was for me, to be in love with all these beautiful, dead people.

I.A: (laughs)

Y.N: Then and there, it opened my eyes to this inevitable end. That's why I wanted to become an artist and work with photography, which has the power to capture the moment, and time therefore, and restitute it later, in ten or a hundred years. It also has the power to make me meet and photograph people I love before we all disappear for good. These questions haunt me and are painful to live with. All we have done, learned and understood, we will leave behind us. Then others will replace us for a while. It's like in a dream; you know none of it is true and that you'll wake up. I have a sense of living my life back to front because I already know the end. Everything leaves.

I.A: Everything will decompose. It often crosses my mind. In fact, I can't visit cemeteries anymore, even the one where my parents are buried without-and this is very unpleasant-without "going down into the tomb." In other words, without picturing the decomposition. I'm incapable of staying above the surface. It's a bond to the "design," the matter that constitutes us, which links me to them at moments like that. When I walk through Père Lachaise cemetery, where my parents and brother are buried, I reflect on the accumulated knowledge, ideas, talent and perhaps even genius crumbing into nothingness. But, to go back to the notion of breaks, I always think that it is creative. Anything in me that seems to be disappearance serves the purpose of making me reappear wherever something was taken from me. What is often taken from me is the possibility of being myself. When I make myself scarce, it means it was necessary for me to...

Y.N: To disconnect.

I.A: To protect myself, I think. Because I think an artist needs to be protected. Even so, I've never felt protected in my life. Perhaps it's up to me to find... However much I deplore it, absence has often been my protection.

Y.N: Ideally, what would your life be? How could you see yourself living, since you seem to reject a kind of order?

I.A: Ideally, at this stage in my life, I'd like to live completely protected, meaning totally free to be myself. By spending the time I so lack reading, writing, seeing and performing in movies and plays, and meeting people-not at dinner parties in the networking sense that has become so important now. That repulses me. I verge on desocialization when it comes to saving a date for a particular event or dinner party. (laughs) Being forced to meet people is an ordeal.

Y.N: I completely understand. I'm like you. It's a real ordeal. I often find myself at dinner parties where you have to talk to everybody, but I don't think I'm cut out for that. Often, I feel almost obligated to say things that I know will serve no purpose, so I prefer to remain silent. Talking is a major effort for me. Actually, when I was younger, I was a total introvert. I hardly spoke and I always preferred watching people over talking to them.

I.A: Yes. Just think how deep you must drill inside yourself for the energy to froth up the superficial! It's what the neighborhood doctor might call adrenal sufficiency, meaning you need grade-A kidneys. Without the strength of your kidneys, your body can't function. When I'm in those situations, I feel my kidneys melting away. I sense the color seeping out of the whole organ, from pink to pallid.

Y.N: It's like an invasion of my private space because, for me, speech is very intimate. At dinner parties, I feel a way of life being forced upon us, so I'm never very comfortable. Often, I don't go because you know everything's phony.

I.A: Yes, people are in a state of artifice. Like you said, these social obligations turn you into another person. In fact, I'd like to be literally self-sufficient or something like that. But is that possible? Your freedom and lightness depend on you being creative, on you creating things.

Y.N: But you are creative! Having seen your films, I don't think you work like an actress. Instead, you're an artist looking for a certain truth and yourself. You don't act, you speak of yourself and your story. It's very tangible. There is always a moment when the audience wonders if it's you or your character. It's the same process for an artist, making choices and projecting oneself through a role onto the world. That may be why you disappear sometimes because, at certain moments, you have nothing to say. Through your roles, you gradually paint the canvas of your own life!

I.A: When you talk to me like that, you see, you protect me.

Y.N: Yes, but you make me talk like that. I have seen you act and I get the impression that you're on a mission on Earth. You are here to be a voice, an idea, to express something and disappear. As if you didn't really exist.

I.A: It seems to me that I haven't so far expressed what you describe, but I want to have that courage, strength and Desire- with a capital D, meaning the desire that brings life back to the libido. As an artist, I have censored myself on occasion. When I read your interviews, though, you never seek to justify yourself or obtain approval for your words and deeds. You stay yourself, take it or leave it, without wondering what people think. You are oblivious to the speculative considerations that exist in the behavior of artists who are, in many instances, contaminated by their supposed value. We have made them businessmen or women above all else.

Y.N: Yes, it's in their nature, but you're not like that. There have always been artists who are businessmen in disguise. They inundate us with bad movies and bad art, but they also foster an audience in their image. You see how people live today. We are entering a new era, where everything is digital and faster than ever. Everybody has a phone with a camera, video, internet... Without wishing to sound nostalgic, I think things were better before. All these machines make us less human and more automated. For a guy like me, who develops his photos in a dark room and paints by hand, it's hard to envision a digital world. What about you? How do you see the world we live in today?

I.A: It barely interests me, and I don't see it at all. It goes over my head and I don't want to spend my time in futile pursuit of it. This free access to absolutely everything is not based on desire, but on triggering responses to a variety of temptations. We are in contact with "everything," except ourselves. I think that engenders confusion, malaise and absolutely unimaginable solitude in people. In that world, it is difficult to feel a little happiness for and through yourself, rather than through what is on offer and similar to what everybody else has. That, I find, really is a way of atomizing individuality.

Y.N: I think that sums up globalization. A single currency in Europe, chain stores everywhere, social media... It all erodes identity. We all end up being like everybody else, with the same codes and references tying us together. Gradually, the world is becoming a village. And yet... Isabelle, do you feel lonely?

I.A: Yes, of course. Horribly lonely. (laughs)

Y.N: Don't you think that solitude is precisely that which drives us to create?

I.A: Yes, of course. Although I dread inhibitory solitude. For all the life force we can generate, we are more vulnerable to the blues. We are fragile, very fragile. I think solitude may be positive only as long as you don't feel threatened. And then it takes love or meeting people-as you and I met, for example-to feel less alone. The main thing, as you said earlier, is to learn not to let solitude dominate, to make it...

Y.N: Creative. You know, I read a poem you wrote as a teenager, and it was very beautiful. It reminded me of my childhood. I used to write a lot of poetry.

I.A: Yes, I know. And you stopped when you were around 16, I believe.

Y.N: Exactly! (laughs) I think there is a particular mindset at that age but, afterwards, life encourages us to forget that we possessed such fragility. In your poem, you spoke about exactly what we are discussing here. You questioned the world and life, existence and its end. You were already aware of that. You see, despite what's forgotten, I think we always stay the same person, to some extent, with our own natures and desires. That's why I think that you are on a mission, that you are fighting for beautiful ideas and that you see the world differently than other people. It's important to write it and not to be constantly in front of the camera. For me, you are much more than an actress, and everybody can feel it.

I.A: Yes, I always sensed it, too, but I never gave myself license to be that. I don't know why. It's complicated. It's my personal story. I have a sense of not having finished, even though I feel it's barely even begun.

Y.N: But that's fine. I think that we need to move forward with a sense of not having done everything yet. Life is about constantly seeking, constantly trying to take it further, in terms of discoveries and doubts. As soon as artists think they have reached the peak and sit down to enjoy the view, they lose their curiosity and sign their death sentence. In any case, we don't have enough time in life and we have to make choices.

I.A: Yes, it turned out to be complicated for me to devote myself entirely to things I am passionate about. Those who are in harmony with their art are those who have made an egocentric choice whose radicalism they accept in order to constantly create, produce, film, act, write... Now, I have to be able to rely on somebody else, a partner or "mini-me." I think that, on my own, encumbered by souls, as I have been all my life, taking care of and worrying about others, I veered off the road laid out for me. That partially explains the breaks I mentioned earlier. Today, I think it is perhaps time for me to organize my life for and around me.

Y.N: Isabelle, you are half-Arab and I often think about your Algerian origins. I always wonder, when do you feel Arab? I believe that we have within ourselves the culture of our ancestors, even if we didn't really know them. They are in us, in genetic terms at least. I believe we all have a genetic story. My father is half-Greek, half-Lebanese, and my mother is Egyptian. I lived in Cairo for thirty years before moving to Paris, then New York. In the final analysis, I feel very Mediterranean in my blood and culture. But you? I admit that I don't see you as at all Arab, even if I know that it's in there somewhere.

I.A: Of course. It comes exclusively from my father because my mother was German and he was Algerian. It comes through his memory and his sense of belonging to his land, which he left when he was sixteen. I believe that the bond is more organic than cultural, through food, for example. My father told me that he sometimes had to live on a frugal diet of bread, olive and dates. For me, that is a very Arabizing vision. It's beautiful, noble and pure, touching on both body and mind. It makes me picture my father in the precarious happiness he was able to experience at the heart of the city he constantly talked to me about, Constantine. A unique, white city on a hill, where Arabs and Jews happily cohabited. Frankly, it's a relationship that hinges on the romanticism of Oriental storytelling, but my father carried that in him all his life and that is my relationship to my Arabness. Sometimes, I also feel my mother's side-southern Germany, Bavaria, a poetic and romantic region that gave birth to Ludwig II. But these feelings are not very identifiable. I recognize them when they emerge without there being a pattern.

Y.N: Even when you were a kid, at home.

I.A: At home, too, it's related to food. My father made couscous every Sunday. In fact, it's related to anything sensorial, but not to the Arab language. There was also the way he put his hands over his face, suddenly lost in a secret prayer, and that meant silence and mysterious emotions for me. My father, who spoke perfect French, practically hid to speak Arabic. He came from a generation that wanted to integrate at all costs. To a certain extent, that involved eliminating the place you came from, without disowning it, for your children's sake. Being in France wasn't easy for my father, nor for my mother, because their home countries were France's designated enemies. (laughs)

Y.N: Maybe so, but France's designated enemies gave France a wonderful present... You! Have we said all there is to say?

I.A: No. We've said a lot, but not everything, far from it. Never.

Paris, October 2013
L'OFFICIEL Art : December - January - February 2013-2014

Isabelle Adjani en conversation avec Youssef Nabil

Malgré des différences, leurs parcours se rejoignent à bien des égards. C'est dans la grâce de cette découverte qu'Isabelle Adjani et l'artiste Youssef Nabil ont répondu à l'invitation de L'Officiel Art. Ensemble, tour à tour légers et graves, ils évoquent la possibilité d'un monde autre, et explorent une relation au temps qui n'appartient qu'à eux et qui caractérise depuis toujours leurs choix artistiques.


Youssef Nabil : Tu sais, aujourd'hui je me suis réveillé en pensant à cet oiseau, le colibri. Tu aimes les colibris ?

Isabelle Adjani : C'est bleu les colibris, non ?

Y.N : Ils sont souvent bleus, tout petits, tu les vois poser dans l'air en battant des ailes très vite.

I.A : Oui c'est ça. Ils sont très jolis. Je ne sais pas dans quelle région du monde on les trouve.

Y.N : J'en ai vu beaucoup à Los Angeles et en Afrique du Sud. Mais c'est un oiseau un petit peu rare. Et il m'a fait penser à toi.

I.A : Parce qu'il est bleu ?

Y.N : Parce que tu es très rare !

I.A : (rires) C'est pour cela que tu pensais à un colibri ! Car tu vas me mettre de la couleur bientôt. J'aurais droit au bleu colibri ?

Y.N : Tes yeux bleus vont être encore plus bleus c'est sûr ! Et je peins aussi souvent les fonds en bleu. Pourquoi tu as arrêté de faire des films plusieurs fois ?

I.A : J'arrête pas.

Y.N : Pendant certaines périodes je veux dire.

I.A : Je n'ai pas conscience du temps. À la différence de beaucoup de gens, je ne me préoccupe pas de la vie qui fuit, et je ne cherche pas à remplir le temps qui m'est imparti dans cette incarnation terrestre. Je vis comme quelqu'un qui va mourir et renaître demain. D'ailleurs dans un de tes entretiens tu disais "On s'en va tout le temps. On meurt tout le temps." Moi, c'est un peu comme cela que je vis la vie de mes journées mais en même temps avec une forme d'intemporalité dans cette préemption du mortel. Donc pour moi, m'interrompre, faire des films, ou pas, ça ne fait aucune différence, même si socialement, cela peut avoir un impact. On peut se retrouver jugée, incomprise, par ceux qui "observent"... Mais je ne cherche pas à occuper l'espace et les médias. Au contraire, j'ai parfois fondamentalement besoin de m'en éloigner, et donc cela m'amène à "surfer". Je "surfe" un peu dans ma vie. Ça n'empêche pas que je pourrais être sans cesse dans une démarche artistique qui ne ressemblerait qu'à moi car je suis une grande bosseuse sur le terrain.

Y.N : Alors tu ne vois pas le temps défiler. Tu sais, le temps m'a toujours préoccupé et perturbé. Je suis obsédé par l'idée de ne pas en avoir assez pour réaliser tous mes projets et toutes mes idées. J'aurais adoré voir 50 ou 100 films de Fellini par exemple, mais ce temps lui a manqué, la mort l'a emporté. Et cette idée m'a frappé dès l'enfance : nous ne sommes que des passagers dans cette vie. Le jour où j'ai compris cela, ça a été une découverte pénible. J'étais devant la télé, au Caire, je regardais un ancien film égyptien, j'avais peut être 5 ans, et je demandais à ma mère qui sont ces acteurs et ce qu'ils sont devenus. Elle me répondait toujours "ils sont tous morts !" Quel choc pour moi d'être amoureux de tout ces gens beaux et morts !

I.A : (rires)

Y.N : Ça m'a tout de suite ouvert les yeux sur cette fin inéluctable. C'est pour cette raison que j'ai voulu être artiste et que je travaille avec la photographie. Elle a le pouvoir de retenir le moment, donc le temps, et de le restituer plus tard, dans 10 ou 100 ans. Elle a aussi le pouvoir de me faire rencontrer et photographier les gens que j'aime, avant que nous disparaissions tous. Ces questions me hantent et sont pénibles à vivre. Tout ce que nous avons fait, compris et appris. nous allons tout laisser derrière nous. Puis d'autres viendront nous remplacer, pendant quelques temps. C'est comme dans un rêve, où tu sais bien que rien n'est vrai et que tu vas te réveiller, alors j'ai l'impression que je vis ma vie à l'envers, car je connais déjà la fin : tout s'en va.

I.A : Tout va se décomposer. Cela me traverse souvent l'esprit. D'ailleurs je ne peux plus aller dans un cimetière, même sur la tombe de mes parents sans - et c'est très désagréable - sans "descendre dans le tombeau". C'est-à-dire que je vois la décomposition. Je ne parviens pas à rester à la surface. Et c'est donc un rapport au "dessein" de la matière que nous sommes qui me relie à eux à ce moment-là. Et quand je traverse les allées du cimetière du Père-Lachaise où gisent mes parents et mon frère, je contemple toute cette somme de connaissances, d'idées, de talents, et peut-être même de génie qui sont réduites à néant.
Mais, pour en revenir à la notion d'interruption, je crois toujours que s'interrompre est une façon de créer. tout ce qui peut ressembler à de la disparition chez moi, sert à me faire réapparaître là où quelque chose m'a été enlevé, et ce qui m'est enlevé souvent, c'est la possibilité d'être moi-même. Cela semble abstrait, mais je le vis de façon très concrète. Quand je ne suis plus là, c'est qu'il est nécessaire pour moi de.

Y.N : De te déconnecter.

I.A : De me protéger, je crois. Parce que je pense qu'un artiste a besoin d'être protégé. Pourtant, je ne me suis jamais sentie protégée dans ma vie. Peut-être est-ce à moi de trouver. En attendant, la protection a beaucoup été l'absence, même si je le déplore.

Y.N : Alors idéalement, comment voudrais-tu vivre ? Comment t'imagines-tu vivre, puisque tu sembles refuser un certain ordre.

I.A : Idéalement, à cette étape de ma vie, je voudrais vivre entièrement protégée, c'est-à-dire totalement libre d'être moi-même. Passer ce temps qui me manque tant à lire, à écrire, à voir et faire des films, du théâtre, à faire des rencontres. mais pas celles que l'on fait dans les dîners, ces rencontres de réseau devenues si importantes aujourd'hui. Elles me dégoûtent plutôt, je suis à la limite de la désocialisation quand il est question de prendre date pour tel événement ou tel dîner. (rires) Faire des rencontres imposées. c'est une souffrance.

Y.N : Je comprends parfaitement, je suis comme toi. C'est une vraie souffrance. Je me retrouve souvent dans des dîners où il faut parler à tout le monde, mais je ne pense pas que je sois fait pour ça. Souvent je me sens comme obligé de dire des choses dont je sais par avance qu'elles ne serviront à rien, alors je préfère me taire. Parler, c'est beaucoup d'efforts pour moi. D'ailleurs quand j'étais plus jeune, j'étais complètement introverti, je m'exprimais très peu et je préférais toujours regarder les gens plutôt que de discuter avec eux.

I.A : Oui, tu te rends compte l'énergie profonde qu'il faut aller forer en soi pour faire mousser le superficiel ! C'est ce que l'on appelle en médecine de terrain un surrénalien, une personne qui a des reins en béton, car sans la force des reins on ne peut pas fonctionner. Moi, dans ces moments-là j'ai l'impression que mes reins s'évanouissent. Je sens cet organe pâlir comme si de rose, il devenait blême.

Y.N : C'est comme une invasion de mon intimité, car pour moi l'usage de la parole est très intime. Dans ces dîners, j'ai l'impression qu'on nous impose une manière de vivre et donc je n'y suis jamais à l'aise. Souvent je n'y vais pas, car on sait que tout est faux.

I.A : Oui, les gens sont dans un état faux. Comme tu disais toi-même, dans ces obligations sociales, on devient une autre personne. En fait, je voudrais peut-être me suffire à moi-même ou quelque chose comme ça. Mais est-ce que c'est possible ? On ne peut s'en sortir libre et léger que si on crée, que lorsque l'on est créateur.

Y.N : Mais je pense que tu es justement une créatrice ! J'ai vu tes films, et je trouve que tu ne travailles pas vraiment comme une actrice. Tu es plutôt une artiste à la recherche d'une certaine vérité et de ta personne. Car tu ne joues pas, tu parles de toi et de ta propre histoire. C'est très palpable, il y a toujours un moment où on ne sait plus si c'est toi ou si c'est le personnage. Et c'est ça aussi le travail d'un artiste, c'est d'opérer des choix et de se projeter à travers un rôle vers le monde. C'est peut-être aussi pour cela que tu disparais parfois, parce que, à certains moments, tu n'as rien à dire. À travers tes rôles, tu dessines progressivement un grand tableau de ta propre vie !

I.A : Tu vois par exemple, quand tu me parles comme ça, tu me protèges.

Y.N : Oui, mais c'est toi qui me fait parler de cette manière. Je t'ai vu jouer, et j'ai l'impression que tu es en mission sur Terre et que tu es là pour être une voix, une idée, pour exprimer quelque chose et puis disparaître. Comme si tu n'existais jamais vraiment.

I.A : Il ne me semble pas avoir exprimé ce dont tu parles jusqu'à maintenant, mais je veux avoir le courage, la force et le désir avec un grand D, c'est-à-dire le désir qui ramène à la libido de la vie. Je me suis parfois censurée en tant qu'artiste. Or toi, quand je lis tes interviews, tu ne cherches pas à te justifier, ni à faire valider tes paroles et tes actes, tu restes toi-même, que ça plaise ou non, sans poser la question des autres. Tu ignores les considérations spéculatives qui existent dans le comportement des artistes qui sont, pour un grand nombre, contaminés par la valeur qu'ils doivent représenter. On les a faits devenir avant tout des hommes ou des femmes d'affaires.

Y.N : Oui, c'est dans leur nature, mais toi tu n'es pas comme ca. Il y a toujours eu des hommes d'affaires déguisés en artistes. Ceux là nous envahissent avec des mauvais films, des mauvaises ouvres, mais ils nourrissent aussi tout un public qui leur ressemble. Tu vois bien comment on vit aujourd'hui. On entre dans une nouvelle ère, où tout est devenu numérique et plus rapide qu'avant, chacun a son portable avec sa camera, sa vidéo, Internet... Sans vouloir être nostalgique, je pense qu'on était beaucoup mieux avant. Toutes ces machines nous rendent moins humains, et plus automates. Pour moi qui développe toujours mes photos dans une chambre noire et qui les peins à la main, j'ai du mal à envisager le monde en numérique. Et toi, comment vois-tu le monde dans lequel on vit aujourd'hui ?

I.A : Il m'intéresse peu, et je ne le vois pas du tout. Il me dépasse et je n'ai pas envie de dépenser mon temps à essayer de rattraper ce qui m'échappe. Ce libre accès à absolument "tout", n'est pas fondé sur le désir, mais plutôt sur l'automatisme de la réponse à la tentation proposée. Nous sommes alors en contact avec "tout", sauf avec nous-mêmes. Je pense que cela produit chez les gens une confusion, un mal-être et une solitude absolument inimaginables. Dans ce monde là, on éprouve des difficultés à ressentir un peu de bonheur pour soi et par soi, et non pas au travers de ce qui est apporté et qui ressemble à tout ce que les autres possèdent aussi. Et là, je trouve que c'est vraiment une manière de déliter l'individualité.

Y.N : Je crois que c'est précisément ça, la mondialisation. Avoir une monnaie unique en Europe, avoir des chaînes partout, les réseaux sociaux. tout ça efface les identités. Nous finissons par tous nous ressembler et par avoir les mêmes codes, les mêmes références, qui nous lient davantage. Progressivement, le monde devient un village. Et pourtant. Isabelle, est-ce que tu te sens seule ?

I.A : Oui bien sûr, horriblement seule. (rires)

Y.N : Est-ce que tu ne penses pas que cette solitude est justement ce qui nous pousse à créer ?

I.A : Si bien sûr, même si je redoute la solitude inhibitrice. Mais nous, malgré toute la force de vie dont on est capables, on est quand même plus sujets au spleen, nous sommes quand même fragiles, très fragiles. Pour moi, la solitude ne se vit bien qu'à partir du moment où on ne sent pas menacé. Alors il faut de l'amour, ou des rencontres qui permettent de se sentir moins seul, comme la nôtre par exemple. Mais le tout c'est d'apprendre à ne pas subir sa solitude, à la rendre, comme tu disais.

Y.N : Créative. Tu sais j'ai lu, et c'était très beau, un poème que tu as écrit quand tu étais adolescente. Il m'a rappelé mon enfance, j'écrivais beaucoup de poèmes.

I.A : Oui je sais, et tu as arrêté vers 16 ans je crois.

Y.N : Oui exactement ! (rires) Je pense qu'il y a une certaine sensibilité quand on passe par cet âge là, mais après la vie nous pousse à oublier que nous avons porté cette fragilité en nous. Dans ton poème, tu parlais exactement de ce dont on discute aujourd'hui. Tu y questionnais le monde et la vie, l'existence et sa fin. Tu en étais déjà consciente. Tu vois, malgré l'oubli, je pense qu'on reste toujours un petit peu la même personne, qu'on conserve notre nature et nos envies. C'est pour ça que je crois que tu es en mission, que tu luttes pour des belles idées et que tu vois le monde différemment des autres. C'est important d'écrire tout ça et de ne pas toujours être devant la camera. Pour moi tu es beaucoup plus qu'une actrice et ça se sent.

I.A : Oui, moi aussi je l'ai toujours ressenti, mais je ne me suis jamais donné licence pour être cela. Je ne sais pas pourquoi, c'est complexe, c'est mon histoire à moi. J'ai cette sensation de ne pas avoir fini, alors que pour moi c'est à peine commencé.

Y.N : Mais c'est très bien, je pense qu'il faut avancer avec l'idée que nous n'avons pas encore tout fait. Il faut vivre avec cette recherche permanente, cette volonté de toujours vouloir aller plus loin, dans la découverte et dans le doute. Car une fois qu'un artiste pense avoir atteint le sommet et qu'il s'assoit pour profiter de la vue, il perd sa curiosité et signe sa mort. De toute façon, nous n'avons pas assez de temps dans la vie, et il faut faire des choix.

I.A : Oui, ça s'est révélé compliqué pour moi de me consacrer entièrement à ce qui me passionne. Ceux qui sont en adéquation avec leur art, sont ceux qui ont fait un choix égocentré, responsable dans ce radicalisme. Car eux, sans relâche, ils créent, ils produisent, ils filment, ils jouent, ils écrivent. Pour moi, il faut maintenant pouvoir compter sur quelqu'un d'autre, un associé ou un "mini-me". Mais je pense que toute seule, chargée d'âmes, comme ça m'est arrivé toute ma vie, à m'occuper et me préoccuper des autres, à la fois patriarche et orpheline, j'ai dévié de ma grande route toute tracée, c'est cela qui explique en partie les interruptions que tu évoquais tout à l'heure. Aujourd'hui, je me dis qu'il est peut-être temps que j'organise ma vie autour de moi et pour moi.

Y.N : Isabelle, dis-moi, tu es à moitié arabe et je pense souvent à tes origines algériennes. J'ai toujours voulu savoir : quand est ce que tu te sens Arabe ? Parce je crois qu'on porte en nous les cultures venues de nos ancêtres, même si on ne les a pas vraiment connus. Ils sont en nous, au moins d'un point de vue génétique. Et moi, je crois à l'histoire génétique de chacun. Mon père est moitié Grec, moitié Libanais et ma mère est Égyptienne, j'ai vécu trente ans au Caire, avant de partir pour Paris, puis pour New York. Au final, je me sens très méditerranéen dans mon sang et ma culture. Mais toi ? Je t'avoue que je ne te vois pas arabe du tout, même si je sais que cela existe quelque part.

I.A : Bien sûr. C'est entièrement relié à mon père, puisque ma mère était Allemande et qu'il était Algérien. Ça passe par son souvenir et son appartenance à sa terre, qu'il a quittée à l'âge de 16 ans. Je crois que le lien est quand même plus organique que culturel, il passe par la nourriture par exemple. Mon père me disait qu'il lui arrivait de se nourrir de façon très frugale, de galettes, d'olives et de dattes. Ça, c'est pour moi une vision très arabisante, c'est quelque chose de beau, de noble, de pur, qui touche au corps et à l'esprit. Ça me fait imaginer mon père dans le peu de bonheur qu'il a pu connaître, au cour de la ville dont il me parlait tout le temps, Constantine. Une ville blanche, perchée, tellement singulière, où les Arabes et les Juifs vivaient très bien ensemble. Franchement c'est une relation qui tient plutôt du romanesque du conte oriental, mais ce romanesque que mon père portait en lui, c'est ça ma relation à mon arabité. Je me sens aussi parfois du côté de ma mère, de l'Allemagne du Sud, de la Bavière. une région poétique et romantique, celle de Louis II. Mais ces sentiments ne sont pas très identifiés. Je les reconnais quand ils émergent, sans qu'il y ait de thématique.

Y.N : Même petite, à la maison.

I.A : À la maison aussi, ça passe encore par la nourriture. Mon père faisait la semoule à la main le dimanche. En fait, ça passe vraiment par tout ce qu'il y a de sensoriel, mais pas par la langue arabe. Il y avait aussi cette façon de mettre ses mains sur son visage, perdu dans une prière secrète, soudainement, et c'était le silence et une émotion mystérieuse pour moi. Mon père, au français parfait, se cachait presque pour parler arabe, c'était une génération qui cherchait l'intégration à tout prix, donc il fallait un peu éliminer, pour le bien de ses enfants, sans le renier, le lieu d'où l'on venait. Pour mon père ce n'était pas facile d'être en France, ni pour ma mère, car ce sont quand même les deux ennemis attitrés de la France. (rires)

Y.N : Les deux ennemis attitrés de la France ont quand même offert un grand cadeau à la France, toi ! (rires) On a tout dit ?

I.A : Non, on a dit beaucoup. Tout, pas du tout. Jamais.

Paris, Octobre 2013
L'OFFICIEL Art : Décembre - Janvier - Février 2013-2014

Art in the Gulf: "better to have it than not"
by Andrew Hammond, May 2013

Art in the Gulf: "better to have it than not"

Youssef Nabil has made a career of immortalizing the famous in a unique photo-art style that has made him the belle of the ball on the international art circuit. Artist in residence at La Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris from 2003, then based in New York since 2006, Nabil started out in Cairo in the early 1990s with experiments in photography based on the colour tinting of old Egyptian portrait studios.

The style, as he explained it at a forum organized by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi this month in its "Talking Art" series, involves taking black and white photographs which are printed deliberately light at a Paris printer Nabil trusts, then applying watercolour and pencil work to turn the images into something else entirely. "I went to meet these people, the last studio retouchers that existed in 1992/3. I met at least 15 of them in Cairo and Alexandria. They didn't work any more, everything was already colour at that time. I had lessons with them, and that's how I learned the technique. I added of course," Nabil said. "The technique I got from Egypt, but the colours I got from personal experience."

It's an approach that questions the notion of objective representation that photography and other visual media aspire to, as well as being one that suits well Nabil's obsessions with celebrity and death. He has captured a series of famous faces over the years in unusual, suprising poses, to the extent that now actresses, or even singers, will hope for the call from Nabil - rather like Egyptian actresses were with the late Youssef Chahine. He has just managed to add Greek singer Nana Mouskouri to the black veil series, he said.

Some of Nabil's infamous works have included Egyptian bellydancer Fifi Abdo holding a waterpipe, Spanish actress Rossy de Palma with an eye closed and tongue lolling out, and in recent years Alicia Keys, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling and others in the distinctive Mediterranean black veil that crosses religious borders. A major draw for Nabil has been strong women, which sometimes mixes with his nostalgia for Egypt's Golden Age, such as singer Natacha Atlas against a fabric bearing crowns, harking back to the monarchy that Nasser ended in 1952.

One of his most distinctive pieces is Lonely Pasha from 2002, where a young man with a tarboush stares sadly in a room of opulent cushions. The work is a precursor to a series of self-portraits Nabil has done that more explicitly deal with his fear of death. "I was asking my mother about an actress that I really love, and she said she was dead. I couldn't really understand this, that everyone in this movie was dead. It was a horrible discovery as a kid, it was a shock that I was all the time in love with these beautiful dead people," he said.

These various themes have been ploughed back into his latest work: 12 cl0se-ups of a dancer in frantic motion, heightened by the stunning gold coloured dress she wears against Nabil's favourite light blue background. Titled The Last Dance - and currently showing at Dubai's Third Line gallery - it captures Nabil's fear that conservative Islamist movements are destroying the arts in post-uprising Egypt.

"I started thinking about the situation of women in Egypt, especially the bellydancers, this form of art that I always loved. I wanted to do work that speaks about these people and that that are trying to resist, to always exist. So you see her here, almost like a butterfly, trying to resist and stay alive; then sometimes you see a leg, sometimes you see a part of her body, she is covered then uncovered. I call it the last dance because I don't know if this form of art will continue to exist or not," Nabil said. "A country like Egypt, a culture like Egypt with a history like Egypt - to change its culture, this is my only fear. Now they are attacking art because they think it's immoral, they think the body of a woman is taboo and can't be shown. They are putting out all these ideas but for me when I look at a bellydancer for example I only see art."

To hear these views in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi though is interesting in itself. The Guggenheim and Louvre projects in the United Arab Emirates capital city have been controversial, not just because of the issue of the labourers hired to build them - criticisms the authorities have vigorously rebutted - but because of the willingness to entertain the whim of power to kit itself out as patron of the arts on a global scale.

That matters because institutions such as these, representing the pinnacle of high culture in the metropolitan centres such as Paris and New York, at least in their own worldview, are keen to espouse an idea of universalism in the arts that processes the local, wherever that may be, into a stream of globally relevant and comprehensible cultural production, as well as encourage and engage with not just the cultural arena in a given locale but its social, economic and political realities too. But what state is the local arts scene in in the Emirates, and what kind of social, economic and political environment does it operate in? Does it in fact have any meaningful connection with its surroundings on those levels at all?

Questions that have been posed recently by Mostafa Heddaya at online arts journal Hyperallergic who saw the Guggenheim-UAE partnership as an example of "contemporary art's institutional culture operating in service of authoritarianism". Taking his cue from the brilliant takedown of the turgid language masquerading as subliminal intelligence used in the realm of the international arts industry - a Triple Canopy article last year dissecting what Alix Rule and David Levine ingeniously dubbed International Art English - Heddaya laid bare the propagandistic nature, witting or not, of the arts scene in the Gulf.

Heddaya picked up on remarks by Reem Fadda, an associate curator of Middle Eastern art at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, given at a lecture at the Guggenheim in New York. Fadda staked out a UAE art history that fitted the standard glorious history of desert-to-skyscrapers promoted for Dubai specifically but the UAE generally over the past decade. Yet when it came to criticism, she went on the defensive, arguing it was for outsiders to critique - the UAE and its arts community among others would have to engage in their own conversation.

Fadda - a Palestinian who has in the past harangued Israeli artists for colluding with a repressive state - was in Abu Dhabi for the Youssef Nabil and other talks, steering the discussion at major roll-out events for the Guggenheim project in the Gulf, and the same arguments were in evidence, making ample use of International Art English. The UAE was posited as a crossroads for international art - not somewhere for critical fertilization in itself.

"Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will promote transnational perspective on contemporary art and culture" and give a "focus on the interconnection of art and space," said Valerie Hillings, Associate Curator and Manager. It would emphasize the Emirates as "a place where different nationalities exchange ideas". It was interesting to note that the international art would date from the 1960s onwards, when social liberation was unleashed in the West, but the modernity of Arab art was from the 1940s onwards i.e. the beginning of decolonization.

In this context, politically sensitive commentary was possible because the subject matter was Egypt. Nabil's work deals to some degree with issues of religion, but for the most part it can be easily compartmentalized as relevant to somewhere else. "I grew up with salad of nationalities and religions," he said, explaining the thinking behind veil series. "The sort of veil that I like is worn in the Mediterranean by Greek, Spanish, Italian. You see it in Renaissance painting and in Egypt, with Copts and Muslims in Upper Egypt. It was never really a sign of separation between men and women, or more religious and less religious. I started doing a series of portraits of artists that I like, wearing this sort of Mediterranean veil that I love."

The love-in between International Arts and Abu Dhabi is particularly arresting right now because of the ongoing trial of nearly 100 figures accused of taking part in a Muslim Brotherhood plot to seize power in the country, a trial at which international media have been prevented access and which has been accompanied by a ferocious campaign of defamation to turn public - even international - opinion against them. The argument is that the remarkable advance of neoliberal economics and urban expansion in the UAE, providing a home to some 8 million people, mostly from around the world, would not have been possible if politics, seen as by definition subversive, had been given free rein. The civil unrest in Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood rule has served to further tar the group on trial as not worthy of concern in polite society. Few in the UAE, across political, diplomatic, media, business circles, seem to care about the case.

The UAE saw a burst of sudden political activity in the wake of the Arab uprisings in early 2011 as elements of Emirati society began to mobilize for greater civic rights. In an earlier trial that year, five activists, including a prominent blogger and an economics professor, were convicted of insulting the leadership, endangering national security and inciting people to protest; they were later pardoned but one of them was later deported to Thailand, and seven others had their UAE nationality revoked - a peculiarly Gulf tick that raises questions of fundamental rights and the nature of the modern state.

I took a chance after the Guggenheim talk to get Nabil's thoughts on these issues and the role that has been cast for him in their midst. Partnerships such as these he contextualized as an effort to tease out liberal progress from a conservative Islamic culture. The very fact that such art could be displayed and discussed in the UAE was an advance in itself, he said. "Taboos" were being challenged. It struck me as an Orientalist narrative masked as respect for indigenous culture but really remarkably divorced from whatever might be going on in UAE society. Is everything Islam vs. secular, veiled vs. unveiled, "East vs. West"? Who do these false binaries benefit.

"I visited the Louvre (Abu Dhabi), the first body of work they acquired, and you see nudity, you see the body, it's very present but at the same time it's an Islamic country, so art has no taboo, so once you decide this is art and this is a museum we cannot limit it and think we cannot show that, because it's part of life. So I think they reached a point where they are trying to say we are not less than the West, we do everything at the same level as the West, we have as important a museums as the West and we import art from everywhere in the region and they have the money to do it," he said. "You effect societies when you show them art and you make their eyes look at art."

Ultimately, it was better than nothing.

"It's a positive thing happening finally in the region in the middle of all the craziness," Nabil said. "They graduated from universities from everywhere, they want to see their countries the same way they saw other countries in the West, so it's like let's do an art revolution, let's show people art and change people's perception and their judgement about things through art. They bring museums here and artists and curators and little by little things will definitely change everywhere. There are all these questions when you come to an Islamic country and you see suddenly all these liberal institutions - but why not, I think it's good, it's better to have it than not."

These would be noble intentions, but does the structure of the arts industry in the UAE suggest there is any real aim to foster critique that engages the political and the economic? Qatar may have covered up the private parts of Greek statues, and the UAE can boast in response that it leaves genitals be - but is that not a poor substitute for serious criticism? Dubai-based artist UBIK seemed to think so in his conversation with Heddaya. Dubai, he said, is simply importing art and artists as a substitute for encouraging challenging local production, adding another facet to its sexy profile as seen from abroad. His fear was that the city would remain "some super-commercial area that's never going to develop into something critical, and the art scene won't develop".

And that thought does not ultimately seem to be of much concern to anyone.

Andrew Hammond
May 2013

Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist
London, UK, April 27, 2012

Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist : Racontez-moi comment tout a commencé. Avez-vous eu une épiphanie, une révélation soudaine ?

Youssef Nabil : Je pense que ce sont les vieux films égyptiens en noir et blanc que je regardais sans arrêt lorsque j’étais enfant qui ont tout déclenché, et aussi le fait que je tombais généralement amoureux d’acteurs déjà disparus. Je crois qu’inconsciemment, cela m’a beaucoup influencé. Et puis, comme j’étais un enfant très introverti et que j’avais des difficultés à communiquer avec les autres, je passais mon temps à observer. Je savais que je pourrais communiquer plus facilement en passant par l’image. Je me suis donc naturellement tourné vers la photographie. C’est devenu ma façon de transmettre mes pensées. Dès l’enfance, lorsque j’ai pris conscience de la mort, j’ai décidé que je ferais de la photographie mon métier et que je photographierais les gens que j’aime avant de mourir ou avant qu’ils ne meurent.

H.U.O : Vos parents avaient-ils un pied dans le monde de l’art ?

Y.N : Ma mère a fait des études de cinéma pour devenir réalisatrice, mais elle a dû s’arrêter pour s’occuper de nous : mon frère, ma sœur et moi. C’est ma mère qui m’a ouvert à beaucoup d’idées sur le cinéma et qui m’a donné envie de devenir artiste.

H.U.O : Comment avez-vous découvert l’art ? Quel est le premier musée que vous ayez visité ? Le premier musée, cela m’intéresse toujours. Pour ma part, lorsque j’étais enfant – je devais avoir sept ou huit ans – mes parents m’ont emmené à la bibliothèque de l’abbaye de Saint-Gall, en Suisse. J’ai regardé tous ces livres du Moyen Âge, des xie et xiie siècles, et je crois que tout ce que j’ai fait depuis est lié à cet événement : le savoir, les encyclopédies, les enregistrements. Même mon approche de l’interview vient de là. Enregistrer, archiver, tout cela vient de la découverte de ce musée à l’âge de sept ans. Le premier musée, c’est très important.

Y.N : Mon premier musée, c’était sans aucun doute au Caire, une visite avec l’école, mais j’avais déjà découvert quelque chose auparavant, à travers les vieux films que je voyais à la maison. Si je devais évoquer la première sortie qui a eu un véritable impact sur moi, je parlerais certainement de la première fois que je suis entré dans un cinéma. C’était avec ma famille, au Caire. Je devais avoir environ cinq ans et nous sommes allés voir le King Kong de 1933, tous ensemble. Et cela m’a fait quelque chose… oui, c’était vraiment quelque chose.

H.U.O : L’un des portraits que vous auriez aimé faire est celui d’Oum Kalthoum.

Y.N : Oui.

H.U.O : Et comme vous avez grandi en Égypte, avec ses chansons, je suppose qu’elle a été une sorte d’idole pour vous, lorsque vous étiez enfant.

Y.N : Effectivement, elle a eu beaucoup d’impact sur moi lorsque j’avais douze ou quatorze ans. Tous les jours, j’attendais que l’on passe ses chansons à la radio, aux alentours de 16 heures, et je les enregistrais sur des cassettes. Ma famille trouvait vraiment étrange que j’aime autant Oum Kalthoum, si jeune, car peu d’enfants manifestaient ce goût ! J’aimais sa voix et sa présence. Le fait de la voir à la télévision m’a aussi beaucoup inspiré. C’était une femme forte, en Égypte, et le fait de la voir seule avec tout un orchestre d’hommes derrière elle constituait une image très puissante. Nous n’avions jamais vraiment eu de star de cette envergure, auparavant. J’aimais aussi le fait qu’elle ait commencé sa carrière en lisant le Coran, car cela prouvait que l’on pouvait être à la fois croyant et artiste dans l’Égypte moderne. Il y a quelque chose de mystique, dans sa voix, lorsqu’elle chante. On ne peut s’empêcher de l’écouter avec attention. Ce n’étaient pas vraiment des chansons pour moi, mais elle avait ce petit je-ne-sais-quoi en plus qui faisait que sans elle, ses chansons auraient été différentes.

H.U.O : Avez-vous d’autres héros d’enfance ?

Y.N : Oui, beaucoup d’autres, mais ce sont presque tous des héros venus du cinéma égyptien comme Faten Hamama, Chadia, Laila Mourad, mais aussi toutes les danseuses du ventre d’antan comme Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, et Naima Akef. J’adorais les regarder.

H.U.O : Les films de votre enfance, donc, vraiment… Et, bien sûr, à dix-neuf ans, vous avez commencé à prendre des photos et à étudier la littérature à l’université Ain Shams au Caire. Comment avez-vous vécu cette période ?

Y.N : Au départ, je voulais faire des études de cinéma, mais en Égypte, il était impossible d’entrer à l’académie de cinéma si l’on n’y connaissait pas quelqu’un. Malheureusement, ça marchait comme ça dans les années 1980 et au début des années 1990, et je me sentais vraiment désespéré parce que j’ai essayé d’y entrer deux années de suite. Je savais que c’était la seule chose que je voulais faire. Et puis j’ai dû accepter le fait qu’il me faudrait étudier autre chose, parce qu’en Égypte, il faut absolument avoir un diplôme. Ma famille a insisté pour que je termine mes études universitaires. Ensuite seulement, je pourrais me consacrer à l’art. J’ai donc choisi la littérature française parce que j’aimais lire et écrire, et que cela pouvait m’aider, plus tard, dans mon activité artistique, ou pour faire du cinéma. En même temps, j’ai commencé la photographie. Je prenais des photos sans arrêt ; j’écrivais de petits scénarios et je demandais à mes amis de les jouer, devant mon objectif. Au final, les choses ont tourné différemment, mais cela m’a quand même aidé à faire ce que je voulais. Je suis aussi parti pendant un an, à New York, pour travailler avec David LaChapelle que j’avais rencontré au Caire à cette même époque.

H.U.O : C’est aussi très intéressant, cette notion de mentor. Je crois beaucoup à l’impact des mentors, à cette idée selon laquelle on en apprend bien davantage sur une chose donnée lorsqu’on a un mentor. Et vous, vous avez David LaChapelle et Mario Testino. Pouvez-vous nous parler un peu d’eux, de ce qu’ils vous ont appris ? Nous dire aussi comment vous les avez dénichés. Parce que pour un jeune Égyptien de dix-neuf ans, c’est assez extraordinaire d’avoir trouvé ces deux mentors-là, si vite, si tôt, si jeune !

Y.N : Je les ai trouvés tous les deux en Égypte ! C’était le destin. La plus pure des coïncidences. Et si je racontais cela dans une histoire ou dans un film, vous diriez que c’est impossible parce que même si nous vivions dans la même ville, nous aurions très bien pu ne jamais nous rencontrer ! Pour moi, le fait de les avoir rencontrés au Caire, tous les deux, et d’avoir pu travailler avec eux ensuite, à New York et à Paris, c’était comme un signe du destin qui m’indiquait que j’étais sur la bonne voie. J’ai beaucoup appris à leurs côtés, juste en étant là, près d’eux, à observer comment fonctionnait un véritable studio, dans de grandes villes comme New York et Paris, et comment tout était si bien organisé. En ce sens, je me souviens d’innombrables petites choses que j’ai apprises de David ou de Mario. Mais je voudrais aussi mentionner un autre mentor, mon grand ami arménien, Van Leo, qui était photographe et faisait des portraits dans son studio du Caire. Nous n’avons pas travaillé ensemble, mais nous étions très proches et il m’a photographié à de nombreuses reprises. Je l’ai rencontré en 1992, un jour où je suis tombé en arrêt devant son studio, en plein centre du Caire, avec ses nombreux portraits en noir et blanc exposés en vitrine. Je suis donc monté au premier étage, où se trouvait son atelier, et je me suis présenté. Nous sommes devenus amis instantanément et le sommes restés jusqu’à sa mort, en 2002. Il faisait des portraits de stars égyptiennes des années 1940 et 1950 ; j’aimais son travail et je pense qu’il n’a jamais eu la reconnaissance et l’attention qu’il méritait. C’était mon seul ami photographe, à l’époque. Nous nous retrouvions une fois par semaine et nous nous montrions nos travaux respectifs. Je lui parlais de Frida Kahlo et de bien d’autres artistes que j’appréciais et nous avions de longues conversations à propos de l’Égypte, de la photographie qui y était perçue comme un art, et il m’encourageait à partir en Occident car il pensait que mon travail y serait plus apprécié. C’était un moment crucial de nos vies à tous les deux parce que ma carrière prenait tout juste son essor alors que lui songeait à fermer son studio. Je suis d’abord parti à New York, où j’ai travaillé avec David, en 1993, puis à Paris en 1997 pour travailler avec Mario et de là-bas, j’appelais très souvent Van Leo, jusqu’au jour où j’ai reçu une lettre de lui m’annonçant qu’il avait fermé son studio. Lorsque je suis retourné au Caire, je suis immédiatement allé le voir et nos rendez-vous ont repris, mais nous nous retrouvions chez lui désormais, dans son appartement, qui se trouvait dans la même rue que son studio.

H.U.O : Il ne s’appelait pas Van Leo, en réalité, mais Levon Boyadjian. Van Leo était son pseudonyme. Avez-vous déjà eu un pseudonyme ?

Y.N : Non, mais en fait, mon nom de famille n’est pas Nabil ; j’ai pris le prénom de mon père comme nom de famille.

H.U.O : C’est donc un pseudonyme !

Y.N : D’une certaine façon, oui, puisque mes anciens camarades d’école me connaissent sous un autre nom. Et lorsque je voyage, je le fais sous ma véritable identité, donc c’est peut-être mieux ainsi ! (Rires)

H.U.O : Revenons à vos deux mentors étrangers, LaChapelle et Testino, que vous avez rencontrés en Égypte. Comment cela s’est-il passé ?

Y.N : Avec Mario, nous avions des amis communs et je savais qu’il devait venir en Égypte. À cette époque-là, je n’avais ni Internet ni chaînes de télévision étrangères. Il n’y avait qu’en lisant les magazines que je pouvais me renseigner sur la photographie et les photographes… J’y ai donc vu beaucoup de photographies de Mario. Lorsque j’ai su qu’il venait faire des photos en Égypte, j’ai dit à mes amis que je voulais le rencontrer. Mario est venu et m’a pris comme assistant durant son séjour à Louxor au cours duquel il a photographié Linda Evangelista pour l’édition anglaise de Vogue. Je lui ai montré mon travail, qui lui a plu. Je faisais déjà mes portraits en noir et blanc peints.

H.U.O : Vous aviez donc déjà découvert cette technique ! C’est une question que je voulais vous poser plus tard, mais nous devrions en discuter tout de suite. C’est très intéressant que vous ayez commencé à travailler si tôt de cette manière. C’est une technique ancienne très spéciale que vous utilisez depuis que vous travaillez avec un appareil 35 mm et à laquelle vous avez toujours recours. Vous vous êtes refusé à utiliser la pellicule couleur. Vous ne travaillez que la pellicule noir et blanc et vous peignez ensuite le tirage à la main !

Y.N : J’ai toujours admiré tout ce qui était fait main, ce qui est très différent du digital et de la HD qui dominent notre époque.

H.U.O : J’enregistre cet entretien à l’aide de trois dictaphones digitaux Olympus parfaitement identiques. C’est la paranoïa digitale ! Parce qu’il y en a toujours un qui s’arrête ! Mais vous, vous l’enregistrez avec un dictaphone à cassette Sony ! Nous devrions d’ailleurs prendre une photo de ces quatre dictaphones qui sont sur la table ! C’est très beau ! (Rires) Kaelen Wilson Goldie écrit à votre propos que vous avez recours à « une méthode ancienne qui consiste à peindre à la main, méticuleusement, avec une grande rigueur et une par une, des photographies en noir et blanc ». C’est donc un processus extrêmement lent. Comment en êtes-vous venu à opter pour cette technique ?

Y.N : Au départ, je ne voulais travailler qu’en noir et blanc ; je refusais d’utiliser quelque pellicule couleur que ce soit. Pour moi, c’était un peu commercial, moins artistique, et cela n’avait rien à voir avec mon inspiration, venue du cinéma. J’ai d’abord voulu m’inspirer des vieux films égyptiens en noir et blanc, parce que je trouvais les gens plus beaux en noir et blanc et que je voulais continuer à montrer cela. Plus tard, j’ai ressenti le besoin de voir mon travail en couleurs. J’ai donc décidé de poser des couleurs, à la main, sur mes photographies prises en noir et blanc, recourant ainsi à la même technique photographique ancienne qui permet de conserver l’impression désuète que j’aimais dans le vieux cinéma en noir et blanc. Je voulais aussi que mes œuvres soient perçues comme des peintures.

H.U.O : En quelle année était-ce ?

Y.N : C’était en 1994, 1995.

H.U.O : Quelle a été votre première photographie ?

Y.N : La première, c’était celle d’une copine d’école qui s’appelait Amani. C’était l’été 1992. Nous nous sommes rendus dans le quartier du Vieux Caire et l’idée était qu’elle incarne cette femme mystérieuse qui fuyait les regards, cachée sur le toit d’une vieille maison située à proximité d’un cimetière copte ; elle volait le linge qui séchait sur ce toit et sautait de terrasse en terrasse. Nous nous sommes beaucoup amusés et je me souviens que j’avais adoré faire ça, la diriger pour raconter une histoire. J’avais tout écrit, tout préparé, comme pour une scène de film. C’était ma première photographie.

H.U.O : Ce linge qui sèche, c’est intéressant et ça me rappelle une anecdote. Susan Hefuna et moi étions allés visiter le cimetière où est enterré James Lee Byars parce que j’ai toujours voulu voir sa tombe. Elle se trouve dans le cimetière américain du Caire. Lorsque nous sommes arrivés, il y avait du linge qui séchait sur les tombes. Il nous a fallu graisser quelques pattes pour qu’ils veuillent bien l’enlever et que nous puissions faire notre visite.

Y.N : Je sais, en Égypte, les gens vivent vraiment dans les cimetières, avec les morts.

H.U.O : Vous étiez donc au Caire dans les années 1990, et vous avez découvert cette technique, cette règle du jeu, cette méthodologie à laquelle vous êtes toujours resté fidèle depuis. La ville du Caire était votre terrain de jeu, en quelque sorte. C’était votre objet d’étude, votre inspiration. Une inspiration infinie, je suppose, et puis vous avez rencontré LaChapelle et Testino. Comment avez-vous rencontré LaChapelle ?

Y.N : Totalement par hasard. J’étais dans un hôtel du Caire, en train de prendre des photos avec une amie. Et puis David m’a vu et il a commencé à me poser des questions. Il m’a dit que lui aussi était photographe et qu’il était au Caire pour faire des photos du Sphinx commandée par le magazine Condé Nast Traveler pour sa couverture. Il m’a dit qu’il travaillait avec une maison de production qui lui semblait surfacturer ses services, qu’il n’arrivait pas à trouver des modèles, etc. Je lui ai alors proposé de l’aider gratuitement puisque je connaissais beaucoup de modèles en ville et que je pouvais lui obtenir facilement un permis pour la séance photo, etc. Nous avons fini par collaborer pendant toute la semaine. De retour à New York, il m’a appelé et m’a demandé de venir travailler avec lui dans son atelier. C’était vraiment étrange ; je ne le connaissais pas du tout, je n’avais jamais entendu parler de son travail auparavant et je n’avais commencé à faire mes propres photos que quelques mois plus tôt. Nous sommes fin 1992, à ce moment-là. Je me suis envolé vers New York pour la première fois en mars 1993. J’ai travaillé et vécu aux côtés de David LaChapelle dans l’East Village. J’avais demandé à ma famille de payer mon billet d’avion. Cela représentait beaucoup d’argent pour eux, à l’époque. Et je suis allé à l’ambassade américaine du Caire pour obtenir un visa. Je ne leur ai évidemment pas dit que je partais travailler avec LaChapelle. J’ai simplement expliqué à l’agent consulaire que j’allais à New York pour acheter du matériel photographique. Il m’a regardé et je pense qu’il n’a pas cru une seconde que je puisse vraiment être photographe en Égypte, si jeune. Il m’a alors demandé : « Citez-moi un photographe américain. » « Cindy Sherman ! », ai-je répondu. Il s’est écrié : « Eh bien vous avez votre visa pour les USA. ! Mais si vous m’aviez dit Andres Serrano, je ne vous l’aurais pas accordé ! »

H.U.O : Incroyable ! C’est une histoire géniale ! (Rires)

Y.N : Je suis donc parti aux États-Unis et je ne savais pas du tout à quoi m’attendre. Quand je suis sorti de l’aéroport, il neigeait. Je n’avais encore jamais vu de neige, puisque je viens pour ainsi dire du désert et ce jour-là, en plus, les flocons avaient vraiment la forme de cristaux, de petits cristaux qui tombaient du ciel. Ça m’a beaucoup impressionné. David ne pouvait pas venir me chercher, mais il m’avait envoyé une limousine et j’arrivai donc à New York pour la première fois, dans cette limousine. Je me suis rendu à l’East Village où j’ai travaillé avec lui et un autre assistant qui s’appelait Luis. David vivait aussi dans l’East Village et je me souviens qu’il avait placé dans ma chambre une énorme statue de la Vierge Marie. Elle était en verre ou en plastique, mais ce dont je me souviens avec précision, c’est qu’elle était allumée la nuit. Elle était vraiment grande. Elle touchait presque le plafond et moi je dormais sur un matelas à même le sol. Avant de m’endormir, je regardais longuement cette statue de la Vierge illuminée. C’était si beau, une expérience tellement unique pour moi, musulman. David m’emmenait aussi dans les bars de Midtown et nous discutions avec plein de femmes, toutes plus sexy les unes que les autres, et lorsque nous les avions quittées, il me disait : « Tu sais, c’étaient tous des hommes ! » C’était une expérience formidable de pouvoir travailler avec lui, à New York, à cette époque-là.

H.U.O : Qu’avez-vous appris de David LaChapelle ?

Y.N : David et Mario m’ont appris tellement de choses, sans même le vouloir. Vous savez, avec eux, nous ne parlions jamais vraiment de photographie. Nous travaillions sans cesse. Nous n’avions pas le temps de nous asseoir pour parler technique et autres, mais je me souviendrai toujours de la réaction de David lorsqu’il a vu mon travail pour la première fois, en Égypte. Il a remarqué que j’essayais de faire quelque chose de différent de ce qui se faisait dans mon pays et ça m’a beaucoup encouragé de l’entendre dire cela à propos de mon travail alors que j’étais encore si jeune. Je venais juste de commencer la photographie professionnelle, littéralement trois ou quatre mois avant notre rencontre, et David m’a dit que je devais continuer et chercher en permanence ma propre inspiration. Il a dit quelque chose de très beau : « Si, lorsque tu regardes à travers ton objectif, tu vois une photo que quelqu’un a déjà prise avant toi, n’appuie pas sur le bouton ; ne fais pas cette photo-là ; photographie autre chose. » C’est le meilleur conseil que l’on m’ait jamais donné. C’était sa façon à lui de me dire : reste toujours toi-même. Plus tard, il m’a confié que c’était Andy Warhol qui lui avait donné ce conseil. Ça a été une révélation incroyable ! C’était donc un message d’Andy à David, que David m’avait transmis à son tour.

H.U.O : Et Mario ? Que vous a-t-il appris ?

Y.N : Nous sommes Scorpion tous les deux. Nous avons donc beaucoup en commun ! Mais l’une des choses les plus importantes que j’ai apprises de Mario, c’est qu’il faut toujours mettre à l’aise les personnes que l’on photographie. Il les faisait rire ; il avait toujours des histoires drôles à leur raconter ; il leur chantait des chansons en modifiant les paroles pour les faire correspondre à la situation du moment. C’était vraiment très amusant et c’était sa façon à lui d’obtenir le meilleur de ses modèles. Je me souviens qu’un jour nous étions dans le studio et que nous parlions tous en français alors que la modèle était américaine et que c’était sa première séance photo. Mario nous a alors demandé de parler en anglais pour ne pas lui donner l’impression d’être une étrangère parmi nous. Lui seul pensait à ce genre de détails parce que ce qu’il voulait avant tout, c’était que la personne se sente bien devant l’objectif. Voilà une chose importante que j’ai apprise de lui, parce que je suis moi-même quelqu’un qui ne parle pas beaucoup. Quand je me rends à une séance photo, j’ai déjà en tête une image, une idée très précise du portrait que je veux faire, non seulement de la personne que je vais photographier, mais aussi des couleurs que je vais utiliser ensuite. Depuis ce temps-là, j’essaie donc de faire part de mes réflexions à la personne que je photographie pour qu’elle se sente le plus à l’aise possible, parce que ce n’est pas facile de se faire photographier, même pour les acteurs ou les personnes habituées à être devant la caméra. L’appareil photo, c’est différent. J’ai travaillé avec beaucoup d’acteurs qui se sont révélés très timides devant l’objectif… Parce que soudain, c’est vraiment d’eux qu’il s’agit !

H.U.O : Je trouve cela fascinant, cette histoire de portraits, parce que tous les chemins mènent à Rome, comme on dit. Lorsque je l’ai interviewé, Mario Testino, par exemple, m’a raconté ce genre de choses par rapport à sa technique ou sa méthodologie. Il m’a dit qu’il se donnait beaucoup en spectacle. En tant que photographe, il se comporte quasiment comme un acteur. Il joue la comédie, et puis, à un moment donné, il se crée une situation et c’est là qu’il prend sa photo. Et il y a un autre exemple, avec Juergen Teller qui m’a photographié, une fois. Il te mitraille et tout à coup, tu oublies complètement. Il y avait toujours un objet dans ses photos – dans mon cas, c’était une vieille machine à café. Je crois donc que chaque photographe portraitiste a ses propres trucs. Certains parlent lorsqu’ils prennent une photo. Henri Cartier-Bresson m’a raconté que pour lui, au contraire, le silence était toujours très important. Ce silence pouvait parfois durer des heures, comme lorsqu’il a rendu visite à Pierre Bonnard. Et vous ? Comment procédez-vous ?

Y.N : Ce qui est certain, c’est qu’il y a davantage de silence que de conversation lorsque je prends des photos. Et j’aime être seul avec les personnes que je photographie. C’est comme si j’essayais de pénétrer leur intimité, presque comme si nous faisions l’amour ensemble. C’est très personnel et pourtant, le plus souvent, nous ne serons plus amenés à nous revoir. C’est pourquoi, au moment où nous sommes ensemble, j’essaie vraiment de capturer quelque chose de leur personnalité, de tracer quelque chose sur leur visage, de leur faire refléter mes émotions mêlées aux leurs. C’est comme si l’on assistait à la naissance de quelque chose qui jaillirait de notre rencontre. Je ne pourrais pas avoir une autre personne à côté de moi, ou derrière. Je ne veux voir personne d’autre. Je veux que ce moment où je révèle leurs âmes demeure aussi privé que possible. C’est très intime.

H.U.O : Il y a plusieurs dimensions, dans votre travail. Je regardais l’un de vos livres, l’autre jour. Vous faites des autoportraits, des portraits de vos amis, des portraits d’inconnus mais aussi de vos héros ou de célébrités.

Y.N : Oui, c’est exact.

H.U.O : Pouvez-vous nous raconter quelques moments très particuliers de votre vie d’artiste, comme lorsque vous faites des autoportraits, par exemple ? C’est quelque chose qui a pris de plus en plus de place lorsque vous avez déménagé à Paris et qui n’a cessé de prendre de l’importance depuis lors. Pouvez-vous nous parler de cette idée de l’autoportrait ? C’est une série qui n’a pas de fin, je suppose. Continuerez-vous à faire des autoportraits aussi longtemps que vous vivrez ?

Y.N : C’est vrai, les autoportraits sont un peu comme un journal intime ; j’en fais à certains moments où je ressens le besoin de les inclure dans mon œuvre. Je sens que j’ai envie de dire quelque chose, ici, dans cette ville. Je parle de ma vie, mais aussi de la vie en général, de l’existence, de cette idée selon laquelle on est ici tout en sachant qu’on partira bientôt. J’ai toujours été très conscient de cela, du fait que vivre c’est déjà partir, et nous nous en allons sans cesse… Jusqu’à ce que nous mourions et que nous nous en allions pour de bon. J’ai vu cela arriver aux autres et j’ai commencé à considérer la vie sous cet angle, me faisant le témoin de chaque instant. Comme je sais qu’elle ne durera pas toujours, j’essaie de comprendre les rouages de la vie, ses techniques. Ce fut pour moi une bien triste découverte, lorsque j’ai compris, enfant, que nous ne vivrions pas éternellement. Nous sommes ici pour un temps donné, et puis nous mourrons. C’est arrivé à tous ceux qui nous ont précédés et cela nous arrivera aussi. La mort est l’une de ces choses dont on pense tout au long de sa vie qu’elle n’arrive qu’aux autres, sans imaginer que nous aussi, nous allons vraiment mourir. Et le plus fou, c’est que nous ne savons pas quand ça arrivera. Pour moi, vivre est donc quelque chose d’un peu surréaliste car, à tout moment, nous pouvons être contraints de quitter ce que nous connaissons et à quoi nous sommes habitués. Tout pourrait s’arrêter à tout instant. C’est donc de cela que parlent les autoportraits, du fait que je me suis toujours senti comme de passage, partout où je vais. Je sais que je partirai bientôt. Mais à travers ces autoportraits, j’essaie aussi d’accepter cette idée que la mort vient, qu’elle est en route.

H.U.O : C’est donc une question de vie et de mort. Leon Golub a dit que la mort était quelque chose d’insignifiant, mais que nous n’étions vivants que parce qu’il y avait la mort. Si la mort n’existait pas, il n’y aurait pas de vie.

Y.N : Exactement. C’est notre histoire à tous. D’ailleurs, la plupart du temps, je ne regarde pas l’objectif parce qu’il pourrait s’agir de n’importe qui d’autre. Je ne me vois pas vraiment.

H.U.O : Combien d’autoportraits avez-vous réalisés jusqu’à présent ?

Y.N : Environ soixante-quinze.

H.U.O : Et comment choisissez-vous les décors ? Parce que, bien souvent, vous nous laissez entrevoir un paysage ou un intérieur. Est-ce que vous les trouvez un peu par hasard ?

Y.N : Ça me vient comme ça. Je ressens le besoin de faire un autoportrait dans un lieu ou à un instant précis parce que je perçois comme un lien avec cet environnement. Parfois, c’est un endroit que je découvre pour la première fois. J’aime la mer, les couchers de soleil et les ports… Les villes méditerranéennes sont très importantes à mes yeux. Je sais que je suis davantage lié à elles qu’à tout autre endroit. J’ai fait des autoportraits à Naples, à Athènes, à Alexandrie et à Marseille.

H.U.O : Ces autoportraits sont donc liés à la Méditerranée ; c’est vous et la Méditerranée !

Y.N : C’est vrai, c’est là d’où je viens. Je suis égyptien mais aussi à moitié grec libanais. Je ne pourrais pas être davantage méditerranéen ! Bien que je me sente complètement égyptien, je porte la Méditerranée en moi. Je me sens chez moi quand je suis au bord de cette mer, et pas seulement lorsque je me trouve en Égypte. Je m’en suis rendu compte lorsque j’ai quitté Le Caire. J’ai réalisé qu’on pouvait porter la ville en soi. Nul besoin d’y être présent physiquement. Vous pouvez partir et la ville reste là, avec vous.

H.U.O : C’est comme Constantin Cavafy, qui est l’une de mes grandes idoles.

Y.N : Cavafy d’Alexandrie, en Égypte !

H.U.O : Il portait toujours Alexandrie en lui, où qu’il aille. C’est aussi l’une de vos idoles ?

Y.N : Absolument. J’adore Cavafy ! Mon poème préféré s’appelle Ithaque. Ce poème, c’est l’histoire de ma vie, je pense.

H.U.O : Et en dehors des autoportraits, je voulais aussi que nous parlions des portraits des autres. Nous en avons déjà évoqué les différents types. Il y a ceux de vos amis, par exemple. C’est quelque chose que vous continuez à faire, depuis que vous avez quitté l’Égypte, je suppose. Pouvez-vous nous en parler ? C’est quelque chose qui est toujours en cours finalement, qui n’a pas de fin… parce que c’est une autre forme de journal intime.

Y.N : Les gens qui m’entourent m’inspirent. Quand j’ai commencé à faire mes photos, j’avais dix-neuf ans et j’étais toujours en contact avec mes amis d’école. Je leur ai donc demandé de poser devant l’objectif et de jouer dans des scènes que je photographiais. Je suis encore en contact avec certains d’entre eux. Ensuite, lorsque je suis parti vivre à Paris, puis à New York, j’ai inclus certains de mes nouveaux amis dans mon travail. Mais il me semble que tout dépend de l’histoire que j’ai envie de raconter et, bien évidemment, il faut que quelque chose me touche, chez eux, pour que je décide de les faire figurer dans mon œuvre, en plus de les avoir simplement pour amis. Il en va de même avec mes amis artistes. J’en ai photographié certains pour la simple et bonne raison que j’aimais leur travail, l’idée qu’il y avait derrière.

H.U.O : Il s’agit donc d’une autre typologie, les projets avec des amis artistes.

Y.N : Oui, des artistes qui sont devenus des amis, ou des amis qui sont artistes aussi. Je perçois ce qu’il y a de grand, chez eux, comme chez Marina Abramovic, Tracey Emin ou Shirin Neshat, qui sont des femmes exceptionnelles qui portent cette énergie avec elles.

H.U.O : Ce sont donc des portraits d’énergies. C’est beau !

Y.N : Des gens comme Louise Bourgeois ou comme Naguib Mahfouz… Ils possèdent cette présence incroyable, cette énergie.

H.U.O : Vous avez fait un portrait formidable de Zaha Hadid. Et puis il y a aussi les célébrités. Depuis le début, vous avez photographié les acteurs égyptiens, comme Omar Sharif, mais il y a aussi John Waters et, plus tard, les actrices comme Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Huppert et Anouk Aimée. Sont-elles des idoles pour vous ? Les avez-vous choisies ou s’agit-il de commandes ?

Y.N : Ce ne sont jamais des commandes. Tout vient de moi. En fait, je les contacte personnellement et nous faisons ces portraits pour que je les expose. Pour certaines, j’ai dû patienter, comme avec Catherine Deneuve par exemple. Nous avions des amis communs et elle savait que je voulais la prendre en photo. Nous avons mis des années avant de trouver l’occasion de travailler ensemble. C’était surtout parce que je n’étais jamais à Paris quand elle était libre. Et puis un jour, j’ai reçu un e-mail où elle me disait que nous pourrions nous rencontrer pour faire la photo, et j’ai immédiatement pris l’avion pour Paris ! Le plus important pour réussir à rencontrer ce genre de personnalités, c’est la patience, car ils sont très pris.

H.U.O : Je suppose que c’est un mélange d’urgence et de patience. C’est toujours les deux… Jean-Philippe Toussaint en parle dans son nouveau livre. Il dit qu’on ne peut écrire un roman que si l’on en a la patience et l’urgence. C’est peut-être la même chose avec vos photos ?

Y.N : C’est la même chose pour moi. Je raconte une histoire à travers les gens que je photographie en les intégrant à mon œuvre. C’est comme si je construisais une histoire et qu’ils devenaient les membres d’une même et grande famille. C’est le cas, il me semble, de tous les artistes qui travaillent le portrait : le choix des visages et des personnages est crucial pour le récit qu’ils veulent faire de leur propre histoire. Et donc, naturellement, je pense beaucoup à la personne que je photographie avant de le faire. Et puis j’attends le bon moment pour la rencontrer. Il me faut faire preuve de beaucoup de patience. Avec certaines personnes, c’est très facile, mais avec d’autres, je dois parfois attendre longtemps.

H.U.O : Je trouve cela très intéressant parce que cela ressemble beaucoup aux interviews que je fais. Parfois, ça prend longtemps ; j’ai mis à peu près sept ans pour interviewer Jeanne Moreau. Nous nous sommes parlé environ deux cents fois au téléphone. Ça a été une saga interminable !

Y.N : Pareil pour moi !

H.U.O : Pareil pour vous ! Et avez-vous réussi à faire son portrait, au final ?

Y.N : Cela fait trois ou quatre ans que nous en discutons et c’est incroyable parce que j’adore sa voix, donc quand nous nous parlons au téléphone et que j’entends cette voix de Jeanne Moreau à l’autre bout du fil, c’est juste génial et j’ai vraiment hâte de l’avoir devant mon objectif. Mais pour l’instant nous n’avons pas réussi à trouver le temps.

H.U.O : Mais y a-t-il des portraits que vous n’avez jamais pu faire ?

Y.N : Le sien, par exemple ! (Rires) Mais je ne veux pas dire que ça ne se fera jamais. J’aime à croire que je les ferai un jour. Mais Oum Kalthoum, oui, j’aurais adoré pouvoir la rencontrer.

H.U.O : Frida Kahlo ! J’ai entendu dire que vous rêviez de faire le portrait de Frida Kahlo ?

Y.N : C’est vraiment l’une de mes artistes préférées. J’aurais beaucoup aimé la connaître et faire son portrait. J’ai d’ailleurs pensé à elle quand je photographiais Louise Bourgeois. Je me suis dit que Frida Kahlo aurait eu à peu près le même âge si elle avait été en vie. Il y a quelque chose de spécial chez les artistes femmes, et je me rends compte qu’il y a toujours une femme artiste dans ma vie, qu’elle soit morte ou vivante, et ça fluctue, par périodes. L’une devient très importante, très présente pendant quelque temps, puis une autre prend le relais. C’est vraiment très étrange !

H.U.O : Avez-vous d’autres rêves ?

Y.N : Tourner un long-métrage. Je suis d’ailleurs en train d’en écrire un. C’est un peu mon rêve. J’ai déjà fait un premier film qui durait huit minutes et qui m’a occupé pendant un an et demi. J’espère vraiment que je pourrai réaliser mon premier long-métrage.

H.U.O : Oui, je l’ai vu, You Never Left avec Fanny Ardant et Tahar Rahim. Et Fanny Ardant a dit dans l’interview qu’elle a faite avec vous que « le cinéma est la distillation de la vie ».

Y.N : C’est exact, et après cette première expérience, j’en écris maintenant un autre, mais je travaille aussi sur un long-métrage.

H.U.O : Peut-être pouvez-vous m’en dire un peu plus sur You Never Left, parce que vous avez dit dans une interview que le film parlait d’une Égypte disparue. Quelque chose lié au souvenir, je suppose, et à votre exil.

Y.N : Ce film parle de cette idée selon laquelle on quitte son pays lorsqu’on le doit, de la relation qui existe entre partir et mourir, de l’espoir que l’on a de trouver la vie et de renaître. Mais c’est aussi beaucoup lié à mes souvenirs et à ma relation avec ma mère et mon pays. Dans le film, Fanny Ardant représente tout cela, la mère, le pays, l’amante, l’ange qui vous demande de ne pas partir. On ne sait pas vraiment qui elle est à la fin du film ; elle est présente aussi dans l’autre monde. Elle n’a jamais vraiment quitté le jeune homme. Le film s’ouvre sur un départ et finit avec un départ. Je considère ce projet comme un autoportrait.

H.U.O : Et votre prochain film court ?

Y.N : Il parle du destin. Je suis encore en train de l’écrire. Je réfléchis beaucoup à la musique. La musique est toujours très importante pour moi. Elle est derrière toute chose de la vie – c’est l’art premier et, derrière chaque peinture, chaque film, il y a une musique.

H.U.O : Chaque photographie !

Y.N : Tout à fait, et chacun d’entre nous a sa propre bande originale correspondant à sa propre vie.

H.U.O : Dan Graham dit toujours qu’on ne peut comprendre un artiste que si l’on sait quel genre de musique il ou elle écoute. Quel genre de musique écoutez-vous ?

Y.N : J’écoute beaucoup de bandes originales de films, et aussi de vieilles chansons égyptiennes. Et de la musique classique.

H.U.O : Quelle est votre musique de film préférée ? – Ce qui me fait penser à une autre interview que je n’ai jamais pu réaliser. J’ai toujours voulu interviewer Ennio Morricone, mais je n’y suis jamais parvenu !

Y.N : J’adore sa musique, mais je dois dire que mon préféré, c’est Nino Rota. J’aime la musique qu’il a composée pour les films de Fellini. Elles ont toutes quelque chose de magique.

H.U.O : Quels sont votre acteur favori et votre actrice favorite ?

Y.N : Marcello Mastroianni et Giulietta Masina.

H.U.O : Quelle chanson aimez-vous fredonner ?

Y.N : Il y en a beaucoup, mais depuis que j’ai quitté l’Égypte, je m’aperçois que je chante surtout des chansons arabes, des chansons que j’écoutais quand j’étais là-bas. Je crois que c’est une autre manière, pour moi, de rester en contact avec mon pays.

H.U.O : Avez-vous une devise ?

Y.N : Si quelque chose doit arriver, ça arrive, et si ça ne doit pas arriver alors quelque chose d’autre se passe.

H.U.O : Qui sont vos idoles ?

Y.N : Anouar el-Sadate, que j’ai vu à Alexandrie quand j’étais enfant, et qui m’a salué de la main. Je me rappelle encore son visage souriant, qui me regardait. C’était un président visionnaire et un homme de paix. Et puis j’aime assez Marilyn Monroe, pas tant pour ses films que pour sa vie de souffrances. C’était une personne bien plus profonde que l’image qu’on se faisait d’elle.

H.U.O : L’ordinateur a-t-il changé votre façon de travailler ?

Y.N : Pour ce qui est de la communication et de l’archivage, oui, mais je travaille toujours avec des pellicules 35 mm et je peins toujours mes photographies à la main.

H.U.O : Quelle est votre œuvre la plus récente ?

Y.N : Mon œuvre la plus récente parle de l’idée de « transformation ». Il y a une première série qui s’intitule Transformation (I), que j’ai faite avec Marina Abramovic, et une deuxième série avec Isabelle Huppert qui s’appelle Transformation (II). J’ai aussi travaillé sur une série de portraits d’acteurs et d’artistes que j’aime, dans laquelle je leur fais porter un voile. J’ai beaucoup réfléchi à cette idée du voile et aux femmes des pays méditerranéens qui ont toujours porté des voiles. C’était vraiment très beau et très élégant – vous voyez cela dans l’Italie, l’Espagne ou la Grèce anciennes, et dans les peintures de la Renaissance. Et j’ai pensé à cela en écho à ce qui se passe maintenant en Égypte, par exemple. Les femmes portent le voile partout, et c’est quelque chose que je respecte si c’est leur choix, mais ce qui m’inquiète davantage, c’est cette idée de scission dans la société, entre les hommes et les femmes, les musulmans et les non-musulmans. Je voulais parler de ça dans mon travail, en faisant des portraits d’artistes et d’acteurs qui portent le voile méditerranéen, celui que j’aime. Il y a aussi un autre projet sur lequel je travaille, qui s’intitule The Last Dance. Il y est question de l’Égypte et de ce qui s’y passe actuellement. Je parle de l’Égypte où j’ai grandi, qui était bien plus libérale et qui a, malheureusement, quasiment disparu aujourd’hui. C’est étrange de voir son pays aller dans une direction qui n’est pas vraiment celle que vous auriez souhaitée.

H.U.O : Que faites-vous pour vous détendre ?

Y.N : Je regarde un film. J’essaie de voir un film chaque jour parce que ça me fait sortir de mon quotidien. Ça m’arrache à mon histoire pour me faire entrer dans une autre.

H.U.O : Quel est le dernier film que vous ayez vu ?

Y.N : C’est justement un film de 1966 avec Jeanne Moreau qui s’appelle Mademoiselle.

H.U.O : Jeanne Moreau m’a dit que le plus important dans la carrière d’une actrice, ce sont les films qu’elle a refusés ! Lorsqu’elle décide de ne pas les faire.

Y.N : C’est vraiment très beau !

H.U.O : Que faites-vous que vous ne devriez pas faire, mais que vous aimez ?

Y.N : Me réveiller la plupart des nuits. J’aime travailler la nuit, ou regarder des films jusqu’à une heure très avancée. Mais j’aime aussi me réveiller tôt et donc, au final, je ne dors que très peu d’heures.

H.U.O : Écrivez-vous des poèmes ?

Y.N : J’en écrivais beaucoup, quand j’avais environ seize ans, mais j’écris toujours mes pensées, les rêves que je fais pendant la nuit, et quelques journaux intimes.

H.U.O : Pourriez-vous en faire un livre ?

Y.N : Pour tout dire, je pense à publier tout cela un jour. J’écris beaucoup, mais surtout quand je ressens le besoin de me faire le témoin de certains moments. C’est comme si j’observais la vie, comme lorsqu’un autoportrait s’impose à moi parce que j’ai besoin de dire quelque chose, maintenant, de l’écrire. Parce que je sais aussi qu’un jour j’oublierai cet instant-là, il me faut consigner cela par écrit.

H.U.O : Faites-vous des croquis préparatoires pour vos films ou vos photos ?

Y.N : Pour les films, oui. Je fais beaucoup de croquis parce que je dois exposer mes idées en avance à tous ceux qui travaillent sur le projet, et ça m’aide à mieux communiquer, visuellement. Je fais un dessin pour chaque scène. Mais pour les photos, j’écris plutôt. Je note tout en détail. Tout le reste est dans ma tête parce que j’ai aussi besoin d’être surpris quand je prends des photos.

H.U.O : Avez-vous déjà été censuré ?

Y.N : Bizarrement, je réfléchis toujours comme si je vivais en Égypte. Je n’ai jamais vraiment beaucoup dévoilé une personne lorsque je fais un nu, par exemple. J’aime qu’une partie demeure cachée, qu’on ne la voie pas. Il me semble que c’est ainsi que je vois les choses. Je n’essaie jamais de choquer les gens, donc je continue à travailler comme je travaillais en Égypte, ce qui ne m’a jamais empêché d’aborder des sujets considérés comme tabous, comme la sexualité, par exemple.

H.U.O : Et pour ce qui est de voyager, que préférez-vous, le voyage ou l’arrivée ?

Y.N : Le voyage.

H.U.O : Comment se déroule généralement votre journée ? Avez-vous des horaires de travail ?

Y.N : Mes horaires de travail changent sans arrêt. Ils dépendent aussi des moments puisque je partage mon temps entre la prise de vue, l’impression des images – le plus souvent en dehors de l’atelier – et la peinture, que je réalise dans mon atelier de New York. Je me lève tôt, vers 6 heures, et je passe l’essentiel de la journée à peindre. C’est un long processus manuel puisqu’il faut que j’attende, entre chaque couche de couleur, que le cliché s’assouplisse. Je travaille à peu près jusqu’à l’heure du dîner et j’essaie de garder mes soirées libres, pour regarder des films.

H.U.O : Et quelle est votre couleur préférée ?

Y.N : Le bleu que j’utilise dans mes œuvres, et le vert, dans la vie.

H.U.O : Pouvez-vous nous dire quelque chose à propos de la lumière ?

Y.N : Ma lumière préférée au monde, c’est celle avec laquelle j’ai grandi, en Égypte. C’est la lumière qui apparaît quinze minutes avant le coucher du soleil. C’est un moment magique et une lumière unique que je n’ai jamais retrouvée ailleurs. Je n’ai rien retrouvé de semblable où que je sois allé dans le monde ! Cet instant très spécifique me manque beaucoup. Je n’aurais jamais pensé qu’il me faudrait un jour vivre sans.

H.U.O : Dernière question, mais pas des moindres : quel avenir, pour vous ?

Y.N : Je ne vois pas mon avenir autrement que dans le travail et la création. C’est la raison pour laquelle je suis là.

Londres, Royaume-Uni, le 27 avril 2012

Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist: How did it all start ? Did you have an epiphany, a sudden revelation?

Youssef Nabil: I think this happened through the old Egyptian black-and-white movies I was watching all the time when I was a child, and the fact that I was in love with mostly dead people, this did something to me subconsciously. I think also because I was an introvert as a child and always had difficulties communicating with other people, I was always observing and I knew that I could communicate easily through anything visual. So later on I chose the camera, it was my way of talking about my thoughts. So I can say that when I discovered death as a child, I decided that I wanted to work with photography, and photograph people I love, before I die or before they die.

H.U.O: So that was really the beginning. Did your parents have anything to do with art?

Y.N: My mother actually was studying cinema to become a director, then she stopped to take care of us—me, my brother and sister. It was also through my mother that I was introduced to a lot of ideas about cinema, and that made me want to be an artist.

H.U.O: How did you discover art? What was the first museum of your childhood? I’m always interested in the first museum. For me as a student and child, I was seven or eight years old and my parents took me to the Monastery Library, the Stiftsbibliothek in St. Gallen Switzerland, I looked at all these Medieval books of the 11th and 12th centuries. I think everything that I have done ever since has to do with that, the knowledge, encyclopedias, recordings, even the interview approach started by that—to record, to archive, all of that—is because when I was seven I was in this museum. The first museum is always very important.

Y.N: My first museum was definitely in Cairo, it was a school thing, but I think I had already discovered something else before—the old films I was watching all the time at home. And in that sense, if I have to mention a first visit that had an impact on me, it was the first time I ever went to a movie theater. I was with my family in Cairo, I think I was about five years old, we all went to watch King Kong from 1933. This did something to me… that was really something.

H.U.O: One of your unrealized portraits is the portrait of Umm Kulthum?

Y.N: Yes.

H.U.O: And I suppose that growing up in Egypt with her songs, she must be somehow like a childhood heroine.

Y.N: She definitely had a great impact on me as a child, when I was about twelve or fourteen years old, I used to wait every day to listen to her songs, which were played on the radio every day around 4:00 pm. I used to record them on tapes and my family found that really strange, that I liked Umm Kulthum so much at that young age because not so many children would do that! I used to love her voice and presence. Watching her on TV was also a great inspiration. She was a strong woman in Egypt—seeing her there, the only woman with a whole orchestra of men behind her, was a very powerful image. We never really had this dimension of a star before. I also loved the fact that she started her career by reading the Quran, because that proves that you can be religious and work as an artist or a singer in modern Egypt. There is also something mystic about her voice when she sings, you can’t help but listen carefully to her. These were not exactly songs for me. She had this little extra something that without her, a song would definitely be a different song, never the same.

H.U.O: Do you have other childhood heroes?

Y.N: Yes, I have many others, but they mainly come from Egyptian cinema, like Faten Hamama, Chadia, Laila Mourad, but also all the belly dancers from that old era like Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, and Naima Akef, I loved watching them.

H.U.O: So really the films of your childhood… and obviously at nineteen you started taking pictures and at the same time you started studying literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo. What was that period like for you?

Y.N: My first intention was to study cinema, but then it was not possible to enter the Academy of Cinema in Egypt without knowing someone there. Unfortunately that was the system back then in the late eighties, early nineties, so I was really depressed because I tried two years in a row and I knew this was the only thing that I wanted to do. Then I accepted the fact that I had to choose something else to study, because again in Egypt you have to have a degree. My family insisted that I must continue my university studies and then I could do my art. So I chose French literature because I love reading and writing, which could also help me later on with my own art and doing cinema. But at the same time I started working with photography, taking pictures all the time, writing short scenarios that I would ask my friends to play in front of my camera. So at the end of the day, things took a different direction but helped me doing what I wanted to do. I also left for a year when I was in New York working with David LaChapelle, whom I met in Cairo during that same period.

H.U.O: But it’s also interesting because there is this whole idea of mentorship. I believe a lot in mentorship, this idea that actually we learn the most about a thing when we have a mentor. And you sort of look through your own mentors. You have David LaChapelle and Mario Testino. Can you talk a little bit about these two mentors and what you learned from them? But also how you found them… because for a kid in Egypt at the age of nineteen, it’s kind of extraordinary to find these two mentors so quickly, so early, so young!

Y.N: I found both of them in Egypt! It was meant to be. It was really pure coincidence. And if I told this in a story or a movie, you would say it’s impossible, because even if you were living in the same city, you may never meet them! For me to meet both of them in Cairo and to work with them after in New York and Paris, was like a sign from life that I was on the right track. I learned so much from working with both of them, just being around and seeing how a real studio in big cities like New York or Paris would function and how everything was so organized. In that sense I still remember so many details that I knew from David or Mario. But also I would add another friend and mentor, my great friend Van Leo, who was an Armenian studio portrait photographer living in Cairo. We didn’t work together but we were close friends and he photographed me many times. I met him in 1992 when I saw his studio vitrine in downtown Cairo, with so many exposed blackand- white portraits. So I went up to the first floor where the studio was and I introduced myself, we became friends immediately and we remained friends till he passed away in 2002. He was doing portraits of Egyptian stars from the forties and fifties, I loved his work and I think that he never really got the appreciation or attention he deserves. He was my only photographer friend at that time, we had a weekly meeting and we would show each other our work. I told him about Frida Kahlo and many other artists that I love and we had long conversations about Egypt and photography as an art there, and he always encouraged me to leave for the West, for him my work would be more appreciated in the West. It was a critical period for both of us because I was just starting my career and he was thinking of closing his studio. So I went to New York first where I was working with David in 1993, then in 1997 to Paris to work with Mario and I used to call Van Leo from there all the time, till I received a letter from him saying that he had closed his studio. When I returned to Cairo, I went to see him first thing and again we continued to meet, but at his apartment, which was on the same street as the studio.

H.U.O: He actually wasn’t initially named Van Leo, he was called Levon Boyadjian, his pseudonym was Van Leo. Did you ever have a pseudonym?

Y.N: No, but actually my family name is not Nabil, I chose my father’s name to be my last name.

H.U.O: So it is actually a pseudonym!

Y.N: It is in a way, because my old friends from school know me with a different name. And when I travel I have my real family name, so it’s maybe better! (Laughs)

H.U.O: But it’s interesting because then in Egypt, you met these two foreign mentors LaChapelle and Testino, how did that happen?

Y.N: Well with Mario we had friends in common, and I knew that he was coming to Egypt. At that time I didn’t have Internet or foreign TV channels, so my only way to know about photography or photographers was through magazines… so I saw a lot of Mario’s work. And when I heard that he was coming to shoot in Egypt, I told my friend that I wanted to meet him. Mario came and I was his assistant during that trip to Luxor shooting Linda Evangelista for British Vogue. I showed him my work and he liked it, I was already doing my painted black-and-white portraits.

H.U.O: So that, you had discovered already! Because that is actually something I wanted to ask you about later, but we should discuss it now, because that’s very interesting that you started this so early. It is basically a very special old technique that you have used ever since you started using a 35 mm camera and you are still using it. You refused color film and only worked with black and white, then you hand-colored the print after!

Y.N: I always admired anything done by hand, which is very different from the digital and HD era we are all in now.

H.U.O: I have been recording the interview with three identical digital Olympus voice recorders, because of digital paranoia! Because usually one stops! But you are recording it with one analogue Sony physical tape recording! We should actually make a photo of these four recorders on the table! It’s very beautiful! (Laughs) Kaelen Wilson Goldie writes that you apply “the antiquated technique of hand-painting black-and-white photographs meticulously, painstakingly one at a time.” So it’s a very, very slow process. How did this technique come to you?

Y.N: First I only wanted to work in black and white, I refused to use any color film, for me it was a bit commercial, less artistic and had nothing to do with my cinema inspirations. I first wanted to make work inspired by the old Egyptian black-and-white films, because people were more beautiful in black and white and I wanted to still show that. Then later on I had the need to see my work in color, so I decided to hand color my black-and-white photographs using the same old photography technique, which would still keep this old cinematic feeling that I liked in the black and white. I also wanted my work to be seen as paintings.

H.U.O: And that was what year?

Y.N: It was around 1994, 1995.

H.U.O: And what was the first picture you did?

Y.N: The first picture I did was of a friend of mine from school called Amani. It was summer of 1992, we went to the old Cairo neighborhood and the story was that she is this mysterious woman hiding from people on the roof of this old house next to a Coptic cemetery, stealing the drying laundry from the roof and jumping from one roof to the other. It was a lot of fun at that time, and I remember really enjoying doing this, directing her to tell a story. I wrote and prepared everything as if a scene in a film… that was my first picture.

H.U.O: And it is interesting about the laundry, because I also have an Egyptian laundry story. Susan Hefuna and I went to visit the graveyard of James Lee Byars because I always wanted to visit his grave and he is buried in the American cemetery of Cairo. And then when we arrived they were actually drying laundry on the graves, we had to pay bribes, then they removed the laundry and we could visit the grave.

Y.N: I know, in Egypt people actually live in cemeteries, along with dead people.

H.U.O: So you were in Cairo, in the nineties and you discovered this technique, this rule of the game, this methodology you have followed ever since. You had the city of Cairo as your playground basically, as your research, as your inspiration. It’s an infinite inspiration I suppose, and then you met LaChapelle and Testino. How did you meet LaChapelle?

Y.N: LaChapelle I met by pure coincidence. I was at a hotel in Cairo shooting a friend of mine. Then David saw me and started asking me questions, explaining that he was a photographer as well and in Cairo to do a story about the Sphinx for the cover of Condé Nast Traveler magazine. He said that he was working with a production company and thought that they were charging him too much money for this shoot, couldn’t find models, etc. So I told him that I could help him for free as I knew many models in town and it would also be easy to get him permission for the shooting, etc. We ended up working together for the whole week, then he called me when he got back to New York and asked me to come work with him in his New York studio. It was the strangest thing, I didn’t know at all who he was, didn’t know his work before, and that was a few months after I started my own photography. We are talking end of 1992. So I flew to New York in March 1993 for first time, where I worked and lived with David LaChapelle in the East Village. I asked my family to pay for the airplane ticket, which was a lot of money for them at that time and went to get a visa from the US Embassy in Cairo. Of course I didn’t say that I was going to work with LaChapelle. I just told the consular that I was going to New York to buy photography equipment, so he looked at me as I think he didn’t believe that I was really a photographer in Egypt at that young age, and asked me “Tell me a name of one American photographer? ” I said “Cindy Sherman!” He said “You got your visa to the USA ! But if you had said Andres Serrano, I wasn’t going to give you the visa!”

H.U.O: Amazing! That’s such a good story! (Laughs)

Y.N: I left for the States and had no idea what to expect there, when I stepped outside the airport, it was snowing. I had never seen snow before, because basically I come from the desert, and actually the snowflakes were in crystal form that day, there were these little crystals coming from the sky and I was really impressed by that. David couldn’t come to pick me up but sent me a limousine stretch car, so I was in that limousine coming to New York City for the first time, and went to the East Village where I worked with him and another assistant called Luis. David also lived in the East Village, and I remember that in my bedroom, David had this huge statue of the Virgin Mary. It was made out of glass or plastic, but all I can remember is that it was lit at night, it was really big and went all the way up to the ceiling, and I had a mattress on the floor to sleep on, so I spent all the time before going to sleep watching the lit Virgin Mary statue, till I went to sleep. It was so beautiful and such a unique experience for me as a Muslim. He also used to take me to these bars around Midtown and we would talk to all these sexy women, and when we left, he would say “You know they were all men!” It was a real experience working with him and being in NYC at that time.

H.U.O: What did you learn from David LaChapelle?

Y.N: I learned so many things from David and Mario in an indirect way, you know with them we never really spoke about photography itself, it was work all the time and it wasn’t like we would sit down and talk about technique and stuff, but I always remember David when he first saw my work in Egypt, he noticed that I was trying to do something different in my country and it was very encouraging for me to hear his opinion about my work at that young age. I was just starting my photography literally three or four months before we met, so David said to me that I should continue doing this and that I should always look for my own inspiration. He said something beautiful, he said: If you look into your camera, and you see a picture that someone else did before you, don’t press the button, don’t shoot it, shoot something else. It was the best advice ever, it was his way of telling me, be always yourself… later on he told me that Andy Warhol had given him that advice. So it was an amazing discovery, it was a message that Andy said to David and David said to me.

H.U.O: And what about Mario, what did you learn from him?

Y.N: We are both Scorpios, so we have so many things in common! But one of the most important things I learned from Mario is that he would always put the person he photographs at ease. He would make them laugh, always having funny stories to tell, he would sing songs and change lyrics and make it fit into the situation. It was so much fun and it was just his way of getting the best out of his models, making them comfortable. I remember once we were in the studio and all of us speaking in French, and the model was American and it was her first shoot, so he asked us all to speak in English, so she wouldn’t feel like a stranger among us. Details like that, that only he would think of, because he mainly wants the person in front of the camera to feel good. That was an important detail I learned from him, because I’m also someone who doesn’t talk much. I go to the shoot and I already have an image and idea of how exactly I want the portrait to be done, not only the person I am photographing but also the colors that I will use after. So I’ve tried since then to communicate my thoughts with the person I am photographing, to make them feel as comfortable as I could, because it is not an easy thing to be photographed, even for actors and people used to the idea of being filmed. The photo camera is different. I have worked with many actors who are actually shy in front of a photo camera… because suddenly it is about them!

H.U.O: I find this fascinating about portraits, because many roads lead to Rome, you know. For example, Mario Testino when I interviewed him, told me that sort of thing about his technique or his methodology, that he performs a lot. So as a photographer he is almost like a performer and then at some moment that leads to a situation when he makes the picture. And you have a situation for example with Jurgen Teller, who once photographed me, he just flashes you and all of a sudden you completely forget. And there was always an object in his picture—in my case it was an old coffee machine. So I think each portrait photographer has a different way, some speak when they take the picture. Henri Cartier-Bresson told me silence was always very important, when he took a picture, there would be silence for hours, sometimes, like when he visited Pierre Bonnard. What is your methodology?

Y.N: There is definitely silence more then talking in my shoots. I like also to be alone with the person I am photographing. It is like I am trying to get to know them in an intimate way, almost like having sex, it is really personal and most of them I might never meet again. So when we meet, I try to grab something out of them, to draw something on their faces, to have them reflecting my emotions mixed with theirs. It is like seeing something getting born from our encounter. I can never have a third person standing next to me or behind me. I can’t see someone else. I want to have this moment as private as possible while I am revealing their souls. It is very intimate.

H.U.O: There are different layers in your work, I was looking at one of your books the other day, you do self-portraits, portraits of your friends, strangers and of course your heroes and celebrities.

Y.N: Exactly.

H.U.O: Can you talk about a few very special moments, for example with the self-portraits because that is something that became important when you moved to Paris and since then it has played a very important role. Can you talk about this idea of the self-portrait, it is an infinite series I suppose, as long as you are alive will you do them?

Y.N: It’s true, they are like a diary, they come in moments that I feel the need to include them in my work. I feel that I want to say something here in this city, I talk about my life but also about life and existence, about the idea of being here but knowing that you will be leaving soon. And I was always aware of that, that living is about leaving and we leave all the time… till we actually die and leave life. I saw this happening to other people, and I started looking at life from that angle, witnessing every moment of it. As I know that this won’t last forever, I am trying to understand life’s technique. We think that we actually live here, but it was a sad discovery for me when I was a kid, that this is not it, we are not going to live forever. We are actually here for some time, then we will die. It happened to everyone before us and it will happen to us too. Death is one of those things that we live thinking that it will only happen to others but we don’t imagine that we ourselves are going to really die. And the crazy thing is that we don’t know when it’s going to happen. So for me living is a bit of a surreal idea, because leaving what we know and what we are used to, could happen at any moment, this could just stop at any time. So the self-portraits talk about this idea, that I always felt like a visitor everywhere I went. I knew that I would be leaving soon. But I’m actually also trying all the time through my self-portraits to accept this idea, that death is coming.

H.U.O: So it’s about death and life. Leon Golub said death is a dull fact but we are only alive because of death, if there was no death, we wouldn’t be alive.

Y.N: Exactly, it’s everyone’s story, I also don’t look at the camera most of the time, because it could be about anyone else. I don’t exactly see myself.

H.U.O: How many self-portraits have there been so far?

Y.N: Around seventy-five.

H.U.O: And how do you choose the settings, because very often you let us see the landscape or it’s an interior… is it something you find by chance? I was kind of wondering what’s the role of chance in the work?

Y.N: They come to me. I feel the need to do a self-portrait at this specific place or moment because I feel a relation to it, Sometimes I’m discovering it for first time. I love the sea, sunsets and ports . . . Mediterranean cities are very important for me. I know that I am connected to this part of the world more then anywhere else, so I did selfportraits in Naples, Athens, Alexandria, and Marseille.

H.U.O: So the self-portraits are part of the Mediterranean, it’s you and the Mediterranean!

Y.N: It’s true, I am from there, I’m Egyptian, but half Greek/ Lebanese, so I couldn’t be more Mediterranean then this! Although I feel totally Egyptian, I know that I carry the Mediterranean within me. I feel at home when I’m next to it, not only when I am in Egypt but anywhere else next to that sea. I discovered this when I left Cairo, that you can carry the city within you, you don’t have to be there physically, you can leave and the city will still be with you.

H.U.O: But that’s very important, I mean that is like one of my great heroes Cavafy.

Y.N: From Alexandria in Egypt!

H.U.O: He carried Alexandria with him everywhere, so he’s also one of your heroes?

Y.N: Definitely, I love Cavafy! My favorite poem is “Ithaka” I think this poem is about my life.

H.U.O: So one thing I wanted to ask you, besides the self-portraits, there are the portraits of other people and we spoke about these different portraits, like portraits of your friends, so that’s something which I suppose continued ever since Egypt. Can you talk about that? That’s also sort of ongoing, infinite… because that’s another form of diary.

Y.N: Basically I’m inspired by people around me. When I started my photography I was nineteen years old and was still in touch with friends from school, so I asked them to be in front of the camera and act in scenes that I shot. I am still in touch with some of them. Then when I moved to live in Paris then New York, I also included some of my new friends there in my work. But I guess it all depends on the story I want to tell, and of course something has to move me to decide that apart from being friends, I also want to include them in my work. Same with my artist friends, some of them I have photographed because I simply like their work, the idea behind them.

H.U.O: So that is another typology, the artist friends, projects with artist friends.

Y.N: Yes, artists who became friends, or friends who are artists as well. And I still see the iconic side of them, like with Marina Abramovic, Tracey Emin, or Shirin Neshat, who are unique women and carry this energy around them.

H.U.O: So they are portraits of energy, that’s beautiful!

Y.N: Someone like Louise Bourgeois or Naguib Mahfouz… they have this great presence and energy.

H.U.O: There is the great portrait you made of Zaha Hadid. Then there are also the celebrities, from the very beginning, you have the Egyptian actors like Omar Sharif, but then you have also John Waters and later actresses like Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Huppert, and Anouk Aimée. Did you choose them, or were they commissions?

Y.N: Never a commission, they all come from me. Actually I contact them personally and we do the portrait for my exhibition. For some of them I had to wait for years, like with Catherine Deneuve for example. We had a few friends in common, and she knew that I wanted to photograph her. We had been trying to do the shoot for many years, mostly because I wasn’t in Paris when she had the time. Then one day I got an email from her saying that we could meet that day for the shoot, so I flew to Paris for it! Patience plays a very important role in meeting these people, because they are very busy.

H.U.O: I suppose it’s a mix of urgency and patience? It’s always both of them. Jean-Philippe Toussaint talks about it in his new book, that you can only write a novel if you have patience and urgency. It’s maybe the same with your photography?

Y.N: It’s the same for me, I am telling a story through the people I photograph, having them all becoming part of my work, is like building a story and they all sort of become members of one big family. I think if you look at any artist who works with portraiture, the faces and characters he chooses are very important in telling his own story. So of course I think a lot about the person before I take a photograph. Then I wait till it is time for us to meet, so I really must be patient. With some people it’s very easy, but with other people I have to wait for years.

H.U.O: It’s interesting because it’s similar with my interviews, sometimes it takes a long time, it took seven years for me to interview Jeanne Moreau. We spoke around two hundred times on the telephone, it was an ongoing saga!

Y.N: Same with me!

H.U.O: Same with you! And did you do her portrait at the end?

Y.N: We have been talking for past three or four years, and it is amazing because I love her voice, so when I talk to her on the phone and I have this Jeanne Moreau voice at the other end, it is just great and I can’t wait to have her in front of the camera.

H.U.O: But do you have unrealized portraits?

Y.N: She’s one of them! (Laughs) But I don’t want to call it unrealized yet, I’d love to believe that it will be realized, I’m still hoping we can meet and do it. But Umm Kulthum yes, I wish I had met her.

H.U.O: Frida Kahlo! I heard rumors that you are dreaming of doing Frida Kahlo?

Y.N: She’s definitely one of my favorite artists, and I would have loved to meet her and do her portrait. I actually thought of her when I was photographing Louise Bourgeois, I was thinking Frida Kahlo would have been more or less the same age as Louise Bourgeois if she was still alive, but there is something about women artists and it’s interesting because there is always a woman artist in my life, dead or alive, and they sort of change because in every period one becomes really important and very present for a while, then another one appears. It’s so strange!

H.U.O: Any other example of a dream?

Y.N: Making a long feature film, I’m actually writing it now. It’s sort of my dream. I did my first film which was an 8 minute film and took a year and a half of my life, and I’m really hoping that I will be able to direct my first long feature.

H.U.O: Yes I saw it, You Never Left with Fanny Ardant and Tahar Rahim. And Fanny Ardant said in her interview with you that “Cinema is a distillation of life.”

Y.N: Yes, after this first experience, now I’m writing another one but also working on a long feature.

H.U.O: Can you tell me maybe just a few things about You Never Left because you said in an interview that it is about a lost Egypt, so it’s again to do with memory I suppose and your exile.

Y.N: It speaks about the idea of leaving your country when you have to, and the relationship between leaving and dying, hoping to find life and be born again. But it has to do a lot with my memories, and my relationship with my mother and my country. Fanny Ardant in the film represents all that, the mother, the country, the lover, the angel asking him not to leave. We don’t know exactly who she is and at the end of the film she’s there also in the other world, she never left him really… and the film starts with leaving and ends with leaving. I consider this project a self-portrait.

H.U.O: And your next short video?

Y.N: It’s about destiny, I’m still writing it. I’m thinking a lot about the music, music is always important for me. Music is behind everything in life—it is the first art and behind every painting, every film, there is a music.

H.U.O: Every photograph!

Y.N: Definitely, and every one of us has his own soundtrack of his own life.

H.U.O: Dan Graham always says that we can only understand an artist if we know what kind of music he or she is listening to. What kind of music do you listen to?

Y.N: I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks, also old Egyptian songs and classical music.

H.U.O: And what’s your favorite movie soundtrack? Which leads me to another unrealized interview of mine, I always wanted to interview Ennio Morricone, I never managed!

Y.N: Oh amazing, I love his music, but my favorite I would say is Nino Rota, I love the music he did for Fellini’s films… there was always something magical about them.

H.U.O: Who’s your favorite actor and favorite actress?

Y.N: Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina.

H.U.O: What songs do you like to sing?

Y.N: Many songs, but since I left Egypt, I find myself mostly singing Arabic songs, songs that I used to listen to when I was there, I believe it is another way of staying attached to my country.

H.U.O: Do you have a motto?

Y.N: If something is going to happen then it will happen, and if it wasn’t going to happen then something else will happen.

H.U.O: Who are your hero and heroine?

Y.N: Anwar Sadat, who I saw in Alexandria when I was a kid and he waved to me. I still remember his smiling face looking at me, he was a visionary president and a man of peace. And somehow I love Marilyn Monroe not so much for her films, but for the suffering she had in her life, she was much more deep as a person then the image we get of her.

H.U.O: Has the computer changed the way you work?

Y.N: In terms of communication and archiving yes, but I still work with 35 mm film and I hand color my photographs.

H.U.O: What is your most recent work?

Y.N: The recent work is about the idea of “Transformation,” so there is a first series called Transformation (I) which I did with Marina Abramovic, and a second series I did with Isabelle Huppert and it’s called Transformation (II). I have also been working on a series of portraits of actors and artists I love, wearing a veil. I have been thinking a lot about the idea of the veil and women from Mediterranean countries who have always worn veils. It was really beautiful and very elegant—you see that in old Italy, Spain, Greece, also in Renaissance paintings. And I thought about it because of what I see now in Egypt, for example, women are wearing the veil everywhere and I respect that if it was their choice, but worry more about the idea of separation in society, between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims. So I wanted to speak about that in my work, doing portraits of artists and actors wearing the Mediterranean veil, the one that I love. Another project I have been working on, is called “The Last Dance,” it is about Egypt and what the country is going through now. I’m talking about the Egypt I grew up in, which was much more liberal and unfortunately almost gone now. It is strange to see your country changing in a direction that is not exactly what you hoped for.

H.U.O: How do you relax?

Y.N: I watch a movie , I try to watch one movie a day, because it makes me go out of my own life and story and enter another story.

H.U.O: What’s the most recent one?

Y.N: It’s actually a film with Jeanne Moreau, called Mademoiselle from 1966.

H.U.O: Jeanne Moreau told me that the most important things in an actress’s trajectory are the films that she’s turned down! When you decide not to do one.

Y.N: That is really beautiful.

H.U.O: What’s your favorite mistake?

Y.N: Waking up most of the night. I love working at night, or watching films till really late, but I also love waking up early, so I end up sleeping for only a few hours.

H.U.O: Do you write poems?

Y.N: I used to a lot, when I was about sixteen, but I still write thoughts, dreams I had while sleeping and some diaries.

H.U.O: Could they be collected in a book?

Y.N: I’m thinking of actually publishing them one day, I write a lot, but mostly when I feel the need to witness a certain moment. It is like an observation of life, like my self-portraits when they come to me, when I need to say something now, to write it down, because I also know that one day I will forget it, so I need to write it down.

H.U.O: Do you make sketches for your pictures?

Y.N: With the films yes, I do lots of sketches because I have to show my ideas in advance to so many involved people, and this helps me to visually communicate better. I have a sketch for every scene. But for my photographs I mostly write down all details. All the rest is in my head, because I also need to be surprised while I’m shooting.

H.U.O: Have you ever been censored?

Y.N: You know the strange thing is that I still think as if I live in Egypt, I never really showed much nakedness when I did a nude for example. I like to have a part hidden that we don’t see. I think it is how I see things. I never looked to shock people, so I still continue working the same way I worked in Egypt, which also never stopped me from talking about issues that are considered taboos like sexuality for example.

H.U.O: And then the whole thing about traveling, is it better to travel or better to arrive?

Y.N: To travel.

H.U.O: How is a typical day in your life, do you have working hours?

Y.N: My working hours are never the same. It also depends on the period, as I divide my time between shooting or printing the projects—mostly away from the studio—and the painting part of the work which I do in my studio in New York. I wake up early, around 6:00 am and spend most of the day painting. It is a long manual process as I have to wait between layers of colors for the print to relax. I work till around just before dinnertime and try to keep the evenings for myself to watch a movie.

H.U.O: And what is your favorite color?

Y.N: The Blue I use in my work, and Green in life.

H.U.O: Can you say something about light?

Y.N: My favorite light in the world is a light I grew up with in Egypt. It appears about 15 minutes before sunset. It is a magical moment and a very unique light that I have never seen anything like or close to anywhere I have been in the world! I really miss that specific moment that I never thought I would live without.

H.U.O: And last but not least, what’s the future?

Y.N: For me the future will always be about work and making art. That’s what I am here for.

London, UK, April 27, 2012

Conversation with Marina Abramovic
Chatham (Hudson) New York, March 31, 2012

Conversation with Marina Abramovic French

Marina Abramovic : Ce livre retrace ton parcours sur une durée de vingt ans. C’est incroyable !

Youssef Nabil : Pourquoi ?

M.A : Parce que tu as l’air si jeune ! Je pensais que tu avais à peine trente ans.

Y.N : Je vais avoir quarante ans cette année. Ça fait peur ! Je crois qu’une fois qu’on a passé le cap de la quarantaine ça devient plus facile.

M.A : Quand j’ai eu quarante ans, j’ai vécu une crise existentielle incroyable. Je venais de rompre avec Ulay, tout au bout de la grande muraille de Chine, et j’avais l’impression que ma vie était finie. Mais curieusement, après avoir surmonté cette crise, j’ai beaucoup mieux relativisé les anniversaires qui ont suivi. Je n’y pense pas plus que cela. Il n’y a que lorsque je regarde en arrière que je me sens vieille.

Y.N : Tu sais, lorsque je me réveille le matin, je n’ai pas l’impression d’avoir un âge en particulier.

M.A : C’est intéressant, ce que tu dis, surtout si on le rapporte au travail que tu fais sur tes photos, parce que précisément, tu gommes l’âge en permanence.

Y.N : En fait, je ne le vois même pas. Je ne vois pas les rides. Je ne vois pas les gens vieux ou jeunes. Dans ma tête, ils ont tous le même âge, et c’est la raison pour laquelle je ne veux pas de rides sur mes photos. C’est vraiment ainsi que je les vois dans la vie.

M.A : Je voudrais parler de cette photographie que j’aime tant, où l’on te voit allongé sur les racines d’un arbre. Pour moi, c’est l’une des photos clés qui permet de comprendre ton œuvre, parce que c’est un peu comme si tu étais sur une sorte de pont entre ta culture et toutes les autres. C’est comme si tu volais de racine en racine, comme si tu te nourrissais du monde, les racines étant des veines pourvoyeuses de vie qui rentrent dans ton corps et qui en ressortent. Quand je regarde cette photographie, c’est cela qui me parle le plus, mais il y a aussi cette fragilité, cette vulnérabilité qui sont perceptibles parce que tu as l’air d’un enfant ; tu es dans les racines de l’arbre, à la fois à l’abri et vulnérable car elles pourraient tout aussi bien t’engloutir. J’y vois une sorte de ligne entre l’ombre et la lumière. Je trouve cette image fondamentale pour comprendre ta personnalité, mais aussi en quoi consiste réellement ton travail.

Y.N : C’est exactement comme ça que je me suis senti. J’ai voulu faire cet autoportrait en voyant ces énormes racines près de l’endroit où je séjournais à Los Angeles. Je passais devant tous les jours et, chaque fois, je pensais à l’Égypte. Je pensais à mes racines, à la terre qui m’a vu naître. Je n’aurais jamais cru que mon pays me manquerait autant, au moment où je l’ai quitté, en 2003. Ça n’a pas été facile pour moi de partir. Tout était compliqué ; je suis parti sans un sou en poche. Je ne savais pas ce qu’il allait advenir de moi. La seule chose dont j’étais certain, c’était que je ne pouvais plus continuer à vivre là-bas. Pourtant, je viens de là-bas.

M.A : Et pourquoi cela ? Pour quelle raison, en particulier ?

Y.N : À cause des changements de société qui se sont produits dans notre pays. Il y a eu un retour du conservatisme. Je percevais déjà cette évolution il y a dix ans. Je voulais me sentir plus libre dans mon art et m’installer ailleurs. Je ne pouvais pas concevoir de devoir sans cesse faire attention à ce que je voulais dire dans mes œuvres. En réalité, je n’ai jamais vraiment fait de compromis là-dessus, mais je voulais être davantage en paix avec moi-même.

M.A : C’est intéressant parce que quand j’ai quitté la Yougoslavie, mon travail n’était pas du tout accepté, là-bas, au départ. J’étais considérée comme une sorte de brebis galeuse et j’avais des relations très difficiles avec ma famille. En même temps, il y avait une sorte de sécurité car j’avais un endroit où dormir, où manger, et que je n’avais pas à me préoccuper de tout ça. Mais quand on décide de partir, c’est comme si c’était un autre monde !

Y.N : Dans le film que j’ai réalisé récemment, je parle de mon expérience, des sentiments que j’éprouvais lorsque j’ai quitté l’Égypte et de la relation qui existe entre partir et mourir. C’est quelque chose qui me trottait dans la tête depuis mon départ, il y a environ dix ans, et en 2010 j’ai pu le concrétiser. Quand je suis parti, j’ai eu l’impression de devenir quelqu’un d’autre. Soudain, je n’avais plus rien à voir avec mon passé et quand je suis retourné en Égypte un an plus tard pour revoir ma famille, mes amis et mon pays, c’était comme si j’étais devenu un fantôme, que je revenais d’un autre monde et que je les voyais avec des yeux nouveaux. Tout avait changé, un peu comme s’ils s’étaient habitués à vivre sans moi et, d’une certaine façon, j’avais aussi l’impression qu’ils resurgissaient du passé. Je savais que je n’étais là-bas que pour quelques jours et que je repartirais ensuite… Tout était déterminé par cela.

M.A : Je me souviens du moment où je suis partie, et même de la période qui a précédé mon départ. Je me souviens d’avoir fait un rêve absolument horrible. Très étrange. J’étais sur un petit bateau et je faisais ma valise. Ensuite je la soulevais et le bateau se mettait à tanguer, et en face de moi, de l’autre côté, sur la rive, il y avait des pins. Et tous les pins ont commencé à s’enflammer lentement, sur les bords, mais ils ne brûlaient pas encore vraiment. Ils étaient sur le point de brûler et c’était comme si tout était sur le point de disparaître et de tomber en cendres. Je me souviens être retournée à Belgrade après une longue absence – c’était juste après avoir arpenté la grande muraille de Chine – et on m’a demandé de faire une conférence. Ma mère était assise au premier rang. J’ai montré mon film, passé les diapositives, et alors que je venais tout juste de commencer à parler, il y a eu une coupure de courant ! J’ai dû parler à près de trois cents personnes, pendant deux heures, dans l’obscurité la plus totale. Et ça a été extraordinaire pour moi. C’était une expérience totalement nouvelle parce que je m’adressais à l’obscurité, à un monde qui n’existait pas, y compris ma mère ! (Rires) Mais tu as raison, le fait de partir puis de revenir a un impact incroyable, parce que c’est comme ça que tu vois les choses sous un bien meilleur angle. Quand je suis en avion, je regarde toujours la terre. De là-haut, on voit tellement mieux que depuis le sol, et quand on y songe, on se demande : mais où est ma souffrance ? Où est ma douleur ? Depuis cet avion, tout semble si ridicule. Parce que tu vois tes problèmes, mais tu vois aussi ceux de millions d’autres personnes avec cette même perspective que tu as de là-haut. Et alors tout ça n’a plus d’importance.

Y.N : Il faut préciser que nous avons cette conversation alors que nous sommes assis sur un lit !

M.A : Oui ! C’est un lit king size avec des couvertures bleu foncé. J’aime bien ce lit, mais, tu sais, si je n’avais pas trouvé ma maison idéale, je vivrais dans une petite chambre dont la moitié serait occupée par le lit et l’autre par une table. Et c’est tout. Pas de chaises ! Je m’assois beaucoup trop sur les chaises ! (Rires) Mais dis-moi, comment choisis-tu les personnes que tu photographies ? Ce sont toujours des personnalités très fortes ! Comme Louise Bourgeois, Zaha Hadid.

Y.N : Comme toi ! (Rires)

M.A : Elles racontent toutes vraiment une histoire. D’une certaine façon, c’est comme si tu t’emparais des marques que la vie a laissées sur leur visage, et tout d’un coup, elles apparaissent comme des sortes d’esprits plutôt que comme de véritables personnes. Tu peux m’en dire un peu plus, là-dessus ?

Y.N : En fait, je les choisis pour les idées qu’elles représentent, et aussi pour leur personnalité, pour ce qu’elles portent en elles… Quand tu regardes Zaha Hadid, tu sens tout de suite que c’est une femme forte. Tu sais, hadid, ça veut dire « fer » en arabe !

M.A : Non ! Vraiment ?

Y.N : Alors quand tu la vois, sa façon de s’habiller, de parler avec ses yeux qui rappellent ceux de Bette Davis… Elle est vraiment épatante !

M.A : Je ne l’ai jamais rencontrée.

Y.N : Elle est super. C’est une personne très sincère. J’aime les femmes fortes. Je les ai toujours aimées.

M.A : Et pourtant tu m’as photographiée alors que je n’arrêtais pas de pleurer et de me lamenter sur ma vie privée, je t’ai laissé voir à quel point j’étais faible. (Rires)

Y.N : Oui mais ça, c’est parce que nous sommes aussi amis.

M.A : Mais je pense que la force et la faiblesse sont intimement liées car, selon moi, la plupart du temps, les gens qui sont vraiment forts sont aussi très fragiles.

Y.N : Ils tirent aussi une certaine force de leur fragilité.

M.A : Hier, dans le film que nous avons vu, Pina, Pina Bausch a dit cette très belle chose : « Dans la fragilité, il y a tant de force. »

Y.N : C’est très vrai.

M.A : Est-ce que tu fais parfois des paysages ?

Y.N : Très peu, mais j’ai toujours aimé photographier les couchers de soleil parce qu’ils sont chaque fois très différents : chaque jour, les couleurs sont différentes, et c’est aussi comme un départ, un moment où quelque chose s’en va. J’ai fait beaucoup d’autoportraits avec des couchers de soleil parce qu’à chaque fois, à chaque endroit où j’ai pris ces photos, je savais que je ne resterais que quelques jours et qu’ensuite, je partirais moi aussi. Le moment de la journée que je préfère, c’est, au Caire, cet instant qui précède le coucher du soleil. C’est ce qui me manque le plus, depuis que j’ai quitté Le Caire, cette lumière unique que je ne retrouve nulle part ailleurs, avec des oiseaux qui volent un peu partout.

M.A : Je m’interroge souvent au sujet des oiseaux qui volent dans le ciel juste avant le coucher du soleil. Ils deviennent hystériques comme s’ils pleuraient ou s’ils devenaient fous… et je me demande toujours « Pourquoi ? pourquoi font-ils cela ? » Ils se demandent peut-être si le jour se lèvera à nouveau le lendemain. C’est une sorte d’intuition sur le passage du temps et donc, en fait, sur la mortalité. C’est vraiment très puissant… Comment des animaux pourraient-ils savoir s’il y aura bien un lendemain ? Parce que pour eux, c’est ça la mort. Ça me fait penser à cet insecte qui ressemble à un hélicoptère et qu’on appelle « libellen » ou « libellule ». C’est très allongé, c’est beau, et ça ne vit qu’un seul jour, du lever au coucher du soleil. C’est incroyable que ce soit le temps qui leur est imparti. Une seule journée. Si l’on y songe, du point de vue cosmique, des années galactiques, eh bien nous aussi, nous ne vivons qu’un seul jour. Si l’on se place dans une perspective différente, c’est une période de temps incroyable. Et si on a vraiment conscience de cela au quotidien, la vie devient beaucoup plus significative. Elle prend tout son sens… Et tes portraits ont aussi beaucoup à voir avec la mort…

Y.N : Je pense beaucoup à la mort. Mon travail parle essentiellement de la mort, du départ et de la vie dans l’au-delà.

M.A : Et bien sûr, tu viens d’Égypte et les pharaons se préoccupaient énormément de cette vie dans l’au-delà.

Y.N : Toute ma vie est tournée vers l’au-delà.

M.A : Les secrets des pyramides t’ont-ils jamais intéressé ?

Y.N : En fait, j’allais tout le temps voir les pyramides ; j’entrais dans l’une d’elles et j’allais jusqu’au bout des salles qui étaient de plus en plus humides et de plus en plus sombres, et puis je m’asseyais, tout simplement, et je méditais. Je n’ai jamais raconté cela à personne. Je l’ai fait très souvent. Je me sentais vraiment en synergie avec la pyramide. Je sais qu’il s’y exerce une sorte de force.

M.A : As-tu déjà ressenti quelque chose d’étrange, quand tu y étais ?

Y.N : Je sentais simplement que j’entrais en contact avec quelque chose de précieux, comme lorsqu’on est dans un édifice religieux, une mosquée, une synagogue ou une église, un endroit qui impose le respect. J’avais aussi l’impression d’être relié à un certain passé qui est toujours là mais sans qu’on le sache vraiment. Nous devrions être… Nous avons tendance à voir les pyramides comme un site touristique, mais pour moi, ce n’est pas ça.

M.A : C’est pour cela qu’il faudrait appliquer la méthode Abramovic de purification aux touristes qui comptent se rendre en Égypte. (Rires) Mais tu sais, le fait que tu sois originaire d’Égypte, avec ces pyramides et ces secrets incroyables que tant de gens ont essayé de percer à jour, tous ces mystères qui viennent du fond des âges… Je pense à ton travail pour lequel tu procèdes de façon très intuitive, avec tous ces esprits. En fait, tu crées un monde d’esprits avec des personnes vivantes.

Y.N : Oui, c’est très juste. Je les vois comme des esprits et je les invite à faire partie de mon monde. Et puis je les mélange, qu’ils soient morts ou vivants, puisque j’ai aussi travaillé sur des portraits de Frida Kahlo, d’Oum Kalthoum ou de Nefertiti. Ce n’est pas facile de travailler le portrait parce que je cherche en permanence à entrer dans l’intimité des gens, à les convaincre de me montrer ou de me donner quelque chose… Parfois, après une séance photo, je me sens vidé, comme si je n’avais plus la moindre énergie en moi.

M.A : En ce moment, comme je travaille généralement beaucoup avec le public, et avec ma performance récente au MoMA, quand je regarde les gens dans les yeux et que je cherche à sentir leur énergie, je suis frappée de voir à quel point nombre d’entre eux sont comme des coquilles vides. Il n’y a rien derrière… C’est comme si tu frappais à une porte, et qu’il n’y avait pas d’âme à l’intérieur.

Y.N : Mais pendant cette performance qui a duré presque trois mois, et où tu regardais les gens dans les yeux, est-ce que tu t’es sentie plus connectée à certains d’entre eux ?

M.A : Oui, incroyablement, comme si une sorte de fil invisible nous reliait directement. Comme si j’étais eux et qu’ils étaient moi. Mais tu sais, dans certaines situations, tu es avec des gens qui pourtant ne sont pas tout à fait là parce qu’ils sont vides. Il y a ce trou à l’intérieur et il y a de plus en plus de gens comme ça, en ce moment, dans le monde. Si peu de gens sont réels. Je me souviens, quand je suis allée à Los Angeles… En fait, Los Angeles m’apparaît comme une ville sous anxiolytiques. Quelque chose est mort là-bas, je ne sais pas. J’ai l’impression que très peu de gens sont vraiment réels, et que les autres sont comme des automates ! Ils fonctionnent dans la vie de façon automatique, mais ils n’ont pas conscience des choses. C’est la conscience qui rend les gens vivants, tu sais. Nous vivons vraiment une époque très étrange. Qu’en penses-tu ? Comment sens-tu les choses en ce moment, sur cette planète ? Que crois-tu qu’il s’y passe ? J’ai toujours voulu savoir !

Y.N : D’abord, je pense que nous sommes plus nombreux que nous ne devrions l’être, et l’énergie que l’on a et ce qui nous relie les uns aux autres sont complètement perdus. Notre mode de vie pose problème. Je ne crois pas que nous soyons faits pour vivre comme ça, dans de grandes villes comme New York, Le Caire ou Londres, dans de grands immeubles, les uns sur les autres. Je crois qu’un être humain a besoin de nature, parce que notre énergie nous vient de la nature. Je crois que nous n’avons pas exactement évolué comme nous l’aurions dû. Je parle de l’espèce humaine, il nous faut une sorte de conscience spirituelle.

M.A : Ce qu’il nous faut, ce sont des chefs spirituels, et nous n’en avons pas.

Y.N : Exactement ! Nous avons besoin de chefs spirituels, pas de politiciens ! En fait, il nous faudrait plutôt des philosophes pour diriger le monde.

M.A : À propos de religion, beaucoup d’organisations religieuses sont devenues des institutions, et pourtant leur pureté, leur spiritualité s’est perdue en route, au fur et à mesure qu’elles ont gagné en puissance et en richesse. Or, la spiritualité, ce n’est pas ça. Il me semble que l’art joue, aujourd’hui, un rôle très important, parce que les gens ne vont plus au temple ; ils vont au musée pour y chercher quelque chose, comme une sorte de fenêtre sur d’autres pensées ou d’autres réalités, quelque chose de l’ordre de la conscience. Tu sais, je voudrais vraiment voir une grande exposition de toi, parce que je contemple toujours quelques œuvres, par-ci par-là, mais jamais une rétrospective qui rassemble au moins une vingtaine d’œuvres ! Alors, c’est pour quand ?

Y.N : J’aimerais pouvoir faire ma première grande exposition personnelle institutionnelle à New York. J’ai déjà montré mes œuvres dans une exposition qui m’était entièrement consacrée au SCAD Museum de Savannah, et récemment, à Paris, j’ai fait une première rétrospective à la Maison européenne de la photographie. Mais aux États-Unis, jusqu’à présent, il n’y a eu que le SCAD, à Savannah.

M.A : Combien de pièces as-tu exposées pour la rétrospective à Paris ?

Y.N : Une soixantaine.

M.A : C’est une grande exposition ! J’aimerais bien voir ça à New York ! Cela dit, Savannah, ça a l’air très bien aussi. D’ailleurs, à Savannah, les esprits sont partout.

Y.N : Tout à fait ! C’est la ville aux esprits.

M.A : Les vieilles maisons sont hantées.

Y.N : Et il y a ces arbres…

M.A : Oui, comme dans ce film qui tire son nom d’une ville, qu’on a vu tous les deux en venant ici.

Y.N : Sleepy Hollow !

M.A : Oui, ça ressemble exactement à Sleepy Hollow. (Rires) Savannah est un endroit où l’on ressent l’espace de façon vraiment étrange.

Y.N : Tu sais, je voulais te parler de ça parce que j’ai toujours refusé les nouvelles technologies. J’ai été l’un des derniers à avoir un téléphone portable, par exemple. Je demandais à tout le monde de m’appeler chez moi et de laisser un message que je pourrais écouter à mon retour. Je voulais simplifier ma vie avec ce genre de détails… De la même façon, j’ai refusé d’avoir recours à la pellicule couleur au début des années 1990… Aujourd’hui, tout est numérique et en HD ! C’est plus éloigné que jamais de ce que j’ai toujours fait, c’est-à-dire peindre à la main mes photographies en noir et blanc selon une technique très ancienne. Je ne veux pas me lancer trop vite dans la technologie. Je me contente de ce qu’on avait avant, même si, progressivement, et à une vitesse hallucinante, nous entrons dans une ère très différente de communication ultra-rapide. Ça fait peu de temps que tout cela me fascine, la façon dont le monde s’accélère ! Si je devais mourir tout de suite, la seule chose que je regretterais serait de ne pas savoir comment le monde évoluera, comment nous vivrons dans le futur. Dans cinquante, cent ou deux cents ans ! Quand on y pense, cette révolution technologique est très récente, elle s’est produite au cours des cinquante dernières années. Aujourd’hui, tout le monde a un appareil photo sur son téléphone, la vidéo, l’Internet, etc. Tout va vraiment très vite, et bientôt, tout sera entièrement numérique.

M.A : Tu sais, quand j’étais en Russie, il n’y a pas si longtemps, j’ai pu voir ce que la société allait devenir. Ils te greffent une puce dans le bras, une sorte de puce informatique. Ils le font aussi en Suisse. Ensuite, le cerveau met environ quatre semaines pour apprendre à activer cette puce qui se trouve dans le bras, et alors tu peux actionner un robot. Tu peux lui dire de venir, de faire ceci ou cela, grâce à la puce. Ça, c’est un premier pas, et le suivant, c’est qu’ils essaient de créer une puce qu’on pourra greffer dans le cerveau et qui permettra de se connecter à d’énormes ordinateurs placés en orbite. On aura ainsi accès à la totalité du savoir humain, rien qu’avec cette puce insérée dans le cerveau ! Tu pourras aller sur Google, directement avec ton cerveau ; tu pourras tout faire. Si tu voulais te mettre à parler chinois, tu pourrais le faire ! Mais la simple idée que l’on puisse avoir tout ce savoir dans notre cerveau, et que la machine se mette à remplacer l’humain… Tu vois, tout ce dont il était question dans les romans de science-fiction des années 1950 et 1960 est vraiment en train de se concrétiser.

Y.N : C’est très vrai, et tu sais, je n’ai jamais perçu ces romans comme appartenant exclusivement au domaine de la science-fiction. Tout sera possible, et, un beau jour, ce que nous prenons pour de la science-fiction sera réalité.

M.A : À ton avis, qu’en sera-t-il de l’art à l’avenir ? Les œuvres d’art seront-elles toujours considérées comme des biens de consommation, je veux dire, comme cela a été le cas dans les années 1990 où l’art a permis à certains de s’enrichir ? Jusqu’où pouvons-nous aller dans l’absurdité ? Je pense que le système est complètement pourri. Un simple exemple : comment est-il possible que Piero Manzoni, qui a produit, au cours de sa courte vie, environ 80 œuvres – il n’avait que 29 ans quand il est mort, il était très jeune – eh bien que dans le catalogue raisonné, on lui attribue 235 œuvres ? D’où viennent-elles ? Qui les a faites ? Et chacun se sent parfaitement légitime, on continue à faire des affaires comme si de rien n’était, tout le monde gagne de l’argent grâce à quelque chose qui n’existe pas ! Et ce n’est qu’un exemple parmi d’autres. Le système est devenu une sorte de monstre, d’une certaine façon. On a créé un monstre qui fonctionne et qui se maintient tout seul. Tu sais, comme font les collectionneurs, qui viennent ensemble à une vente aux enchères et qui y investissent de l’argent pour faire monter le prix des œuvres… Et bien sûr, personne ne fait jamais rien pour que ça cesse. Résultat, l’art perd tout son sens. C’est très étrange. Et nous, nous sommes assis dans cette maison à discuter de tout ça, mais ça semble tellement inutile. Sans espoir. En fait, nous ne sommes pas capables de changer le système. La seule chose que nous puissions faire, c’est d’être honnêtes dans notre propre travail – c’est d’ailleurs la seule forme d’honnêteté qui soit – mais il y a encore beaucoup à faire, pour aller dans cette direction. Pourquoi est-ce que nous aimons tous les deux Hans Ulrich Obrist, à ton avis ? Parce qu’il ne fait pas partie de ce système ! Quel est le rôle de l’art, pour toi, si tu pars de tes propres exemples ?

Y.N : J’ai toujours voulu que mon art soit lié au domaine du spirituel, qu’il me permette de parler de choses qui concernent directement ma propre vie, mon expérience, de questionner l’existence et d’essayer de hisser le monde dans lequel nous vivons à un autre niveau, un peu meilleur que celui que nous connaissons. J’ai toujours ressenti le besoin de faire passer ce message, de faire connaître mes pensées de façon à ce qu’elles soient vues, de donner une autre idée du monde à travers mon travail. C’est ce que je laisserai derrière moi et j’ai toujours ressenti une forme de responsabilité à cet égard, comme si j’étais pour ainsi dire investi d’une mission. Je pense que l’art devrait toujours produire une énergie positive et pourtant il y a beaucoup de choses négatives dans l’art aussi… certains artistes sont comme des machines et on ne ressent absolument rien quand on contemple leurs œuvres. Pour moi ce n’est pas vraiment de l’art.

M.A : Mais cela alimente la part négative de la société.

Y.N : Tu sais, je me suis rendu compte récemment que la plupart des artistes que j’aime sont des femmes… Comme Pina Bausch, Frida Kahlo, Ana Mendieta, Oum Kalthoum.

M.A : Pourtant, les artistes femmes ont bien du mal à être vraies, parce qu’elles sont obligées de sacrifier beaucoup de choses. C’est pour cette raison qu’il n’y a pas tant de femmes que cela parmi les grands artistes, parce qu’elles ne sont pas prêtes à faire ces sacrifices. Elles veulent fonder une famille, avoir des enfants, connaître l’amour et faire de l’art ! Je vais parler de moi maintenant. Je viens du cinquième monde, tu sais ! Je sais que toi, tu viens du tiers-monde (rires), mais moi je viens de ce foutu cinquième monde ! De nulle part ! Je n’avais pas de compte en banque. Je n’avais rien ! Rien du tout… Et maintenant, je suis assise dans cette belle maison et j’ai un super loft. J’ai toutes ces choses et, vraiment, la position qui est maintenant la mienne pour parler d’art et pour en faire… Et puis tu sais, qu’importe si je n’ai pas de vie privée, après tout ! Je n’en ai pas car – première nouvelle ! – on ne peut pas tout avoir. C’est impossible. Voilà, c’est ça. Et il faut vraiment que tu sois reconnaissant de ce que tu as ! Parce que les gens mourraient pour ce que nous avons ! Bien souvent, je me dis : Oh mon Dieu ! regarde d’où tu es partie et où tu es maintenant ! Je devrais rester humble, me montrer reconnaissante et arrêter de me plaindre à tout bout de champ. C’est très important, mais c’est aussi important, quand on est artiste, de faire en sorte de pouvoir accorder du temps à tout le monde, de pouvoir être là pour les gens et les aider. J’ai fait An Artist’s Life Manifesto (film-manifeste à l’usage des artistes) entre autres parce que c’est une bonne façon de parler de moralité, de ce que c’est que d’être humain. Nous oublions de plus en plus d’être humains, et de plus en plus, les artistes deviennent de véritables machines, comme tu disais. Ce faisant, ils alimentent ce genre de système, qu’il soit politique ou social, ce qui n’aide pas non plus. En ce moment, je suis en train de rassembler des éléments pour une conférence que je veux faire, et je suis étonnée de constater à quel point le monde est sens dessus dessous. Il y a une entreprise, à New York, qui m’envoie tous les ans un prospectus proposant des reproductions d’œuvres d’art célèbres. Par exemple, si tu veux un Mondrian, ils peuvent t’en faire un en différentes tailles, avec un petit détail en moins. Ce sera donc une reproduction du tableau original, mais avec une ligne en moins. Et ils peuvent aussi créer la pièce ou le salon, avec les meubles appropriés, où un Mondrian serait du meilleur effet, et faire en sorte qu’il soit bien assorti au tapis ! Et ça, c’est incroyable ! Je veux faire une conférence rien que sur ce sujet-là !

Y.N : Oui, j’en ai entendu parler. J’ai vu une émission sur le sujet à la télévision française. C’est une entreprise chinoise, ils sont capables de reproduire des œuvres de n’importe quel artiste ! Van Gogh, Tamara de Lempicka, Picasso. Ils ont un immense atelier avec au moins cinquante personnes, et chacune d’entre elle a une spécialité. Alors un type finit, par exemple, de peindre une fleur sur un tableau de Van Gogh, et puis il le passe à un autre type à côté de lui, et celui-là va peindre le soleil, et ainsi de suite !

M.A : C’est incroyable ! Et le pire, c’est que ça ne dérange absolument personne. C’est pour ça que tout va mal, parce que maintenant, on se met à copier la copie de la copie. C’est pour ça qu’il est si important, en ce bas monde, de préserver les originaux comme de véritables trésors. Mais récemment, tu as aussi fait un film. Raconte-moi un peu.

Y.N : J’ai toujours voulu faire un film, mais je voulais que ce premier film soit inspiré de ceux que je regardais quand j’étais enfant, et qu’il leur ressemble. J’ai donc décidé de tourner avec de la pellicule, et non en numérique. On m’a proposé de me procurer une caméra HD dernier cri et de tourner en numérique, mais j’ai refusé. Je voulais un truc authentique, et donc j’ai opté pour la pellicule 35 mm et nous avons loué les objectifs chez Panavision à Paris.

M.A : Eh ben dis donc ! Plus personne ne tourne en 35 mm aujourd’hui !

Y.N : Je sais, mais je voulais vraiment que ce soit comme au bon vieux temps ! Et puis c’est très cher et très risqué… Parce que j’ai tourné au Maroc et que j’ai développé à Paris. J’ai donc dû m’assurer que la pellicule ne passait pas par des machines, dans les aéroports. J’ai travaillé avec deux acteurs que j’aime énormément, Fanny Ardant et Tahar Rahim. Cette expérience a été comme un rêve devenu réalité. Ça, c’était la première chose. La deuxième, c’est que je voulais évoquer quelque chose de très personnel, c’est-à-dire mon propre pays, ce que j’ai ressenti quand j’ai décidé de quitter l’Égypte et de vivre en Occident, et de la relation qui existe entre partir et mourir. Le film dure 8 minutes et les couleurs sont les mêmes que celles que j’utilise pour mes photographies peintes à la main. Ce projet m’a occupé pendant un an et demi. Et maintenant, je veux faire mon deuxième film !

M.A : Quel en est le titre ?

Y.N : You Never Left.

M.A : Effectivement, tu n’es jamais parti !

Y.N : Non.

M.A : J’ai toujours pensé que la pellicule elle-même était en vie, en quelque sorte, comme le Super 8, le 16 mm, le 35 mm.

Y.N : Tout à fait ! Je crois qu’il se passe quelque chose entre le moment où tu filmes et celui où tu développes, et avec le numérique, ce n’est pas exactement la même chose. Le numérique, c’est une sorte de fichier qui n’a rien à voir avec la pellicule.

M.A : Exactement. C’est comme écouter de la musique sur un iPod… J’ai un gramophone, en bas, et quand on met un disque, on entend tous les craquements, tous les bruits. On a l’impression que quelque chose de différent sortait de cette boîte, et je ne crois pas que ce soit de la nostalgie. C’est simplement qu’avec moins de technologie, on reste plus humain. Tu sais, je dînais un soir avec deux personnes qui avaient remporté le prix Nobel. Je n’étais encore jamais allée à un dîner de ce type, mais là j’y étais, et l’une de ces deux personnes avait découvert la structure de l’ADN. Il devait avoir plus de 80 ans. Il s’est levé pour porter un toast. Et il a dit quelque chose de vraiment intéressant : il a dit que la structure du cerveau humain était infiniment plus simple que celle de machines comme les ordinateurs, qui ont pourtant été créés par nous, les êtres humains. La structure du cerveau humain reste la même alors que la technologie avance et change si vite que le cerveau ne peut plus suivre ! Et c’est pour cela que tout s’effondre.

Y.N : Parce que nous dépendons des machines et de la technologie…

M.A : Nous dépendons d’elles, mais nous ne pouvons pas les suivre ! Et puis il a ajouté que si nous ne retournions pas à la simplicité, à nos anciennes structures, eh bien nous étions foutus ! Et puis il s’est rassis ! C’était impressionnant à voir. Il parlait surtout de la technologie dans le domaine de la finance et de l’argent, enfin de tout ça, que nous ne pouvons plus maîtriser désormais ! Tu te souviens du coureur aux jambes bioniques qui participait aux Jeux olympiques de 2008 ? Ils avaient dû le disqualifier parce que c’était injuste pour les autres. Il avait quelque chose de la machine… Il a dit que c’était dur pour lui quand il commençait à courir, mais qu’ensuite, il ne pouvait plus s’arrêter. C’est parce qu’il ne peut plus contrôler la machine, et donc il court, il court, et il court encore ! Un jour, le corps humain sera remplacé par tant de technologies, que ce sont les machines qui prendront le pouvoir ! Comme dans les grandes histoires de science-fiction ou d’horreur. Elles seront beaucoup plus puissantes que nos cerveaux ne le seront jamais. En définitive, tous les deux, nous avons énormément en commun, parce que toi tu ramènes les choses à l’essentiel, à des personnages qui sont comme des fantômes, et moi, quand je fais mes performances, j’essaie de parvenir au même résultat, mais d’une autre manière, en regardant les gens dans les yeux, avec seulement deux chaises et rien de plus. Mais c’est intéressant que, dans ton cas, les gens soient si émus quand ils se voient dans tes photographies. C’est incroyable. Le travail que tu as fait sur Paolo [Canevari] et moi, je veux dire… il y a tant d’émotions qui s’y mêlent… Pas uniquement parce qu’il est là, mais parce que tu as su capter ce moment dans l’espace. Tu as tout fait disparaître pour ne garder que la sensation, l’émotion du moment, et cette sensation vit dans cette œuvre pour toujours. Et ça, pour moi, c’est la chose la plus puissante qui soit. C’est précisément de cela qu’il s’agit, dans ton travail. Tu préserves l’âme, tu la gardes vivante, tout en ôtant le reste, tout ce que la vie comporte de moins important… C’est incroyable ! Quand as-tu fait ta première photo ?

Y.N : C’était en 1992, il y a vingt ans.

M.A : Et comment est-ce arrivé ?

Y.N : Quand j’étais adolescent, j’écrivais des histoires que j’espérais pouvoir photographier un jour. Elles étaient très cinématographiques, comme des scènes de film. Alors je demandais à des amis de les jouer et je les prenais en photo. Tout était écrit à l’avance et je soignais vraiment chaque détail. Au début, je ne voulais faire que des photographies en noir et blanc, en raison de mon amour pour le vieux cinéma, et puis j’ai ressenti le besoin de voir mon travail en couleurs, mais je ne voulais pas utiliser de pellicule couleur. J’ai donc décidé d’apposer de la couleur à la main, en ayant recours à une technique ancienne. J’ai dû partir à la recherche des retoucheurs les plus âgés, qui travaillaient à l’ancienne dans les studios de portraits du centre-ville du Caire et d’Alexandrie. C’est ainsi que j’ai appris leur technique. Au début des années 1990, en Égypte, il était encore possible d’entrer dans un studio de photographe et commander un portrait, soit en noir et blanc, soit colorisé à la main. Et puis cette tradition s’est perdue et ils ne faisaient plus que des portraits en couleurs. Et maintenant, ils sont même passés au numérique !

M.A : Alors il ne reste plus que toi !

Y.N : Exactement, et même si je vis à New York maintenant, je continue à faire imprimer mes œuvres à Paris parce que j’aime travailler avec le laboratoire que je connais là-bas. Je n’ai toujours pas trouvé de laboratoire à New York qui puisse imprimer mes œuvres. Je tire toujours mes photos dans la chambre noire et je ne peux travailler qu’avec du papier ancien, parce que je peins principalement à l’aquarelle. Je n’ai pas fait d’études d’art. C’est à travers le cinéma que je suis devenu artiste. pour une conférence que je veux faire, et je suis étonnée de constater à quel point le monde est sens dessus dessous. Il y a une entreprise, à New York, qui m’envoie tous les ans un prospectus proposant des reproductions d’œuvres d’art célèbres. Par exemple, si tu veux un Mondrian, ils peuvent t’en faire un en différentes tailles, avec un petit détail en moins. Ce sera donc une reproduction du tableau original, mais avec une ligne en moins. Et ils peuvent aussi créer la pièce ou le salon, avec les meubles appropriés, où un Mondrian serait du meilleur effet, et faire en sorte qu’il soit bien assorti au tapis ! Et ça, c’est incroyable ! Je veux faire une conférence rien que sur ce sujet-là !

Y.N : Oui, j’en ai entendu parler. J’ai vu une émission sur le sujet à la télévision française. C’est une entreprise chinoise, ils sont capables de reproduire des œuvres de n’importe quel artiste ! Van Gogh, Tamara de Lempicka, Picasso. Ils ont un immense atelier avec au moins cinquante personnes, et chacune d’entre elle a une spécialité. Alors un type finit, par exemple, de peindre une fleur sur un tableau de Van Gogh, et puis il le passe à un autre type à côté de lui, et celui-là va peindre le soleil, et ainsi de suite !

M.A : C’est incroyable ! Et le pire, c’est que ça ne dérange absolument personne. C’est pour ça que tout va mal, parce que maintenant, on se met à copier la copie de la copie. C’est pour ça qu’il est si important, en ce bas monde, de préserver les originaux comme de véritables trésors. Mais récemment, tu as aussi fait un film. Raconte-moi un peu.

Y.N : J’ai toujours voulu faire un film, mais je voulais que ce premier film soit inspiré de ceux que je regardais quand j’étais enfant, et qu’il leur ressemble. J’ai donc décidé de tourner avec de la pellicule, et non en numérique. On m’a proposé de me procurer une caméra HD dernier cri et de tourner en numérique, mais j’ai refusé. Je voulais un truc authentique, et donc j’ai opté pour la pellicule 35 mm et nous avons loué les objectifs chez Panavision à Paris.

M.A : Eh ben dis donc ! Plus personne ne tourne en 35 mm aujourd’hui !

Y.N : Je sais, mais je voulais vraiment que ce soit comme au bon vieux temps ! Et puis c’est très cher et très risqué… Parce que j’ai tourné au Maroc et que j’ai développé à Paris. J’ai donc dû m’assurer que la pellicule ne passait pas par des machines, dans les aéroports. J’ai travaillé avec deux acteurs que j’aime énormément, Fanny Ardant et Tahar Rahim. Cette expérience a été comme un rêve devenu réalité. Ça, c’était la première chose. La deuxième, c’est que je voulais évoquer quelque chose de très personnel, c’est-à-dire mon propre pays, ce que j’ai ressenti quand j’ai décidé de quitter l’Égypte et de vivre en Occident, et de la relation qui existe entre partir et mourir. Le film dure 8 minutes et les couleurs sont les mêmes que celles que j’utilise pour mes photographies peintes à la main. Ce projet m’a occupé pendant un an et demi. Et maintenant, je veux faire mon deuxième film !

M.A : Parle-moi des films qui t’ont inspiré.

Y.N : Je regardais de vieux films dont les acteurs étaient presque tous morts. C’était très étrange et ça m’a fait beaucoup réfléchir à la vie et à la mort, et à ce qu’on laisse derrière soi… Ces gens avaient une vie, exactement comme nous en ce moment. Ils étaient si beaux, dans ces films, et maintenant ils sont morts. Et pourtant, j’étais quand même amoureux d’eux. Ils étaient pour moi comme des fantômes qui vivaient toujours parmi nous et qui nous racontaient des histoires pas tout à fait vraies, mais qui auraient pu l’être.

M.A : Tu sais ce qui me fascine ? Ce sont les vieux documentaires des années 1920 et 1930, où l’on voit des centaines de gens dans les rues. Ils sont tous morts, maintenant, mais ils étaient en vie, à l’époque, et ils courent, et ils crient. On voit leurs visages et pourtant, ils ont tous disparu depuis longtemps.

Y.N : Ils avaient une vie, comme nous, et quand on y pense, un beau jour, nous aussi, nous mourrons, et d’autres prendront notre place et regarderont nos photos. Nous aussi, nous ne laisserons que des photographies et des films derrière nous. Le truc, avec la mort, c’est qu’on croit toujours que ça n’arrive qu’aux autres. Mais nous aussi, nous mourrons vraiment, comme tout le monde.

M.A : Les photographies capturent quelque chose de notre vie de façon tellement intéressante. Tu sais, à Belgrade, il y avait un voyant à qui l’on apportait des tonnes de photos, en noir et blanc ou en couleurs, de n’importe quelle époque, et il posait ses mains dessus…

Y.N : et il pouvait te dire qui était encore vivant et qui ne l’était plus ?

M.A : Oui ! Et il ne se trompait jamais ! Parce que les photographies capturent une certaine force de vie, et c’est la raison pour laquelle certaines personnes âgées ne veulent pas être prises en photo. Elles pensent que ça leur retire une partie de leur énergie vitale, et il y a sûrement du vrai, là-dedans. C’est peut-être pour ça que Marilyn Monroe est morte si jeune !

Y.N : Personne n’a été autant photographié qu’elle ! (Rires)

M.A : Tu sais, je travaille avec une femme qui s’appelle Linda et qui pratique la médecine chamanique. Elle prélève une goutte de sang sur chacun de ses patients. Elle a ma goutte de sang dans ses archives, et si j’ai besoin d’être soignée, elle peut le faire à distance, où que je sois. À Berlin comme dans le Kentucky ! Je l’ai interrogée là-dessus – tout ça c’est chamanique – et elle a dit que notre sang possède une force de vie. Même s’il est sec, ça ne change rien, il contient une force de vie qui le relie à nous. Et quand on meurt, la goutte de sang perd sa force de vie ! Cela se voit même au microscope ! Dans mon institut, que je compte développer et que je veux te montrer demain matin, à Hudson, je voudrais créer une banque du sang pour les artistes qui sont en vie ! Pour qu’ils soient tous connectés les uns aux autres.

Y.N : Et tu prélèveras un peu de sang sur tous les artistes vivants ?

M.A : C’est le Dr Linda qui s’en occupera. Et elle pourra soigner les artistes à distance dès qu’ils en éprouveront le besoin. Elle pourra peut-être même les sauver, en empêchant certains, comme Mike Kelley, de se suicider trop tôt.

Y.N : Raconte-moi la première fois où tu as vraiment pensé à la mort. À ce jour où tu ne seras plus là.

M.A : J’avais 17 ans. C’était mon anniversaire et je me suis mise à pleurer, sans pouvoir me contrôler. Les gens me demandaient ce que j’avais et j’ai répondu : « C’est parce que je vais mourir ! » Et toi ?

Y.N : J’avais cinq ou six ans quand j’y ai pensé pour la première fois. Je pleurais à chaque fois que je me disais que je pourrais perdre ma mère, un jour, ou quelqu’un que j’aime. Alors je priais pour être le premier de ma famille à mourir. J’ai demandé ça dans mes prières pendant des années, et depuis lors, je pense tous les jours à la mort. Mais je m’y suis habitué, d’une certaine façon, et ça ne me rend plus triste. C’est quelque chose qui est là, tout le temps, et qui m’a fait voir la vie sous un autre angle parce que tout ce que je vois ou tout ce que je fais, eh bien, je le vois ou je le fais peut-être pour la dernière fois.

M.A : Je pense que c’est une très bonne chose.

Y.N : J’ai pris conscience de ce qu’était le temps et j’apprécie davantage les moments que je passe avec ceux que j’aime. Je sais à quel point ils sont précieux. Tu sais, quand je me réveille, tous les matins, pendant une poignée de secondes, je ne sais pas vraiment où je suis, ce que je fais, quelle vie je mène. Et puis je retrouve ma vie, mon corps, mon visage, comme si je revenais d’un autre monde !

M.A : Je comprends très bien tout ça ! Il y a tant de fois où je me réveille et où je ne sais pas du tout où je suis ! Je ne sais pas. Ni dans quel pays, ni dans quel hôtel…

Y.N : Tout ça me donne l’impression de mener la vie de quelqu’un qui est déjà mort, mais j’apprécie malgré tout les jours qu’il me reste à vivre… Un peu comme si je vivais ma vie à l’envers. Mais tu ne trouves pas que c’est comme un film ? Comme si vivre sa vie c’était vivre son propre film ? Par exemple le fait que nous venions tous les deux de pays du tiers-monde et que nous soyons ici, maintenant…

M.A : Toi, tu viens du tiers-monde ! Mon pays à moi, c’est le cinquième monde.

Y.N : On n’avait qu’une seule chaîne de télé. (Rires) Je voulais dire, le fait que nous n’avions pas d’argent, tous les deux, quand nous sommes partis. Nous sommes partis, tout simplement, sans savoir ce qui allait nous arriver.

M.A : Mes amis de là-bas m’ont dit que j’étais folle, quand je suis partie, que je reviendrais vite, parce que chez nous, c’était tellement mieux que là-bas.

Y.N : Tu as quitté tout ton confort. Tout ce à quoi tu étais habituée.

M.A : Oui, c’est ça.

Y.N : Pour moi, ça a été comme si je me jetais dans un océan sans savoir s’il y avait une autre rive.

M.A : Tu sais, parfois je m’assois dehors, la nuit ; je regarde le ciel et c’est comme si j’étais à la maison. J’ai cette sensation intense de déjà-vu. C’est à peine croyable. Comme si j’avais la certitude que j’avais déjà vécu une autre vie avant. Je sais exactement ce qu’il se passera à la seconde suivante. C’est comme si j’avais déjà vécu cette vie et que j’étais amenée à la revivre.

Y.N : C’est comme si la vie était à l’envers !

M.A : Oui, à l’envers et, très probablement, ce que nous appelons « passé », « présent » et « futur » ne sont en réalité qu’une seule et même chose. Ça ne va pas nécessairement vers l’avant, dans un sens donné. En fait, on est toujours dans le même espace, constamment.

Y.N : On le savait déjà !

M.A : Oui ! On le savait déjà ! J’adore consulter des voyants, mais pourtant, tout ce qu’ils me disent, en fait, je le sais déjà ! C’est juste une sorte de confirmation. C’est dingue ! Tu sais, le soufisme dit que « la vie est un rêve et la mort est un réveil ». Je pense qu’il est vraiment très important de se préparer à l’idée de mourir. Personnellement, je voudrais éviter de mourir en colère, ou en ayant peur. Et je veux être consciente, à ce moment-là. Je veux faire l’expérience de ce passage. Je n’ai vu qu’une seule personne mourir, au cours de ma vie, et ça n’était pas une personne qui m’était proche. J’étais donc très lucide. Et ça a été un moment vraiment extraordinaire. J’étais chez une amie, et c’est son père qui est mort. Il était très malade et il souffrait beaucoup depuis un an. Il était là, assis dans cette pièce, avec sa petite table, sa Bible et une bougie. Il était très croyant. Sa femme et ses amis étaient là, mais dans la cuisine, et il aimait que je vienne passer du temps auprès de lui. J’étais donc assise à côté de lui ; je regardais sa Bible, et à un moment donné, je l’ai regardé ; il m’a regardée, et il s’est enfoncé doucement dans son oreiller. Les muscles de son visage se sont détendus et soudain il s’est mis à ressembler à un tout jeune garçon. J’étais tellement fascinée que je ne me suis pas rendu compte qu’il était sur le point de mourir. Il m’a adressé un très beau sourire avant de fermer doucement les yeux ! J’étais tellement hypnotisée que je suis restée là, devant lui, pendant un long moment. J’ai même oublié d’aller à la cuisine prévenir ses enfants qu’il était mort ! Et quand j’y suis enfin allée, je leur ai dit : « Je crois qu’il est mort. » Sa fille était furieuse. Elle a hurlé qu’elle aurait voulu être avec lui à ce moment-là. Je crois que c’est moi qu’il a choisie pour être là, auprès de lui, au moment de sa mort. Il n’a pas choisi quelqu’un d’autre car ils auraient tous fait une crise d’hystérie, et lui, il voulait juste que ce soit un moment paisible. C’est ce que je lui ai offert en me contentant de regarder ses yeux et son sourire. Je n’oublierai jamais ce regard. C’était incroyable. Il n’y avait aucune peur, aucune colère, rien de tout ça, dans ses yeux. Il venait simplement d’apercevoir quelque chose de l’autre côté, quelque chose que nous ne connaissons pas encore. J’ai vraiment pu voir qu’il y avait autre chose après ce passage, tu sais.

Y.N : Je crois profondément que mourir, c’est comme retourner dans un lieu déjà connu mais qu’on avait oublié. Comme si on était toujours là, sans y être vraiment. Comme au moment où l’on s’endort, chaque soir, et que l’on perçoit encore ce qui se passe autour de soi tout en ayant déjà basculé dans un autre monde, un monde parallèle. Je pense que quand nous serons morts, nous pourrons rendre visite à ceux que nous aimons et qui sont toujours en vie, les protéger, les aider. Peut-être serons-nous toujours auprès d’eux, mais sans vivre la vie qui était la nôtre auparavant. Enfin, je ne sais pas… La mort est ce grand mystère qui nous attend tous. Je sais que tout le monde me manquera, mais comme j’ai passé l’essentiel de ces dix dernières années dans les avions, j’aime à croire que ça ne sera qu’un voyage de plus ; on pensera que je suis reparti en voyage.

Chatham (Hudson) New York, le 31 mars 2012

Conversation with Marina Abramovic English

Marina Abramovic: Your book covers twenty years, it’s unbelievable!

Youssef Nabil: Why?

M.A: Because you look so young! I always thought that you were in your early thirties.

Y.N: I’m forty this year, it’s scary! I think once you pass forty all the years after will be easier.

M.A: I had this incredible crisis when I was forty.

Y.N: Why?

M.A: Because I had just split with Ulay at the end of the Chinese wall and then I was feeling like my life was finished. It’s amazing, then after passing this crisis, all ages become kind of relative and you don’t think about it so much anymore. I only feel old when I look backwards.

Y.N: You know when I wake up in the morning, I don’t feel any age.

M.A: It’s quite interesting with age, especially what you’re doing with your photographs, because you’re erasing age, constantly.

Y.N: I actually don’t see it. I don’t see wrinkles. I don’t see people old or young, in my mind they are all the same age, so I don’t want to have wrinkles in the picture, that’s the way I see them in real life.

M.A: I want to talk about this photograph, that I like so much, where you are laying inside the roots of the tree, for me it’s kind of a “key piece” in your work, because you are in some kind of bridge between your culture and every other culture. For me it’s like you’re flying in between roots, it’s like you are feeding on the world basically, and the roots are like life extension veins, going into your body and emerging out. When I look at this photograph, this talks to me the most, but it’s also kind of feeling fragility and vulnerability, because it’s like a child, you are inside the roots of the tree, protected but also vulnerable at the same time, because they can actually swallow you, and this is the kind of line between light and darkness. For me that work is the key to your personality, but also what your work is really about.

Y.N: That’s exactly how I felt. I wanted to do this selfportrait when I saw these huge roots next to where I was staying in Los Angeles. I kept passing by every day and every time I saw it, I thought about Egypt. I thought about my roots and where I come from. I never thought that I would miss my country that much when I left in 2003, because it was not easy for me when I decided to leave. For me everything was difficult, I left without any money. I wasn’t certain about what would happen to me next. I just knew that I couldn’t really continue living there, but I am from there.

M.A: And why? What was the main reason?

Y.N: Because of the social changes that happened to our country, people became more conservative and I already felt this happening ten years ago. I wanted to feel more free in my art and be based somewhere else, I couldn’t really see myself trying to always be careful in terms of what I want to say in my work. I was never really compromising it, but I just wanted to be more at peace with myself.

M.A: It’s interesting because when I left Yugoslavia, first my work was totally not accepted there. I was like a black sheep all the time and I had a very difficult relation with my family, but at the same time there was a kind of security, because I had a place to sleep, to eat and I didn’t need to worry about any of these, but at the moment you leave, it’s like another world!

Y.N: In the movie I did recently, I talk about my experience—it had been in my mind since I left about ten years ago, and in 2010 I did it—and how I felt when I left Egypt, the relation between leaving and dying. Because when I left, I felt completely like becoming someone else and suddenly I had nothing to do with my past, and when I went back to Egypt one year after to see my family, my friends and my country, I felt like I was almost a ghost, as if I had come from a different world now and was seeing them with new eyes and the whole thing changed, as if they sort of got used to life without me, and somehow they also appeared from the past again and I knew that I was only there for a few days and I’d be leaving again… so our whole relationship was as if I really came from the other world.

M.A: I remember when I left, and before I left. I remember I had a horrifying dream, it was very strange. I am on a little boat, and I am packing and I’m putting my luggage up, and the boat is moving, and on the other side, on the shore there are pine trees. And all the pine trees at the edges are starting to catch on fire, but they are not yet burning. But they are just about to burn, and it is like everything actually is going to disappear and burn down. And I remember I returned to Belgrade after a long time, just after I walked the Chinese wall and they asked me to give a talk. My mother was in the first row, so I showed the film, I showed the slides, and when I had just started the electricity went down! So everything was in the dark, and I talked to about three hundred people in complete darkness, for two hours, and it was amazing for me, this was like another end, because I was talking to the blackness, talking to a world that didn’t even exist, including my mother! (Laughs) But it is true that the fact of going out and coming back has incredible impact, because that is when you really see things from a much better perspective. I always look at earth from the airplane. You see from there so much more than when on the ground and then when you look at it, you ask yourself, where is my suffering? Where is my pain? From the airplane, it looks so ridiculous. Because you see your problems and you can see millions of other people’s problems all in the same perspective from up there, and then it’s not important anymore.

Y.N: We have to mention that we are doing this conversation in bed!

M.A: Yes! This is a king size bed, with very dark blue covers. I like this bed, but you know if I didn’t have my ideal house, I would have just a small room, half the room would be a bed and the other half a table, that’s it. No chairs! I sit a lot on chairs. (Laughs) But tell me one thing, why the choice of the people you’re photographing? They are always very strong personalities! Like Louise Bourgeois, Zaha Hadid.

Y.N: Like you! (Laughs)

M.A: They all really tell a story. In a way what you do, you take the marks of their own lives from their faces, and they become like spirits more actually than real people. Tell me more about this.

Y.N: I actually choose them, because of the idea behind them and also what you all carry in your personalities… when you look at Zaha Hadid, you feel that she is a strong woman, you know “Hadid” in Arabic means “iron”!

M.A: Really, no!

Y.N: So when you see her and how she dresses and how she speaks with her eyes looking like those of Bette Davis, she’s really amazing.

M.A: You know I never met her.

Y.N: She’s great, a very sincere person. I like women who are strong. It is something that I have always loved.

M.A: And you photographed me and I’ve been crying and complaining about my private life, and showing how weak I am. (Laughs)

Y.N: But that’s because we are also friends.

M.A: But I think strength and weakness are very strongly connected, because I think most of the time the people who are really strong, are really fragile.

Y.N: This is also their force, you are bringing force from there.

M.A: Yesterday when we saw the movie Pina, Pina Bausch, just said this beautiful thing. She said “In fragility there is so much strength.”

Y.N: This is very true.

M.A: Do you ever do landscapes?

Y.N: I’ve done very little, but I always liked to photograph sunsets, because every time you look at them, they are very different, colors are different every day and it is also a moment of leaving. I’ve done many self-portraits with sunsets, because in each of these places I know that I’m there for a few days then I’m going to leave too. My favorite time of the day is just before sunset. That’s also what I miss most about Cairo, this unique light that I can’t see anywhere else, with birds flying everywhere. I always miss it and think of it all the time.

M.A: You know, I always wonder about birds flying in the sky just before the sunset. They become very hysterical as if they’re crying and they go crazy… and then the sun goes down and it becomes quiet again… and I always think, “why”? Why are they doing this? Because maybe they don’t know if there’s going to be another day. And that is kind of the sense of the passage of time, and then actually mortality. It’s so strong… how would animals know if there will be another day? Because for them, that’s death. Talking about this, I think of this insect that looks like a helicopter, it’s called “Libellen” or dragonfly. It’s very long, it’s beautiful and you know it lives only one day from sunset to sunrise, and it’s amazing to me that in one day, that’s their period of time, and if we look in a kind of cosmic sense of galactic years, I mean we also live one day. Just talking from a different perspective, this is such an incredible period of time. So if you apply that consciousness to everyday life, life becomes much more meaningful… and your portraits also deal much with death too, you know…

Y.N: I think a lot about death, my work is mainly about death, the idea of leaving and the afterlife.

M.A: And then of course you come from Egypt, the pharaohs were so busy with the afterlife.

Y.N: All my life is about the afterlife!

M.A: Have you ever been interested in the secrets of the pyramids?

Y.N: I actually used to go all the time to the pyramids, go inside a pyramid, go to the very end of the rooms, which were very humid and had very little light there, and I used to just sit and meditate. I never told anyone about it. I did it many times. I felt so connected to it. I know that there is some sort of a force there.

M.A: Did you ever have some sort of strange feeling there?

Y.N: I just felt that I was connected to something very precious, like being inside a religious place like a mosque, a synagogue or a church, a place to respect. I also felt connected to a certain past, that is still there but we are not exactly aware of as we should be… we think about the pyramids as a tourist site, but for me it’s not.

M.A: That’s why they have to apply the Abramovic method of purification to tourists before they go to Egypt. (Laughs) But you know the fact that you come from Egypt, with all these pyramids and incredible secrets that so many people try to decode the mysteries of and for centuries… and then I think in your work you are doing it at an intuitive level, with all these spirits, you actually created a spirit world with living people.

Y.N: It’s very true, I see them as spirits and I invite them to be part of my world. I also mix them whether they are dead or alive, like the work I did about Frida Kahlo, Umm Kulthum or Nefertiti. It’s not easy to work with portraits, because I’m constantly looking inside people and have them willing to give or show something… sometimes after the shoot, I feel really drained, like I have no energy left.

M.A: Right now as I work so much with the public generally, and with the recent performance at the MoMA when I look in people’s eyes and feel the energy, I am so shocked how many people actually are like a shell and there is nothing there… it’s like when you knock on the door, but there is no soul.

Y.N: But during this performance for almost three months, looking at people in their eyes, did you feel more connected to some people?

M.A: Incredibly, like an invisible kind of string going straight between us, like I am them and they are me. But you know in some situations, you are with people but they are not there because there is nothing inside them, there is this hole left inside, and there are more and more of these people right now in the world, there are so few people who are real. I remember going to Los Angeles, actually, to me Los Angeles is like a medicated city, something is gone there, I don’t know. I feel very few people are real, and then the other ones they are just like automats! Automatic working in life, but there is no consciousness, you know consciousness makes people alive, but right now it’s a very strange moment. What do you think, how do you feel in this moment? Living on this planet and what do you think is happening? I always really wanted to know!

Y.N: First I feel that we are too many on the planet, we are more then we should be, so when we are too many the energy we have and how we relate to each other is actually completely lost, and the way we live now is also another issue. I don’t think we are meant to live this way, in big cities like New York, Cairo, or London, living in big buildings on top of each other. I think a human being is in need of nature, because our energy comes from nature. I don’t think we developed exactly the way we should have developed. I’m talking about humankind, we need a kind of spiritual consciousness.

M.A: We need spiritual leaders, and we don’t have them.

Y.N: Exactly, we need spiritual leeders and we don’t need politicians! We almost need philosophers to rule the world.

M.A: Talking about religion, there are so many religious works that become institutions, but the pure and clear and their own spirituality is lost in the process of gaining power and making money, and that’s not what spirituality is about. So I think the function of art today is very important, because people don’t go to temples but they are going to museums, so they can get something there, a kind of a glimpse of some other type of thinking or reality, being aware of something. But you know I really wanted to see one big show of yours, because I always see works here and there, but not as a retrospective of say twenty works all together! When we are going to see that?

Y.N: I would love to have my first big institutional solo show in New York. I have had solo exhibitions at the SCAD Museum in Savannah, recently in Paris my first retrospective was at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie. But for the USA, till now only SCAD in Savannah.

M.A: But the one in Paris, how many pieces did you have?

Y.N: Around sixty.

M.A: That’s a big show! I would love to see that show in New York! But Savannah sounds really great. Savannah is full of spirits by the way.

Y.N: Totally! The whole city is like a city of spirits.

M.A: The old houses are possessed!

Y.N: And they have these trees…

M.A: Yes like in that movie, named after the city we saw together coming here?

Y.N: Sleepy Hollow!

M.A: Yes, it looks exactly like Sleepy Hollow. (Laughs) Savannah was very strange, really strange feeling of the space.

Y.N: You know I wanted to talk to you about this, because I’ve always refused new fast technology, for example I was the last one to get a mobile and was asking everyone to call at home, leave a message which I would hear when I got back. I was one of those! I really wanted to simplify my life with details like that… the same way I refused to use color films in the early nineties… now it’s all digital and HD! And even more far from what I’ve been always doing, painting my black-and-white photographs by hand, using the same old photography technique. The thing is, I really don’t want to go too fast with technology. I’m happy the way we were before, but little by little and really quickly we are going into a very different era of fast communication, and only recently I’ve been really fascinated by all that and how quick things have become! Like if I die now, maybe the only thing that I will miss, is seeing how our world will develop from where we are now, how we will be living in the future? In fifty, one hundred or two hundred years! Because if you think about it, all that has happened in the past fifty years, now everyone has a camera in his mobile, video, internet, etc. It is going really fast and everything will be going completely digital.

M.A: But you know, when I was in Russia recently, I had this access to what society will be. They put a chip in your arm, like the computer information chip. They also do it in Switzerland, and then you need four weeks so the brain can learn how to operate that chip inside your arm, and then you can manipulate a robot. So you can tell him just come here, do this, do that, through this chip. So this is one step, and the next step, is that that they are now trying to create a chip that can be put in your brain, and you could connect to a very mega large computer in orbit, so that actually you have access to the entire knowledge base of this planet, going into that chip in your brain directly! So you could google through your brain, you could do everything. If you want to speak Chinese, you could do it! But the idea that you can have this enormous amount of knowledge in your brain, and this replacement of the human with a machine! You know, everything that was in science fiction novels from the 50s and 60s is already absolutely happening.

Y.N: It’s very true, you know I never thought of them only as science fiction, all could be possible and happening one day, and what we think is science fiction today will be reality in the future.

M.A: How do you think art will look in the future? I mean, will it still be a commodity in the way it made people rich in the nineties? How far we can go into this non-sense? I think the entire system is so rotten. One simple example: how is it possible that Piero Manzoni who made in his entire life—he was only twenty-nine years old when he died very young—he made something like eighty works. Then you have the catalogue raisonné, which lists 235 works! So what does this come from… who made these works? And everybody is perfectly legitimate and business goes on as usual and everybody is making money for something that doesn’t exist! But this is just one example. The system is like a monster. They created the monster, which is functioning and supporting itself. You know how the collectors come together, putting money at auctions to raise the price of works, and you know nobody ever stops any of this. And then the art is completely losing its meaning. It’s really strange, and then we are here sitting in this house talking about it, but it looks so hopeless. We actually are not able to change the system. The only thing we can do is to be honest about our own work and presentation—that’s the only honesty—but there are still major steps in this direction. I mean why do we both like Hans Ulrich Obrist? Because he’s not part of that system! What is the function of art for you, from your own examples?

Y.N: For me, I always wanted to relate my art to the spiritual, to talk about issues that are related directly to my own life and experience, to question existence and try to lift the world we live in to another level, a little better then what we know. I always felt this need to make my message public, to have my thoughts seen, to show another idea of the world through my work. This is what I’m going to leave behind, and I always felt this sort of responsibility, almost like being here on a mission. I think art should always bring positive energy, because you see a lot of negative in art too… artists almost like machines and you feel absolutely nothing when looking at their work. For me this is not exactly art.

M.A: But the negative art feeds the negative part of the structure of society.

Y.N: You know I recently noticed that most of the artists I love are women… like Pina Bausch, Frida Kahlo, Ana Mendieta, Umm Kulthum.

M.A: But women artists have a hard time being true, because they have to sacrifice so much. That’s one of the reasons why there are not so many great women artists, because they are not ready to sacrifice. They want to have family and children and love and art! I’m just thinking about myself now. I have to be so humble. I have to be so grateful for what I have. You know I come from like the fifth world! I know that you come from the third world (laughs) but I come from like the fifth fucking world! From nowhere! I didn’t have a bank account, I had nothing! Nothing, nothing… and now I’m sitting in this beautiful house and I have a great loft. I have all these things, and really the position in which I can talk about art and do art… and then you know, what the hell if I don’t have a private life. Then I don’t, because, bad news, you can’t have everything, you just can’t. That’s the thing, and you have to really be grateful for what you have because people die for what we have! You know so many times I think, Oh my God, where I am now and where I was. I should be humble and grateful and not complain about anything. That’s really important, but it’s also important that you have the time for everybody, and to be there for people and to help as an artist. One of the reasons I made An Artist’s Life Manifesto, is that it’s a very old fashion way to talk about morality and being human, because we forgot to be human, and artists are becoming more and more as you say like machines, and they are feeding that kind of system, political and social which actually doesn’t help at all. I am now collecting the material for the lecture I wanted to do, and it’s incredible how everything is distorted. There is this company in New York who sends me every year a magazine for reproducing look-alikes of important works of art. So if you want to have a Mondrian, they can make you like a Mondrian in different sizes, but with a little detail less, so it will be a reproduction of the painting but with one line less. And they also create the sort of room or salon with suggested furniture where a Mondrian would be good, and how it would fit with the carpet! And that’s amazing! I want to do a lecture just on that!

Y.N: I’ve seen it actually, I saw a whole program on French TV on it. It is a company in China, and they can do you any artist you want! Van Gogh, Tamara de Lempicka, Picasso. They have a whole atelier with some fifty people and each is specialized in one detail of the painting. So one guy finishes for example the flower in a Van Gogh painting. He gives it to the guy next to him and the that guy paints the sun, and so on!

M.A: It’s incredible! And then you know people are completely fine with it, and that’s how everything goes wrong, because they are copying the copying of the copying. That’s why it’s so important in this world, that the existing originals are living treasures. But recently you also did a film, tell me about it.

Y.N: I’ve always wanted to do a film, but I wanted my first film to be inspired by and look like the movies I used to watch when I was a kid. So I decided to shoot in film, not digital. People told me they could bring me the latest digital HD camera and do everything in digital, but I refused. I wanted the real thing, so I shot in film, 35 mm, we rented the lenses from Panavision in Paris.

M.A: Wow, God! No one shoots in 35 mm anymore!

Y.N: I know, but I wanted the real old thing! Also it is super expensive and super risky… because I shot in Morocco and developed in Paris, so I had to make sure the film didn’t go through machines in airports. I worked with two actors I really love, Fanny Ardant and Tahar Rahim. The whole thing was like a dream coming true. That’s one thing. The other thing is that I wanted to talk about a very personal story, which is my country, and how I felt when I decided to leave Egypt and live in the West, and the relation between leaving and dying. The film is 8 minutes and colors are similar to my hand-colored photography. This project took a year and a half to make. Now I want to do my second film!

M.A: And what’s the title?

Y.N: You Never Left.

M.A: And you never left!

Y.N: Yes.

M.A: I always believed that the actual film has some life, like super 8, 16 mm, 35 mm. There is a kind of life in the film itself!

Y.N: Totally, I believe something happens in the middle between shooting and developing, which is not exactly the same with digital. Digital is a sort of file, nothing to do with film.

M.A: Exactly, it’s like when you’re listening to music on an Ipod… and I have a gramophone downstairs, and when you play a record you hear all the cracking and sound. It’s just like something coming from that box that is different, and I don’t think it’s nostalgia. It’s just that less technology keeps us more human. You know I was at a dinner with two Noble prizewinners. I had never been at this kind of dinner, but I was there, and one of the two actually discovered the structure of DNA . This guy is eighty-something. He stood up and he gave a toast, and said something so interesting, he said that the human being’s brain is a simple structure compared to machines like computers, which we have invented, and that actually the structure of the human brain stays the same, but technology advances and changes so much, that the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to follow anymore! And this is why the system is collapsing.

Y.N: Because we depend on machines and technology…

M.A: We depend on them and it’s something that we can’t follow! Then he said that if we don’t go back to simplicity and the old structure, we are all going to hell! And then he sat down! It was amazing, he was talking especially about technology in the banking system and money and all that kind of stuff that we can’t follow anymore! Remember the runner with bionic legs when he ran in the 2008 Olympics? They had to disqualify him because it was not fair to other people, because he was like a machine… He has said that it is hard for him to start running, but once he starts he can hardly stop! Because he can’t control the machine anymore, so he runs, runs, and runs! So someday the human body will be replaced by so much technology and machines, that machines will take over! Like in the great science fiction or horror stories, because we can no longer control or follow. They will be much more powerful than our brains can ever be. So basically the two of us, we have so many similarities, because you are taking things to the very essence, to just ghost-like characters, and I’m also trying to get to that in another way when I do my performances looking in people’s eyes, with just two chairs and that’s it. But it’s interesting, that in your case, people really get very emotional when they see themselves in your photographs. It’s incredible. I mean the work that you’ve done about me and Paolo (Canevari), there are so many emotions surrounding it… not just because he’s there, but because you just captured that moment in space, you took everything away except the feeling and that feeling lives in the work forever and that’s the most powerful thing and what your work is really about. You keep the soul alive while you remove everything else which life brings to you but it’s not important… it’s incredible! When was the first time you actually made a work?

Y.N: The first work I actually did was in 1992, twenty years ago.

M.A: And how did this happen?

Y.N: As a teenager I used to write stories, that I was hoping to photograph one day. They were very cinematic, as if scenes from a movie. So I asked friends to act and I would photograph them. Everything was written in advance and I took care of every detail. At first I wanted only to do black-and-white photographs because of my love for old cinema, then I had the need to see my work in color, but I didn’t want to use a color film, so I decided to color my photographs by hand, using the same old photography technique. I had to look for and meet the oldest manual retouchers in portrait studios in Cairo and Alexandria, to learn from them. In the early nineties you could still go to a portrait studio in Egypt and ask to have your portrait done just in black and white or to be hand colored. Then they stopped this old tradition and only did color portraits, now they’ve even gone digital!

M.A: So you’re the only one left!

Y.N: Exactly, but even now living in New York, I still have to go to Paris to print, because I love working with my lab there. I still haven’t found a lab that would print my work in New York. I still print in the darkroom and really can only work on fiber paper, the same old way of printing, because I paint basically with watercolors. I didn’t go to any art school, it was through cinema that I started my own art.

M.A: Tell me about some of your inspirations from films?

Y.N: It’s the whole idea that I was watching old movies with mostly dead people acting. It was really strange and made me think a lot about life and death, and what we will leave after… these people had a life exactly like the one we have now. They were so beautiful in these movies and are now dead, but I was still in love with them. They were coming from the past or the other world! For me, they were really like ghosts who still live with us, telling us stories that are not exactly real but could be real.

M.A: You know what I find really fascinating is when I look at old documentaries from the 20s and 30s with hundreds of people in the streets. They are all dead now, but they were alive then, and they are running and they are screaming, you see their faces, but they have all been dead for a long time now.

Y.N: They had a life like us, and when you think about it, one day we will also die like them and other people will be here, looking at our photos. We will only leave photographs and films behind us too. The thing about death is that you always think that it will happen to everyone except for you, but we will also actually die like everyone else.

M.A: But the thing with photography film is that it captures life in such an interesting way. You know that in Belgrade we had a clairvoyant, and if you brought him like three hundred photographs, black and white or color, from any time, he would just put his hands on the photographs…

Y.N: And he would tell you who is still alive and who is not?

M.A: Yeah! And he would be absolutely right! Because they see that life force is captured in the photographs and that’s why some old people never want to be photographed, because they think that it is taking their life force and there must be something true about that. Maybe that’s why Marilyn Monroe died so young!

Y.N: She’s been photographed more than anyone else! (Laughs)

M.A: You know I work with a shamanist doctor called Linda who takes a drop of blood from her patients. She has my drop of blood in her archive, and if I need some help being cured, she can consult my drop of blood and cure me at any distance. I can be in Berlin or in Kentucky! She can do it! And I asked her about that—this is all shamanistic style—she said that our blood has a life force, it can be dry, it doesn’t matter, it’s the life force connected to you. And when you die, the blood drop has no life force anymore! And you can see it in the microscope! So in my institute, which I’m going to develop and which I want to show you tomorrow morning in Hudson, I want to make a blood bank of living artists! So they are all connected.

Y.N: And you will be taking blood from all living artists!

M.A: This will have to be Dr. Linda’s section, she can cure artists from a distance whenever they need. She may be able to save them so they don’t commit suicide like Mike Kelley, too early.

Y.N: Tell me when was the first time you actually thought about death? That one day we are not going to be here?

M.A: I was seventeen, it was my birthday and I cried uncontrollably, and people asked me why? I said because I am going to die! What about you?

Y.N: I was five or six when I first thought about it, I used to cry every time I imagined that I could lose my mother one day or someone I love, and I used to pray that I would be the first one in my family to die. That was my prayer for years when I was a kid. Since then, I think every day about death but I kind of got used to it, so it doesn’t make me sad anymore. It’s there all the time, and this made me see life differently, because everything I see or do could be for the last time.

M.A: I think that’s a very good thing.

Y.N: It made me aware of time and appreciating more being with the people I love, and how precious people are. You know even when I wake up in the morning, every day in the first few seconds, I don’t know and I’m not sure where I am or what I do or what life I have. Then I remember that I have this life, this body and this face. As if I come into my body from a different world!

M.A: I understand this so well! And also so many times I wake up and I don’t know where I am at all! I don’t know which country, which hotel, where…

Y.N: You know this makes me feel like I have the life of someone who is already dead, but I’m still appreciating the days I still have to live in life or something… like living my life backward. But don’t you feel that it is like a film? That life is as if you are living your own film? The fact that we both came from third world countries and we are here now?

M.A: Yours is third, but mine is a fifth world country!

Y.N: We had one TV channel! (Laughs) No, but the fact that we both had no money when we left, we just left and didn’t know what was going to happen to us.

M.A: My friends there told me when I said I was leaving, that I was crazy, that soon I would come back because there it was so much better.

Y.N: Because you left all the comfort you were used to.

M.A: Totally.

Y.N: For me it was like throwing myself in an ocean and I never knew if I could reach any other end!

M.A: You know sometimes I sit outside at night and look in the sky and I feel that I am inside the house, you know I have a very strong feeling of déjà vu, unbelievable, like I know from that situation that I was there before. I know exactly what is going to happen in the next second, it’s like I’ve been in this life already and I’m kind of re-living it again.

Y.N: For me it is totally backward!

M.A: Yes, backward and then the thing that is actually probably the past, present, and future are all one thing. It is not actually going forward. You are just in one space constantly.

Y.N: You knew it already.

M.A: Yes, you knew it! You know I especially like going to clairvoyants, and everything they say to me I knew already! It’s like a kind of confirmation! It’s crazy! You know the Sufi say “Life is a dream and death is waking up.” And this is almost like that, because I really think that it is incredibly important to get ready for death, and what I would personally like to do is not to die angry, or in fear and I want to die consciously. That I am really consciously having this passage. I only once saw a person dying in my life, and I was not attached to the person, so I could see really clearly. It was the most amazing moment. I was at a friend’s house, and it was the father and he was really ill and in pain for one year, and he was there sitting in his room with his little table and bible and a candle, he was very religious. His wife and his friends were there but in the kitchen, and he always liked me to come, to be with him. So I was sitting with him looking at the bible and at one point I looked at him and he looked at me, and he slowly went down on his pillow, his face muscles went really smooth, he became like a young boy. I was so fascinated that I didn’t even realize that he was about to die. He had this beautiful smile for me, before he slowly closed his eyes! Wow! I was so incredibly mesmerized that I stayed there in front of him for a long time, and even forgot to go to the kitchen to tell his sons that he had died! And then when I went there I told them “I think he died.” The daughter looked so angry and was screaming that she wanted to have this moment. I think he chose me to die with! He didn’t choose anybody else, because they were all going to be hysterical and he just wanted to have this peaceful thing and I gave it to him, just looking at his eyes and his smile. I will never forget that gaze, it was incredible and with no fear, no anger, nothing. It was just that he saw something on the other side, which we don’t know yet, and I could really see that. I could see that there is a whole other reality after that passage, you know.

Y.N: I really believe in that, that death will be like going to this place that we already know but we forgot about. I believe that dying will be like still being here without being here. Like when we go to bed every night, we sort of feel what is going on around us but belonging to a different world, a parallel world. I think that when we die we will still be able to visit the people we love who are still alive, to look after them, to help them. We might still be around them, but not exactly as living the life we have known when alive. I mean I don’t know, I just think that death is that big mystery that’s approaching everyone. I know that I will miss everyone here, but as I have spent most of the last ten years in airplanes, I would like to believe that it will be just another trip somewhere and everyone will feel as if I’m still traveling.

Chatham (Hudson) New York, March 31, 2012

La photo comme au Cinéma
by Judicaël Lavrador. Paris, July 2011

La photo comme au Cinéma French

Si ce jour-là, l’avant-veille de son vernissage à la galerie Obadia, il préfère qu’on discute à l’intérieur, c’est, dit-il « parce que je serai moins tenter de regarder les passants et leurs visages ». Parole de photographe, captivé depuis tout petit par les belles personnes, ceux dont les traits, la silhouette, un détail dans la démarche, un sourire, un air boudeur lui suggèrent aussitôt une âme forte. Surtout il a toujours su les observer. Pas le choix : « enfant, j’étais très introverti, je parlais peu, je me tenais en retrait et tout passait par l’observation. Pour moi, voir et regarder, c’était déjà communiquer ». Un tel point de vue le prédestinait à s’essayer au portrait photographique, genre qui engage avec le modèle un dialogue muet, où quelque chose doit passer qui ne saurait être dit à voix haute. Mais avant de se lancer dans les bains de celluloïd, le jeune Youssef continue à rêver les yeux grands ouverts, devant les stars du cinéma égyptien - Omar Sharif ou son ex-épouse Faten Hamama- qui illuminent le petit écran de ses parents, dans la maison du Caire, le Hollywood arabe. Bien plus tard, Catherine Deneuve accepte de poser devant l’objectif de l’artiste, qui fait de la patience (et de la fidélité à ses idéaux de jeunesse) son credo. Il lui aura fallu attendre cinq ans avant de décrocher un rendez-vous avec l'actrice qui, sur la photo, les épaules dénudées, paraît étonnamment frêle et touchante, loin de son aura superbe de star mondiale hiératique.

Cette finesse tient largement à la technique mise en œuvre : des tirages argentiques, noir et blanc, puis colorisés à la main, à l’aquarelle mélangé parfois à de l’huile et rehaussé de crayon. Une technique venue de l’artisanat égyptien et qui prête aux clichés (et aux vieux films des années 1940-1950), cet éclat rétro, un peu fané, affadi et émouvant. Ces tirages ne cherchent pas à éblouir en se parant de couleurs aveuglantes et d’une brillance artificielle. Peaufiné à la main, ils aspirent à imiter le grain de la peau, le plissé des costumes -souvent choisis par l’artiste-, l’aspect poudreux du fard, et vaporeux de la toile de fond devant laquelle pose le modèle. La liste est longue des célébrités qui se sont prêtées au jeu : les artistes Shirin Neshat et Marina Abramovic, Gilbert & George, la chanteuse Natacha Atlas, l’architecte Zaha Hadid ou encore Rossy de Palma, actrice fétiche de Pedro Almodovar…

S'ajoutent au casting la féline Fanny Ardant et Tahar Rahim, révélation du Prophète de Jacques Audiard, tout deux acteurs du court-métrage que l’artiste montre dans son exposition parisienne. Un film en forme de récit mythologique, animé par le souffle de l’autobiographie. You never Left déroule, sur fond de désert de sable et de palmeraie édénique, le départ d’un jeune homme loin de sa terre. La mort est au bout du chemin, mais elle n’est qu’un passage : les étapes des funérailles traditionnelles en Egypte, le mènent dans les bras de la mère Egypte, et vers une renaissance, un nouvel exil. Partir-revenir ? À 20 ans, Youssef Nabil quitte l’Égypte appelé à New-York par le photographe David LaChapelle, croisé au Caire par hasard : le jeune homme photographiait une de ses amies quand la star lui demanda s’il connaissait un bon studio photo dans les parages. Près de vingt ans plus tard, ils sont « comme frères ». Assistant de LaChapelle, il en a aussi partagé l’appartement et les soirées dans les clubs de l’East Village. Mais revient en Égypte un an plus tard, en 1993. Six ans passent : sa première exposition, organisée dans une petite galerie du Caire, puis une autre, dans un centre d’art de Mexico, achèvent de le convaincre de ne plus seulement regarder, mais bien de (se) montrer. Cela passe par un nouveau départ : direction Paris, puis New York où il vit désormais, en éternel « visiteur », comme il dit. « Même en Egypte, je savais que j’allais repartir. J’ai le même sentiment avec ma vie. On est arrivé à un moment, on va repartir, mais on ne meurt jamais vraiment.» Ce qui fait de ses photographies (et notamment de ses autoportraits) des antidotes à la mort et des billets doux pour l’éternité.

par Judicaël Lavrador
Paris, Juillet 2011

Mad about the boy
Interview by Karen Wright. New York, March 2010

Mad about the boy english

Interview by Karen Wright

Youssef Nabil agrees to meet me in NYC shortly before he leaves for Europe. I allow him to choose the location and he selects the sleek yet anonymous bar of the Mandarin Orient Hotel poised high up over Central Park. The afternoon is stormy with tall buildings seeming to disappear into cloud that lends a curious intimacy to the following conversation. It was also appropriate as much of our discussion turned towards the melancholic and nomadic aspects of so much of Youssef’s work.

Karen Wright: I know you grew up in Africa - Egypt to be exact.

Youssef Nabil: In Egypt.

K.W: When did you leave?

Y.N: Well, I’m 37. And I lived all my life actually in Egypt. I only left about seven years ago. But I was always travelling. I was based in Cairo.

K.W: What were your parents like?

Y.N: I’m from a very normal Egyptian family.

K.W: And you traveled because that’s what Egyptian families do?

Y.N: My father was working with an American company in Egypt. Before that, he was working in Europe and was working in Saudi Arabia. Normal jobs – he’s not like one of the rich businessmen. Just trying to give you a general picture.

K.W: Tell me about your parents.

Y.N: I think the greatest thing they have ever done for me is put me in a French school, because that got me very interested in other cultures. I used to save money & buy foreign magazines, I got to know more about art and photography as an art which is something that we actually never had in Egypt. The only art photography we had were studio portraits. And basically, that was practiced by Armenians, old Armenians who had remained in Cairo from before the war. So I left school andI started doing my own artwork when I was about 19 years old.

K.W: And you knew immediately you wanted to be a photographer? Or were you a painter first?

Y.N: I wanted to be an artist. And I didn’t know what to do at first. I used to do a lot of drawings and painting. Collage and videos that I would record from TV and edit and put music on, very late 1980s, early 1990s.

K.W: Did you go to the cinema a lot when you were growing up. It's very much in your work, isn't it? Was it a particular kind of cinema?

Y.N: It was actually the old movies that I was very much interested in. Egyptian old movies, Hollywood old movies… And then I started photographing my friends in scenes that I’d write, that were inspired by these periods. Very glamorous, everything was very well prepared for. Light, the hair, the make-up, everything really just so.

K.W: You styled them?

Y.N: Exactly. I used to take care of every little detail. And I was only doing black and white at the beginning. And then, I had a desire to do color. I had the wish to see my work in color, but I never wanted to use color film. Because for me it gave a completely different character of photography – something that I didn’t feel. So I decided to color the black and white photographs the way that old movies were colored, using the old photography technique.

K.W: So you were self-taught?

Y.N: Every once in a while I’d save some money, and I’d go somewhere. That’s how I’d travel, as an assistant to photographers. The first time with David LaChapelle in New York…

K.W: You met him in a weird way didn’t you?

Y.N: We just met by coincidence. It was meant to be, I believe a lot in these things. I think it’s like when you really belong somewhere, the whole universe just tries to help you get there. It was late 1992 time and I had just started my photography. I was shooting a friend of mine in a hotel in Cairo, and David was staying in the same hotel. He saw me taking pictures and [LaChapelle] approached me and said, ‘Oh, you know I’m working for a Condé Nast magazine, and…’ (I didn’t know who he was – he could have been anyone!) ‘I’m doing this story, and some woman – called I don’t know what – she’s charging me this whole amount of money because I wanted three models… Do you know other models?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know all of them – they’re my friends.’ At that time I was starting to get known a little. I was taking pictures of a few Egyptian celebrities. I called some people for him, I helped him for free. And we became friends! Then he called me from New York afterwards, and he said, ‘I want you to be my assistant, if you can come here to New York and stay with me’ We were only three people at the studio. This was between 1993 and 1994. I used to go back to Egypt and leave again to New York. I was actually studying French literature, leaving school, coming here. I spent five years doing literature – I remember nothing. My family wanted me to have any degree next to my art career or whatever I wished to do. Just to make them happy, I did it, I gave it to them, and I said, ‘Let me go now!’

K.W: David wasn’t the only photographer you worked with was he?

Y.N: The other photographer I worked with was Mario Testino.

K.W: How did you meet him?

Y.N: I met him through friends in Egypt. He was coming to Egypt to shoot Linda Evangelista for British Vogue, and he needed an Egyptian assistant. My friends called me and said, ‘Mario’s coming.’ And by now it was 1997, I knew exactly who he was. He came to Egypt with the whole Vogue team. And I was an assistant there. Then I told him that I wanted to work – to continue working with him. So I went to Paris and worked with him for a year and a half.

K.W: And this was about when?

Y.N: 1997 to 1998

K.W: And then you went back to Egypt?

Y.N: And then I said, that’s it! I don’t want to work with another photographer – I want to go back and have my own exhibit of all that I was doing! Because I was doing my black and white photographs, painting them in New York, in Paris – the work I did in Egypt. I’d never shown them before. My first exhibition was in a small gallery called Cairo-Berlin art gallery. It was owned by a German lady; she was living in Egypt, and she was doing great work through her little gallery in Egypt. But she passed away…

K.W: And so now you’re back in Egypt and you have this show, and then what happens?

Y.N: I had a show in May 1999. And then soon after, a few collectors were collecting me, one of them was the ambassador of Belgium in Egypt – who went to Mexico afterwards. I went to visit him when he was in Mexico, because I always wanted to go there because of Frida Kahlo…

K.W: I was going to bring you back to that because you got into that with David LaChapelle?

Y.N: Earlier, exactly.

K.W: When you were staying with David?

Y.N: Yes, I wanted to go to Mexico. When I was there, I planned my first exhibition at Centro de la Imagen. It’s their museum of photography, really, it’s a great place. So I had a solo show, it was just one year after I had my first ever exhibition in Egypt.

K.W: So they’re showing in a public space.

Y.N: An institution. And things went from there. I went back to Egypt, , and I stayed until 2003, then I was invited by the French Ministry of Culture to go to France for an artist’s residency.

K.W: Where was your residency in Paris?

Y.N: At Cité Internationale des Arts. I was there for three years and then I moved to New York.

K.W: So you’ve never gone back to Egypt…?

Y.N: Only short visits.

K.W: Do you have any feelings about going back? Or do you feel that’s another part of your life?/font>

Y.N: I love my country, but I can’t go back and work from there now.. Like this is one chapter. Basically because I need to feel free in my work, and I was feeling that the country and the society was becoming more and more conservative. And then you have another whole Egypt, as if living in Europe. I was always associated with the real Egypt.

K.W: Tell me about the underwear pieces, which seem to deal directly with this conversation.

Y.N: The guy who was selling the underwear was a religious guy with a long beard, and the whole store had only this kind of sexy underwear with holes and zippers and feathers. And they sell it, I think, for women who are just getting married for the wedding night, just to be sexy. When you’re walking in downtown Cairo, and you see this shop in the middle of the other shops, you feel it’s like a sex shop in Europe or something.

K.W: Mm, it really stands out!

Y.N: It really stands out and behind him is a sign that says he doesn’t shake hands with women. Like, you know, he just stands there. I’m collecting them actually. I’ve started getting them for my work. A good example of what we are passing through.

K.W: It’s interesting because that work makes total sense within the context of being in Egypt. But when you leave Egypt does Egypt carry on into your work? Does that feeling stay in your work, or is that work that you have left behind, in a sense?

Y.N: Well, I think we are all like this: just like fish out of water. I come from there, so I’m always thinking about there, I’m always concerned about Egypt’s problems. Even though like now I’m living in New York, and Europe before that, but I can’t help it. I’m always dealing with issues that relate to my culture and to my own experience. And where I come from.

K.W: And that’s led to friendships with artists who come from similar places. Like Shirin Neshat, Ghada Amer and Mona Hatoum?

Y.N: Yes.

K.W: I am here to talk to you for a magazine called AFRICA. Is it strange to put you in that group when you are often called a Middle East artist as well?

Y.N: No. In many ways, being Egyptian made me feel closer to Africa as well as the Middle East.

K.W: As we've said, movies were incredibly important in the way you looked at things. But movies also informed your whole psyche about life and death, and I think that’s very interesting. I’d like you to talk a little more about this.

Y.N: Well, I think for me, cinema is life. It’s our story, it’s the ending, the beginning, what you do in between. And, you sort of know from the beginning – that it’s going to end one day. You go to see a movie, you know that it is only two hours! Two hours, or three hours, or one hour and a half most of the time and it’s going to end! And that’s the whole thing about life for me…I hope my movie is not a short one and that it’s not going to end soon. But when it’s going to end, it’s just going to end. And it’s crazy, as a discovery, for me.

K.W: When did you discover life was so short?

Y.N: While watching TV. When I was a kid: I used to go home from school and watch TV. And I would watch TV while having my lunch, and I’d watch TV when I was doing my homework, and then I would sleep in front of the TV. (laughs)

K.W: (laughs)

Y.N: It was TV, TV, TV all the time. Watching all of these dramas and Egyptian old movies and stuff.

K.W: Were they like soap operas, and things like that?

Y.N: Actually I wasn’t exactly more interested in this, it was more like any old movies. The point is that I was introduced to a lot of ideas through TV. And as a kid I was always asking my mother, ‘Who is she, and who is he, and where are they now?’ All these kids’ questions. And most of the time, the answer was like: ‘They’re all dead.’ So, it was a shock for me.

K.W: Guess they were old movies! (laughs)

Y.N: To be in love with all of these beautiful, glamorous dead people! And I think it did something to me subconsciously. It was a horrible discovery, actually. I never really recovered exactly from it. Not that actors are dying, but the whole idea that one day it could finish, and it could happen to anyone.

K.W: It happened at a very young age for you, in a sense.

Y.N: It happened for me when I was like five or six. But I think also that it’s personal. For me, it was actually something that opened my mind to other ideas too early maybe. I was thinking about it all the time. And I started imagining that I could lose someone in my family. I used to pray all the time to God that I want to die first, and I don’t want to see anyone I love dying.

K.W: But also, I mean, this thing about watching people sleep which seems to be another theme. in your work. That’s a thing about dying as well, isn’t it?

Y.N: It’s related to dying. I don’t think we just go to sleep and that’s it. I think we travel, we go somewhere. I think when we die it’s going to be more or less like this. We’ll be here but we’ll be just somewhere else. It’s like being in a house, and instead of being on the third floor we’ll be on the first floor, or in the basement or something. But you’re still in that house.

K.W: (laughs)

Y.N: So I think when you sleep (laughs), we definitely go somewhere. For me, sleeping is a metaphor for death. It’s sexual … people look very at ease when they’re sleeping. They look innocent.

K.W: You saw Frida’s house: did it do something to you? Did you feel inspired by it?

Y.N: At that time I had already read so much about her, and seen so many pictures of the houses, that I was a little bit disappointed. I mean, by the fact that they turn it almost into a Disneyland, you know.

K.W: They do this to keep the house going don't they?

Y.N: Keep the house going, have some money coming, et cetera. But the thing is that you know all the pieces are not exactly well kept. There’s no security really. I was visiting it with a friend of mine, and she wrote the essay of my catalogue there and she’s the second important biographer of Frida Kahlo, her name is Martha Zamora. Martha actually met Frida Kahlo. when she was like four or five. And just a year or something before she died, she was in school and they went to visit Diego Rivera – while painting.

K.W: Amazing!

Y.N: And then Frida Kahlo came to visit Diego Rivera. And then she only remembers this woman who was wearing lots of perfumes and she would make noises when she was walking because of all the jewelry she was wearing.

K.W: Yeah, jewelry.

Y.N: And later on she went back to her mother and she said, ‘You know, mama, today I met a woman and she looked like a Christmas tree.’

K.W: Christmas tree? (laughs)

Y.N: And she said, it’s Frida Kahlo.

K.W: Fantastic! But it made such a deep impression that she went home? And told her mother?

Y.N: It did make a deep impression.

K.W: Why do you think she’s important to you?

Y.N: When I came to New York I was working with David. I was supposed to travel with him for the next three weeks – to Martinique– but I couldn’t get a visa. So I stayed in the apartment by myself three weeks going to the office, going back home, and I saw this biography in his apartment. It was Frida's first biography, and I was reading it all the time. So in a way, first she kept me company for three weeks – and then I was really getting interested in this artist. I fell in love with how she looked like from the first minute that I set my eye on the cover.

K.W: Because she’s quite androgynous in a way, I mean maybe that’s a part of her attraction.

Y.N: The fact that she was dealing with very personal issues by exhibiting them.

K.W: Well, the pain she must have been in!

Y.N: The pain that she transformed into art, the way she dressed, the way that her life and her art were one. She was so unique.

K.W: In Mexico, they were free of the marketplace. And the marketplace pressures. Can you imagine artists who could work without having their dealer coming down and saying, ‘I need 20 of those, I need 30 of those, I want that same image, I want it bigger, I want to sell it for more!’

Y.N: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, exactly.

K.W: And there was an innocence about it. You did it because you had to make it. It wasn’t: ‘I’m an artist because it’s going to make me money.’ It’s: ‘I’m an artist because I have to be an artist, I can’t be anything else.’

Y.N: She had trouble with money all the time. She didn’t have money at all, she owed people money everywhere. Whenever she goes to New York, to San Francisco.. – and her husband was paying lots of this. And then when she got divorced she started doing commercial [work] – portraits of families, but again, all her style. You can feel it’s her. But as you say, she was very free in creating. And she didn’t produce much.

K.W: But why are you so interested in self-portraits?

Y.N: I always did a few when I was younger, and when I left Cairo in 2003 to go first to Paris, I was away from all of whatever I was attached to in Egypt and then I left my country to go to Paris. And I found myself alone … So again I started thinking about life. Not only my life, but about life in general. And about the idea of coming to a place and then leaving. Which is again, related to death. So I started doing self-portraits in different cities…

K.W: Capturing the spirit of the city, in a way! Or capturing the spirit of the people?

Y.N: Mostly because I was a visitor. I knew that I was there for a week, or three days, and then I was leaving after. And it’s the whole relation about life – I think we’re visitors. We’re here for some time and then we’re having to go. We will go. So I started talking about this in my work, and that’s how I started actually doing the self portraits.

K.W: Can you remember the first one?

Y.N: The first ever one? Or the first one where I left Egypt.

K.W: The first one that you did after Egypt?

Y.N: The first one was in Vincennes. It was 2003.

K.W: That’s the very odd one, where it’s hard to see you! (laughs) It’s in the woods, isn’t it?

Y.N: You don’t see me. I don’t look at the camera most of the time for the self-portraits. Because actually I don’t see myself! They could be about anyone else. So yeah, I was there in the woods holding the earth, by the river…

K.W: They’re sad, your self-portraits. There’s a sadness in them that you don’t see in the portraits that you do of other people. There’s a…

Y.N: They are sad, yeah…of course the self-portraits are the most personal ones. They speak more directly about my life. Although some of the portraits of other people also, you can feel also some sadness. People are not exactly smiling or laughing when I photograph them.

K.W: I must let you go off to pack you are off to Paris tomorrow. Is it for work or play?

Y.N: Well I go to Paris all the time. First, because I print my work in Paris. and I come back here with it to color it.

K.W: And why is that? It seems a long way to go to get your work printed?

Y.N: Because when I used to live in Paris, I already had a relationship with my lab there. They know exactly what I like…It’s one of those relations. It’s like when you go to you know…

K.W: Your hairdresser? (laughs)

Y.N: Yeah! Or your tailor or your dentist (laughs). Someone who knows what you like. And once you’re really happy with someone, I think it’s very difficult to find someone else!. And you know the thing about New York is that they went digital everywhere. And they can achieve an amazing result with a digital printing. Exactly like a darkroom printing. But the thing with my work – because I work with colors, watercolor, oil, and pastel – I can’t do this on digital paper. So I have to work on the old fiber paper. I’m one of the very few who are still using old photography techniques.

K.W: You’re an elephant, or whatever they call it.

Y.N: I’m happy to travel for that..And then besides that I love Paris. I love Europe. I think New York is amazing for other qualities, but I don’t exactly feel that it’s a real city. People are here to work. It’s very cosmopolitan, you meet so many people, and it has amazing qualities for work that you cannot find in Paris…

K.W: But the culture isn’t here, really, is it?

Y.N: Sometimes it gets stressful for me and I miss something about being in Europe or around the Mediterranean, where I come from.

K.W: You miss café life!

Y.N: I feel at home, I feel at home if you put me anywhere next to the Mediterranean, as you say.

K.W: So what will you do next?

Y.N: What I’m doing right now is my first movie…

K.W: Oh, wow! Have you started making it?

Y.N: Yeah.

K.W: So tell me about the movie.

Y.N: It’s definitely something new. It’s not shot yet. But I’m in the process of getting the funds for production. We’re almost there.

K.W: Is it a feature, or is it a documentary, or?

Y.N: No, it’s an art movie. It’s a short - seven to ten minutes, it’s supposed to be shot in Morocco. And I’m actually leaving tomorrow to Paris and Italy, meeting with people to see actors and casting, and so…

K.W: What’s the story?

Y.N: The story is closer to my self-portrait series, which is about my relationship to life, to death, to existence, to my life, to leaving Egypt, to going to other places. And all of this in relation to death, and to being reborn again somewhere else.

K.W: Because it’s interesting that you’re moving into movies. Because what I love about your photography is its stillness. So doing something quite different. Sometimes you see photographs, and you think, ‘Oh, you know they’ll make movies…’

Y.N: There’s not much talking in this movie. It’s like when you close your eyes and you think about old memories – sometimes they come for you as visions.

New York, March 2010

I Live Within You: portraits of Youssef Nabil
by Melissa Messina. Savannah, February 2010

I live within you english

by Melissa Messina

…every portrait of another person is a “self-portrait” of the photographer…
Susan Sontag1

Ultimately, of course, every self-portrait is a fiction, a portrait of someone else...

Robert A. Sobieszek2

In three unique yet interconnected series of hand colored photographs—staged cinematic stills; portraits of artists, writers, actors and filmmakers; and haunting self-portraits—Cairo-born artist Youssef Nabil offers us his life as cinema. Paying homage to the glamour of classical Egyptian films that mesmerized him as a child, his earliest artistic expression was manifested in the cinema series. Nabil’s “never-ending fascination with cinema—its time, its glamour and stardom” translated into a style that honors this rich cultural tradition.3 His oeuvre developed to include a portrait series of famed notables who inspired him and whose achievements mirrored his own ambitions. More recently, he turned the camera inward to capture his physical self in dreamlike landscapes, the artist as impermanent traveler. The collective imagery reflects Nabil’s longing to displace time and immortalize his encounters. They portray his need to be connected to others in this brief life. “I want to photograph everyone I love, I want to keep part of them with me, I want them to live forever through my work,” wrote Nabil.4

This desire for permanence is a crucial aspect of each series and is undeniably felt in each image. The cinematic stills and portraits are Nabil’s way of holding a mirror to his life, his self-portraits a reflection of his physical existence and, as such, his compelling acceptance of death. As Robert Sobieszek wrote in the exhibition catalog The Camera I, “The self that stares back at the artist was once, when the photograph was made, and is no longer; marking a time immediately removed in time, it portends the immanency of death."5 Thus it is through photography, what Susan Sontag described as “the image world that bids to outlast us all,” that Nabil has chosen to preserve his transitory experiences.6 The camera is the mechanism through which he presents his nostalgic scenes; the signature hand coloring of each silver gelatin print is the technique that draws the viewer to their seductive allure. In combination, we are meant to see the self-portrait in every image. “I think mostly they are about myself… Everything that I pass through—Egypt, East, West—they are all me. I basically fit them all.”7

Nabil first saw himself in the Egyptian films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s he watched as a child. Serving as the inspiration for his cinema series, Nabil was drawn to “the deathly quality of faded beauty, the decadent elegance of old times,” more so than the content of these popular films.8 Egypt, once dubbed the “Hollywood of the Nile,” was by the 1950s “the vital counterpoint to Hollywood, ranking second in size to commercial Indian cinema.”9 Nabil does not attempt to recreate the narratives of melodramatic “New Realism,” a film style of this era that attempted to expose social ills in commercial filmmaking.10 Rather, he interprets what Viola Shafik, historian of Middle Eastern film, describes as Egyptian popular film’s “oscillat[ion] between realist referentiality and symbolic, metaphorical and allegorical codings.”11 Furthermore, the cinema series photographs call forth the theatrical roots of late 19th-century Egypt out of which the region’s film industry grew.12 His images are focused on an idealized glamour, an aura that references the “dream factory” that after World War II “lure[d] viewers from the mundanerealities of everyday life.” 13

Ever the meticulous director, Nabil is a “master of staged photography,” and no detail is left unconsidered.14 He has said the cinema series conveys his “idea of how I like women to look, how I like men to look, how I see these people in relation to old movies. Everything you see was actually planned before.”15 His crafted scenes are first developed as black and white prints and then, quite literally, colored with his romantic sensibility. This hand coloring in watercolor, gouache and pencil reanimates the scene, rendering each print unique. It is a time-consuming process that speaks to Nabil’s clear and precise artistic vision. His revival of this process, the lost art of hand painting movie house posters, which he apprenticed to learn, conveys his love of the bygone era of cinema. The refined act of this paintedhand work is a memorializing, an idealizing of the past. Nabil says of his subjects, “I want them to look like my thinking.” 16

The cinema series narratives are not driven by a specific story line, but rather offer beautiful, anonymous starlets in settings that require our interpretation. For instance, Ehsan and Light, Cairo, 1993, portrays a beautiful and bejeweled actress who stares seductively with pouted wine-stained lips, her arms wrapped languidly around an industrial movie light. Ehsan is a symbol of Egypt presented as a fecund young woman whose light will shine in perpetuity. Nabil has described Egypt as a mother who has given birth to him.17 Having left Egypt in his early career, this bittersweet departure is conveyed through Ehsan’s distant stare and vulnerable expression.

Other images such as Simone in Downtown Bar, Cairo, 1997 and Ehsan Crying, Cairo, 1997, also present Egypt as the abandoned heroine. Each woman is alone in a melancholic glamour, her troubled aura transcending her beauty. In a 2008 interview with Egyptian film icon, Faten Hamama, whom Nabil photographed in the portrait Faten Hamama, Cairo, 2008, the actress spoke of Egypt’s past: “It was calmer, and definitely people were better than today. I find that people are more inclined to hate each other now.”18 Nabil himself describes Egypt today as being in “a very desperate time religiously, politically, economically and with human rights.”19 The cinema series can thus be interpreted as an allegory for Nabil’s life, a symbolic narrative of the self. In these works, Nabil identifies himself with Egypt,
with its cinematic history, and honors the cultural legacy of his birthplace. He is at once, Ehsan, Simone, even Pasha (Lonely Pasha, Cairo, 2002), heavy-lidded and lovelorn.

No works highlight what Liliane Karnouk describes in Modern Egyptian Art 1910-2003 as Nabil’s ability to reveal “a certain Egyptian sense of loss” more than in his self-portraits taken before vintage theater marquees.20 Specifically part of the cinema series and an early departure into his self-portrait series, photographs such as CINEMA—Self Portrait, Florence, 2006 convey Nabil’s point of view both in front of and behind the camera—simultaneously the director, the star and Egyptian cinema personified. He positions the shot angled upward focusing on his face; a mysterious dark corridor behind frames his profile. A single light fixture in the distance balances the only other source of light, the letters “CINEMA” spelled out in a golden glow above his head. In these various works (others shot in New York, Paris and Madrid), Nabil consciously directed his lens at these near obsolete signs that were once beacons of the movies—not of specific films or the name of the theater’s owner as is more recently common, but a summons to themagic of the genre itself.

Interestingly, scholar Philip Kuberski wrote about cinema in relation to the West’s obsession with ancient Egypt: “The movie screen, like the pyramid walls on an Egyptian tomb, like the dreams inside our brains, presents a metaphysical space where time no longer operates according to its ordinary, relentless logic. All of these forms of expression actually ‘projected’ the soul, the desires and the shadows of life into a beyond. It was universally and unaccountably intoxicating.”21 Likewise, Nabil makes connections to the relationship between ancient Egypt and cinema, saying each “have to do with internalizing someone, living forever. Egyptians are very connected, related to, inspired by the idea of death and the afterlife.”22 Other representations of this connection have come in the form of photographed ancient relics such as the bust of Nefertiti in Nefertiti, Berlin, 2003 and Fragment of the Face of a Queen, New York, 2004. In these works, Nabil likewise connects these two mystical places, ancient Egypt and the cinema, offering the early queen’s portrait in the same enchanting style of richly colored textures andisolated focus as he applies to cinematic eminence such as Faten Hamama.

Threaded through Nabil’s work is a deliberate commentary on East and West. Like the artist, each series shares a combined state of these influences and sensibilities. The various series have been noted for their purposeful references to Orientalism and the exoticized ‘other.’ Critic and curator Octavio Zaya described the photographs as “vacillat[ing] between an unsatisfied search for an imaginary experience confronting those tired dichotomies of the Occident and the Orient—an experience which perhaps simultaneously affirms and exposes stereotypes and discrepancies of colonial desire—and the melancholic resignation of its impossibility in the age of general globalization and commodification.”23 This interplay is most apparent in Nabil’s images of singer Natacha Atlas, whose pop music is a combination of North African and Arabic influences. Nabil depicts Atlas as the embodiment of strength and cosmopolitan glamour, with a certain unabashed confrontation in her poses. Whether she is unaware of our gaze as in Natacha with Eyes Closed, Cairo, 2000 in which she rests, lips parted, arms over head, amongst the blur of her spangled and jeweled costume, or confronting our stare as she kneels poised below a crown and cape ornament in Natacha with Crown, Cairo, 2000, she epitomizes the hybridity of contemporary culture and calls attention to the underpinnings of the Western gaze.“ She represented exactly what I wanted to say. She was the link between West and East in her music and in her self as a person, and I liked that. I felt somethingpersonal in her, and I related to it.” 24

If the cinema series is intended to convey the glamour of classical film through richly staged mise-en-sc!ne, Nabil’s minimally staged portrait series are situated in stark contrast. Most of his portraits of famous figures are simple close-ups, like headshots, often with bare shoulders and almost always isolated in an austere turquoise background. Yet in the two distinct modes of representation, there exists a stylization that serves as a means of commemoration and idolization. The meticulously hand colored surface acts as a filter offering only what is beautiful. In this way Nabil venerates the subject, bringing forth that which he finds unique—the exaggerated eyes of artist Shirin Neshat (Shirin Neshat, Casablanca, 2007); the stubbled chin and silver pompadour of director David Lynch (David Lynch, Paris, 2007); and the ever-suited Gilbert and George (Gilbert & George, New York, 2007). One imagines the reverential relationship, the intimacy of each photo shoot. Natacha Atlas described her encounter: “While he is photographing you…you are his goddess, and there is nothing but you and him.”25 Nabil’s alluring coloring encapsulates that unknown quality which makes each sitter a star, just out of our reach.

"The real problem, then, rests in how the artist radically alters the surface in order to get beyond it when there is only the surface with which to work,” wroteSobieszek of portrait photography. 26 Nabil takes this challenge quite literally.

The colored surfaces do as much to conceal as reveal—that which animates also depersonalizes. In the image Tracey Sleeping, London, 2006, as with his portraits of Natacha Atlas, Nabil portrays his friend, the artist Tracey Emin, asleep. Emin, a controversial artist whose work is inspired by the personal details of her life, is presented in an exposed state. Shot from the shoulders up, we see she is nude except for two necklaces. Her hair is splayed around her as if she were floating. Like so many of Nabil’s portraits, the captivating, dreamlike warmth of the hand coloring draws us to her, yet we are kept at an intimate distance. Like Emin’s own art, we are left only with clues, never truly able to know her. Here again Nabil uses a seductive surface and enticing staging to perpetuate mythic stardom and, at the same time, thehuman desire for intimacy.

Sleep is a recurring state for Nabil’s subjects. For Nabil sleep is a “parallel world” to our waking existence, and one that is closest to death.27 It is in this vulnerable mode of existence that Nabil captures his sitters, as well as himself, both in this world and another. In Julie Mehretu, New York, 2007, the artist rests on the floor with eyes closed, seemingly unaware of her large abstract painting, the vigorous lines and brushstrokes, hovering above. The background, Mehretu’s painting, is a literal representation of the mark she has left in the world. Here, Nabil is thus mirroring his own process—showing the creative act as one of negotiating impending death. Mehretus’s painting livesbeyond her time on earth just as Nabil’s photograph will likewise outlast him.

Historian Erika Billeter wrote that the self-portrait frequently functions as a kind of refuge, that “taking a picture is always preceded by the business of setting-the-stage to serve any number of purposes such as observation of oneself, self-analysis, a record of a mentally experienced state or the assumption of a role as a means of concealment or revelation.”28 Nabil’s artistic practice encompasses all of these purposes. It is at once intensely personal, sharing with us a passion for immortalizing his mortal experience, and at the same time universal, as this wish lives within us all. “Cinema is life. And in my self-portrait series I think a lot about life and my relation to existence, and place, and to death, and to being here and going somewhere after. I think about the story I am trying to tell, which is actually cinema as well…You enter the movie to see the story and you know it will end, at one time, at one point,” said Nabil.29 Though his photographs are no doubt alluring, melancholy and vulnerability pervade each image. The romantic imagery and dark beauty suggest Nabil’s embellished world will pale in comparison to the sublime of the next life.

As in the other series, Nabil’s self-portraits reference notions of death and the desire for connectivity in life. They are executed with a similar stylized cinematic sensibility and likewise utilize the isolated figure to uphold the thematic framework of permanence versus impermanence that connect the three bodies of work. For an artist strategically using the genre of self-portraiture, these images have less to do with Nabil personally than one might first assume. These works make deeper references to the fleeting nature of human existence in general than they do his personal longing. With figures kept remote, often in unspecific environments (sometimes we do not know the location but through the title), the self-portraits evoke the universal human desire for immortality. In Self Portrait at Night, Paris, 2005, for example, Nabil is turned from the camera—we see only his exposed back, as he looks afar to a colorful night skyline in the distance.

As Nabil’s self-portraits reference impermanence, or, more specifically, the attempt to preserve one’s experiences through the medium of photography, the hand coloring serves to poetically heighten the sense of the artist’s physical presence in the work. Furthermore, this literal surface effect symbolically references the body as the surface, or shell, for the soul. Several of the selfportraits allude more overtly to the corporality of death, with the artist’s body positioned at rest amongst the natural landscape; the selective coloring offers vivid contrast between the neutral skin tones and the vibrancy of the surroundings. In Self Portrait, Vincennes, 2003, for example, Nabil presents himself at edge of a pond, almost entirely hidden but for his bare arm, shoulders and back of his head. The bright azures of reflected light off the water and lime green leaves camouflage his physical form resting in the dark caverns of undergrowth. Similarly, Self Portrait with Roots, Los Angeles, 2008 shows Nabil asleep at the base of sinewy tree roots, head cradled among the curves. His expression is peaceful as he dreams among the surreal forms, the pale blue groundwork weaving through to the earth below. These images speak to the cycles of nature, particularly decomposition, and offeran alluring vision of death.

One of the more complex images making reference to the artist’s mortality is Feels Like Home—Self Portrait, Paris, 2004 in which Nabil stands at the base of a tree trunk with upright thicket tilting in around him. The branch structure, as well as the title of the work, refers to sanctuary—perhaps the sprigs are arranged as protection from the elements. On the other hand, the position of the artist, only his bare-skinned torso shown at the bottom with the vast looming copse above, can also be seen as threatening, the structure created as a funeral pyre. This work is among the few that overtly reveal a fear of isolation and, furthermore, a multifaceted response to mortality. Freud wrote that the “aim of all life is death,” but that does not preclude our deeper fear of it.30 Feels Like Home, by its ominous tone and disquieting setting, offers the artist’s more primal emotions toward human existence.

If images such as Self Portrait with Roots, Los Angeles, 2008 portray Nabil in coalescence with nature and his surroundings, other self-portraits present a more alienated self. He appears as the voyeur, examining the peripheral landscape in discovery of his place within its extremes. In Funfair—Self Portrait, Paris, 2005, a hooded Nabil looks up with a tender expression to an unknown point beyond. Behind him towers a brightly lit Ferris wheel and the illuminations of the funfair, to which he seems completely detached. It is as if the world moves without him, he is fixed in a moment. Self Portrait, Hollywood, 2008 presents a similar narrative as the artist looks off into a richly colored dreamlike environment to the classic Hollywood sign in the far off hills. Nabil selects his surroundings via locations that move him, placeswhere he travels and feels a connection, where he might like to remain forever. 31

In addition to natural motifs and cultural references, religious and spiritual symbolism permeates Nabil’s self-portraits. Whether captured as stars in the sky reflecting tiny particles of sand in Self Portrait, Naples, 2003, or a radiant lantern held among dying leaves in Autumn Self Portrait, Paris, 2004, light is a recurring symbol of spiritual guidance. For Nabil the light of the cinema and the light of the sky is one and the same. It is a frequently used metaphor that conveys a connection with the mystical concept of time and the unknown beyond. Higher and Higher—Self Portrait, Vienna, 2005, an image of the artist climbing stairs toward a distant brightness, can be viewed as a suspenseful series of cinematic stills. But upon consideration, one wonders where he might be going. The scenes can be considered a reference to the artist nearing his d"nouement, the end of his movie, his life. “Dying and the idea of death for Muslim cultures are very present. We think about it all the time—in the Qur’an, in prayer, in the idea that we are here to do something good to accumulate ‘good points’—or Hassanat in Arabic—that allow you to go to heaven. We are only here for a short period of time; this [idea] is always there, in my background, and makes me aware of time.” Nabil, the son of a former Christian turned Muslim, is interested in the unifying core of all religions—not where they separate but where they connect. The angel in the work I Will Never Leave You, Self Portrait, Paris 2007, for instance, is a befitting guardian, a spiritual symbol found in many religions and cultures.32

Though there are interesting points of correlation between Nabil’s work and the history of self-portraiture—the first known self-portrait traces back to the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt33; the first photographed self-portrait, The Drowned (1840), was a pointed reference to death34 —Nabil’s foremost artistic motivations are not necessarily to link his work to the history of selfportraiture. Nor is he particularly interested in physionomical notions of the portrait as the window to the soul. Nor does he consider the images as postmodern portrayals of the fragmented personae. Moreover, one can find little resonance in Nabil’s work with the brash one-note expressions so commonly found in much of today’s contemporary art. Though it is not difficult to situate Nabil’s celebrity portrait photographs in a contemporary context given the desire for fame and self-acknowledgement so prevalent in today’s culture, it is more enriching, and accurate, to locate his practice within a history of North African photographers for whom the medium is “an artifice against death” and a search for the “impasses of the everlasting.” Nabil is one of a long succession of photographers from this region whom curators Okwui Enwezor and Octavio Zaya describe as developing with their images metaphors of lightness and darkness, and an evocation of childhood memories and “a vanishing past.”35 Nabil, instead, uses photography as an “agent of self-determination” like those included in the canonical Guggenheim Museum exhibition In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present that sought to counter preconceived, constructed and distorted Western perceptions of Africa via photography from the second half of the 20th century.36 Nabil is shaping his identity through the act of photographing those who will be remembered for their creative expression, himself among them.

Perhaps Susan Sontag, who in 1978 wrote, “The cult of the future alternates with the wish to return to a more artisanal, purer past—when images still had a handmade quality, an aura,”37 might have predicted the success of Nabil’s imagery and its poignant affect on today’s viewer. Much about Nabil seems to be rooted in an era past—he apprenticed to learn his craft rather than formally studying fine art; he prefers hand coloring to digital manipulation. Likewise, when asked about his connections to the famous figures he befriends and photographs, he remains unexpectedly discreet and charmingly coy. His artistic vision is a refreshing and timely mix of the romantic and the pure, and yet is deceivingly complex. He is less interested in fame as he is in preserving the past, and preserving every moment of his life. The photographs are thus about both absence and presence, about this life and the next. Nabil lives within each image, within cinema, within the people and places he encounters. And reflexively, the images, the cinema, the people and places he encounters, live within him. Each image is Nabil and simultaneously Nabil as other. Writer Simon Njami so eloquently wrote that Nabil is “observing the world with a poetry that transcends time and place.”38 In the photograph, THE END, New York, 2007, Nabil directs the camera to the television. The pixilated image is a frozen moment taken from the screen and then reanimated with vibrant hues. It symbolizes the old and the new. It represents his nostalgic longing for the past, the need to capture what is fleeting, the desire to exist forever. He writes, “The end of my movie would mean I am dead, that I have completed my life.”39 The words drawn onto the photograph BEAUTIFUL, New York, 2007, may be foreshadowing of the final scene. It reads:

I promise you
It will be beautiful
Really beautiful
At the end.

Melissa Messina, Senior Curator, SCAD
Savannah, February 2010

Notes

1. “Photographic Evangels,” On Photography (Picador, New York, 1977), 122. This quote has been used to convey Nabil’s portrait series as an extension of his self-portrait series which will be further analyzed in the essay. In Sontag’s original quote, it must be noted, the author was referring specifically to the work of Dorothea Lange.
2. “Other Selves in Photographic Self-Portraiture,” The Camera I (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California and Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1994), 30.
3. Zaya, Octavio. “Twilight: Unfolding Youssef Nabil’s Desire.” From the catalog Youssef Nabil: I won’t let you die (Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2008), 42.
4. “On the Train from Paris to London, April 12, 2008.” From the catalog Youssef Nabil: I won’t let you die (Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2008), 269.
5. Sobieszek, The Camera and I, 32.
6. “In Plato’s Cave,” On Photography (Picador, New York, 1977), 11.
7. Conversation with the artist, October 2009.
8. Zaya, 40.
9. Donmez-Colin, Gonül. “Introduction,” The Cinema of North America and the Middle East (Wallflower Press, London, 2007), 3.
10. Ibid, 6.
11. “Introduction,” Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class, and Nation (The American University; in Cairo Press, New York, 2006), 2.
12. Ibid, 5.
13. Donmez-Colin, 6.
14. Karnouk, Liliane. “Photography and Video,” Modern Egyptian Art 1910-2003 (The American University in Cairo Press, New York, 2005), 246.
15. Conversation with the artist, October 2009.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. “In Conversation with Faten Hamama.” From the catalog Youssef Nabil: I won’t let you die (Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2008), 32.
19. Conversation with the artist, October 2009.
20. Karnouk, 246.
21. “Dreaming of Egypt: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Cinema,” SubStance, Vol. 18 No. 3, Issue 60 (University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1989), 85.
22. Conversation with the artist, October 2009.
23. Zaya, 41.
24. Conversation with the artist, October 2009.
25. Atlas, Natacha. “The Art of Youssef Nabil.” www.youssefnabil.com/articles/the_art_of_youssef_nabil.html.
26. Sobieszek, 25.
27. Conversation with the artist, October 2009.
28. “The Exhibition.” From the catalog The Self-Portrait in the Age of Photography (University of Houston Press, Texas, 1986), 7.
29. Conversation with the artist, October 2009.
30. Beyond the Pleasure Principle (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1961), 32. Translated by James Strachey.
31. Conversation with the artist, October 2009.
32. Ibid.
33. Edward Lucie-Smith discusses this self-portrait as being part of a narrative relief of Sakkara in his essay, “The Self-Portrait–A Background.” From the exhibition catalog The Self-Portrait: A Modern View (Sarema Press, London, 1987), 8.
34. This piece, also called Portrait of a Drowned Man, is by French artist Hippolyte Bayard as noted by Reed Massengill in his essay “Our Fascination with Revelation.” From the catalog Self-Exposure: The Male Nude Self-Portrait (University Publishing, New York, 2005), 2-3.
35. “Colonial Imagery, Tropes of Disruption: History, Culture and Representation in the Works of African Photographers.” From the exhibition catalog In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1996), 38-40.
36. Bell, Clare. “Introduction.” From the exhibition catalog In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1996), 11.
37. Sontag, “Photographic Evangels,” 124.
38. “The Diary of Youssef Nabil.” www.youssefnabil.com/articles/the_diary_of_youssef_nabil.html.
39. “Alexandria, December 31, 2007”. From the catalog Youssef Nabil: I won’t let you die (Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2008), 7.

 
In conversation with Fanny Ardant
Paris, July 2009

In conversation with Fanny Ardant English

Fanny Ardant: In your work I see cinema, life, death & love. Are these always your concerns?

Youssef Nabil: I grew up in Egypt where cinema is very essential for us, I discovered death through cinema. When I left Egypt, the idea of leaving your country, your family, people you knew and loved, and then going to a new place made me think a lot of life and existence, and not only of my own. But I'd like to know, what do you think of cinema, life, death & love?

F.A: For me, cinema is a distillation of life, it's all what we have without knowing it, all what we've got. In cinema, I have the impression of living intensely because I know that it won't last forever, life too won't last forever. Life is like moments in a movie, it's like having a beginning, a middle and an ending, it's a privileged moments, almost painful, almost happy, but it won't last. The roles I've play in cinema are ones whose character I loved. I loved these women that I've interpreted, and suddenly they're no longer characters, but they are me.

When I hear “action”, there is this silent moment where I feel that I am entering into a dark tunnel. I dive into it, like into water, without knowing. The cinema has this magic. When I go to see a movie - as a spectator - I like to be told a story, to enter the universe of someone, it's unlike reading a novel, or listening to an Opera, or going to the theatre. In cinema, images tell you the story, tell you where to look. When I am asked “which movie you will take with you in a deserted island,” I cannot answer it because they're so many. It is like having a mix of so many different things in one glass, then you see them all falling in the bottom of the glass. I think we are made of this. We are all that is in the bottom without knowing it…

Life. We live life, with its happiness and sadness, and after so much living, when you talk about life, you talk about what you believed in, it's not exactly what you have lived and gone through, but it is what you believed in. I don't think you could use words to described what you lived, it's never clear, it's very foggy from this distance. I think what you believed in when you were 14 yrs old, you will believe in for the rest of your life, not just in an innocent way. You can't change life, but you could look at it differently. I think we have to see life like embarking on a big vacation, like when we were children. On holiday I never used to waste a day, but also we should learn to let go. When someone says, “this is not reality”, I say “but what is reality?” Your reality is your way of looking at things. Life is like a bow and arrow , we always look and aim for the perfect target, but at the end, maybe all the story behind life is to be the bow, it was never the target that was interesting, but to try to find it.

Death. I always remember the line from a poem ”Whatever the reason we succumb for, death is not death” of Mayakovsky. And I always believed in that, that death is not death. I faced death with people I knew who died, but I always said to myself, that the people I've loved will never really die, because I keep them within me, I will talk to them every day, I will let them exist every day, for me they are present and as important as the living ones, maybe more. In the Catholicism, there is this idea that we must believe in the visible and invisible worlds. Since I was a young girl, for me both exist. For example, in the world of dreams, when I wake up after a dream I feel like there was no difference; what was the difference between a dream and reality? Nothing! I have lived at night, in my dreams, that what is important for me.

Like you, I also think and talk a lot about death, never in a morbid way. When my brother died, I was desperate, then at the funeral, I saw earth, I saw his coffin going inside earth, and that was a consolation, as if earth has received him, welcomed him, letting him sleep. For my own death, I wonder if I will be afraid? Maybe, at the very last moment of my life. I was always afraid about the death of others, but not of mine. Death is the big story of life in the same way it is in cinema and being on a shoot: we know about it from the beginning, we know that it will end. I think when death comes, someone will look back at life and say “was it only this?” When people speak about ghosts, I always dream that my parents will come back, and I will be able to see them next to my bed, talk to them again and be able to see things that other people can't see. You know the famous poem by Racine - “my nights are more beautiful than your days?” I agree with that, we have the possibility to say “no, this doesn't interest me, I have another parallel life.”

Love makes you go crazy, love is what we wait for all the time, and at the same time waiting for love is already love. We think that we always want to build, and that love destroys. This is how I see love and that we must accept, accept to be destroyed, and accept that we don't have to try to re-build ourselves again. Love is a malediction and a benediction. When it destroys you, it makes you see other new things. It makes you feel life in a different way, you become like an animal. But when I think of the kind of Love that changes you completely, to the point that you no longer are the same person you were before, I think this love lasts for a moment, like thunder. But still, we must live for that, we mustn't look for serenity. It's like taking a train that will never pass by again, it's like receiving a gift from life, even if this might destroy you. You must take it, accept it.

Paris, 27th July 2009

Carte postale du Caire adressée à Youssef Nabil le 31 Mars 2009
by Frédéric Mitterrand, Rome, March 2009

Carte postale du Caire adressée à Youssef Nabil le 31 Mars 2009 Italian

« Caro Youssef, so che non ci conosciamo, ma abbiamo alcuni sentimenti comuni che ci avvicinano. Quando cammino per le vie della sua città natale, che i turisti attraversano senza mai guardare davvero, sempre in corsa tra il museo e le piramidi, la dimensione romanzesca dell’Egitto moderno mi sembra estremamente toccante e commovente; quella delle prime khedive, del canale di Suez, di Fouad e di Farouk, dei patrioti e degli ufficiali liberi, di Nasser e di Oum Kalsoum riuniti in una prodigiosa sinfonia visiva che il cinema egiziano ha saputo rendere così bene, sin dalla nascita. In occidente, grazie a un pugno di cinefili avventurieri, tra i quali c’ero anch’io, a questo cinema è stato riconosciuto oggi il giusto valore e nomi come Marie Queenie, Asmahan, Leila Mourad, Farid el Atrash o Mohammed Abdel Wahab hanno finalmente raggiunto l’olimpo della settima arte universale. Lei era ancora un ragazzo quando questi iniziavano a svanire dagli schermi, ma la televisione, questo lucernario onnipresente e fragile aperto sul passato, le ha permesso di conoscerli e di farsi cullare dai loro canti, le danze e i sentimenti amorosi nel loro universo innocente e incantatore.

Come lei li ho amati e conosciuti nel momento in cui rischiavano di essere dimenticati e sono enormemente felice di constatare che lei oggi li guarda con i miei stessi occhi, trionfanti sulla morte e muniti di eredi che seguono le loro orme. Ha fotografato Faten Hamama, stella tutelare del cinema, e il presente non può che avere la meglio sulla nostalgia; io ho chiesto a Van Leo, che lei avrà senz’altro conosciuto, di fotografare Dalida mentre girava con Youssef Chahine ed è un’immagine che non si cancella: così, sia io che lei, abbiamo seminato riferimenti che derivano da un medesimo amore e che saranno forse utili ad arricchire la memoria dei bambini del futuro.

Il passato non muore mai, quando si è coscienti della prossimità della morte imprevedibile; allora nel riprodurlo gli si dà tutta la luce e il colore della nostra voglia di vivere. Così non somiglia più a come è stato realmente, ma ci si scivola dentro, proprio come fa lei, magari salendo delle scale, o incamminandosi verso il mare, o risvegliandosi dai propri sogni. Il passato rimane, continua a esistere; si muove al ritmo dei nostri slanci e di quel percorso tanto oscuro e pieno di passione che è la nostra vita quotidiana.

Ammiro e amo profondamente il suo lavoro e so bene che non si rivolge unicamente a me. Senz’altro, qua e là nel mondo, ci si riconoscono molte altre persone che non ho mai incontrato. Lei rappresenta l’amico dei miei ricordi e dei miei sogni, che mi portano verso un mondo che segretamente mi appartiene e nel quale non mi sento più solo perché ora posso trovarci lei. »

Cartolina scritta di fronte al palazzo Abdine dove Natacha Atlas ha appena finito di cantare per la regina Farida e per le sorelle di Farouk; sequenza illuminata da Togo Mizrahi e diretta da Salah Abouseif. O forse invece era Tahia Carioca, in fuga dall’Hotel Sheperd’s dopo avervi depositato un mucchio di volantini invocanti la rivoluzione contro gli inglesi (un film de Henri Barakhat) o forse ancora era Samia Gamal, che danzava sui gradini della pagoda di Heliopolis (intravista da Yousry Nasrallah)…

Frédéric Mitterrand
Direttore dell’Accademia di Francia a Roma
Roma, marzo 2009

Carte postale du Caire adressée à Youssef Nabil le 31 Mars 2009 French

« Cher Youssef, nous ne nous connaissons pas mais je crois que nous partageons beaucoup de sentiments qui devraient nous rapprocher. Lorsque je marche dans les rues de votre ville natale que les touristes traversent sans jamais la regarder, courant du musée aux pyramides, c’est toute la dimension romanesque de l’Egypte moderne qui me touche et m’émeut le plus ; celle des premiers khédives, du canal de Suez, de Fouad et de Farouk, des patriotes et des officiers libres, de Nasser et d’Oum Kalsoum rassemblés dans une prodigieuse symphonie visuelle dont le cinéma égyptien a si bien rendu compte depuis sa naissance. En Occident, grâce à une poignée de cinéphiles aventureux dont je faisais partie ce cinéma est désormais reconnu à sa juste valeur et les noms de Marie Queenie, Asmahan, Leila Mourad, Farid el Atrash ou Mohammed Abdel Wahab ont enfin rejoint le panthéon du septième art universel. Lorsque vous étiez enfant et alors qu’ils s’évanouissaient peu à peu des écrans, la télévision vous a permis de les connaître, lucarne omniprésente et fragile ouverte sur le passé, et c’est grâce à elle qu’ils ont pu vous bercer des chants, des danses et des émotions amoureuses de leur univers innocent et enchanteur.

Je les ai connus et aimés comme vous à l’heure où ils risquaient d’être oubliés et je suis si heureux de constater que vous les regardiez aujourd’hui comme je les regarde, triomphant de la mort et pourvus d’héritiers qui marchent sur leurs traces. Vous photographiez Faten Hamama, star tutélaire du cinéma et le présent l’emporte aussitôt sur la nostalgie ; j’avais demandé à Van Leo, que vous avez certainement du connaître, de photographier Dalida quand elle tournait avec Youssef Chahine et cette image ne s’efface pas : ainsi nous avons l’un et l’autre semé des repères qui procèdent d’un même amour et qui serviront peut être aux enfants du futur pour enrichir leur mémoire.

Le passé ne meurt jamais quand on a conscience de la proximité de la mort imprévisible; on lui donne alors toutes les couleurs et les éclairages de notre désir de vivre en le mettant en scène. Il ne ressemble plus tout à fait à ce qu’il était ; on se glisse en lui comme vous le faites en montant un escalier, en marchant vers la mer, en étant le dormeur éveillé par ses rêves, mais il demeure, il continue à exister, il bouge encore au rythme de nos élans et du parcours si obscur et si passionné de notre existence quotidienne.

J’admire et j’aime profondément votre travail et je sais qu’il ne s’adresse pas uniquement à moi. Ici ou là, des gens que je n’ai pas rencontrés se reconnaissent assurément en lui. Vous êtes l’ami inconnu de mes souvenirs et de mes songes, ils me conduisent vers un monde qui m’appartient secrètement et où je ne suis plus seul puisque je vous y retrouve. »

Carte écrite en face du palais Abdine où Natacha Atlas vient de chanter pour la reine Farida et les sœurs de Farouk ; séquence éclairée par Togo Mizrahi et mise en scène par Salah Abouseif. Mais peut être s’agissait-il plutôt de Tahia Carioca s’échappant de l’hôtel Sheperd’s après y avoir déposé des tracts appelant à la révolution contre les anglais (un film de Henri Barakhat) ou de Samia Gamal dansant sur les marches de la pagode d’Héliopolis (entrevue par Yousry Nasrallah)…

Frédéric Mitterrand
Directeur de l’Académie de France à Rome
Rome, mars 2009

In dream and memory: Youssef Nabil
by Mark Gisbourne, Berlin, January 2009

In Dream and Memory English

I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or merely dreamed it…

Eugene Ionesco Present Past-Past Present (1968)


The hand-coloured photographs of Youssef Nabil are a personal aesthetic form of life in death and death in life – they are both memory and living memorial. As with all photographic portraiture, and as Roland Barthes long ago observed, there is always a form of initial death in a photograph. Insomuch as all photographs, and particularly portraits, are of a moment or passage of time that is no more. They portray inevitably a lost reality – a once-truth that has turned into a present-fiction. Yet with the use of a complex hand-colouring approach (a system first mastered and used in the early period of photography in the 1840s) Nabil's photographs are able create a metaphorical elision of the obvious sense of time and fixity. Nabil himself makes the poetic point clear "…and that everything is changing too, including us. I want to photograph everything I love, I want to keep part of them with me, I want them to live forever through my work."

His early works draw on close analogies with film, and particularly Egyptian film stars and sources of the 1940s and 50s, where Nabil evokes a feeling of displaced sensibility brought into the present. It is almost as if the glamorous film age lifestyle of the bon vivant King Farouk's Egypt has been somehow miraculously been restaged. The sitters take on a appropriated form of estranged re-embodiment and presence, that carefully manipulates Western and Orientalist tropes of pre-imagined perception. Inferences of dreams, desires and their projections, the sexual unconscious, and personalised identifications follow. There is also a strong sense of nostalgic loss, and an intense yearning for an authentic 'otherness' within the photography of Nabil. The sitters are thereby drawn out and visually magnified through a feeling of opaque beauty, and the familiar time-space of the images escape into a hazy oblivion of undefined duration.

Nabil's intimate self-portraiture is closely linked to dream and the desire-illusions that the cinema of the past was so readily able to create, and with which he intimately identifies. Indeed, at times the self-portraits of Nabil appear to parallel the world of extracted film stills. His use of male beauty, both his own and that of his sitters, creates a unblemished series of fantasy images. They are images that at times touch upon the Caravagesque, but without the Baroque sense of blighted infection. In recent years there has been an increased concentration on bust portraiture of international artists, writers, and film celebrities. These include Louise Bourgeois, Mona Hatoum, Tracey Emin, Shirin Neshat, Ghada Amer and Julian Schnabel, and such film luminaries as David Lynch and John Waters. However, for Nabil the choices are shaped as much by shared interests and personal friendships rather than fame, "I don't want to see anyone I love dying… I won't let them die before me"

Hand-coloured prints in the early twentieth century were associated with commercial portrait photography and with popular forms of artistic transmission. It is a major achievement of the photography of Youssef Nabil that he has been able to redeem a forgotten and meagre art form, and transform its use and understanding into 'high' or fine art The effect is a unique fusion of photography and painting, one that mediates the space between Photo-realism on the one hand, and the conventions of film and/or portrait photography on the other.

Mark Gisbourne
Berlin, January 2009

Pale fires
by Pier Luigi Tazzi, Bangkok, Summer 2009

Pale fires italian

Pier Luigi Tazzi

A Ball e a Yo, a John e a Chai, e ai loro baci perduti.
Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase, London 2003, p.299.

Ho appena finito di leggere un romanzo di Murakami Haruki pubblicato ben ventisette anni fa e che, non so come, mi era sfuggito.
Il libro, che ho letto nella versione inglese di Alfred Birnbaum, e che mi ha accompagnato per alcuni giorni, e alcune notti soprattutto, termina in questo modo:

I walked along the river to its mouth. I sat down on the last fifty yards of the beach, and I cried. I never cried so much in my life.
I brushed the sand from my trousers and got up, as if I had somewhere to go.
The day had all but ended. I could hear the sound of waves as I started to walk.

Sono ancora a Bangkok nella stessa stanza che avevo occupato anni fa e che, per caso, mi è stata assegnata di nuovo quando qui mi sono trasferito dopo aver perduto l'appartamento che avevo fino a poco più di un mese fa in questa città.
La notte devo stare attento a catturare il sonno, prima che l'insonnia prenda il sopravvento.
Ma ieri sera, dopo la cena con Maitree ad Ari, ero talmente stanco e privo di energia che sono rientrato presto e mi sono addormentato subito.
Stamani al mio risveglio ho finito il romanzo.

Tutto questo mi sembra aver a che fare con le atmosfere che vengono evocate in certe opere di Youssef Nabil, in specie in alcuni suoi autoritratti che hanno per sfondo il mare o la città di notte, o in quelli in cui ci appare a letto in una qualche stanza d'albergo, in fondo non tanto diversa dalla mia di ora. Forse è per quel senso di perdita, di malinconia, di solitudine, che trascorre il suo universo melo-cinematografico.

Viviamo in un'epoca in cui la cultura e la pratica dell'arte hanno subito profondi, e spesso improvvisi, cambiamenti nel corso degli ultimi quindici/venti anni, e questi processi di mutazione sono tuttora in corso. Un periodo alla fine brevissimo rispetto alla mole molteplice della storia che ci ha preceduto. Un'epoca in cui tradizioni antichissime, di cui alcune variamente interrotte, e penso a quella egiziana - egizia, alessandrina, romana, islamica, coloniale, post-coloniale -, penso a quelle di altre regioni quali la Cina o il Giappone, vengono a "precipitare", nel senso chimico del termine, su un presente in rapido movimento, su cui pesa il modello vincente della civiltà occidentale, quella civiltà che si andata evolvendo a partire dalla fine del XII secolo dell'era cristiana fino alla fine del XX, e che ha inciso una marca di trasformazione che ha investito, ed investe, tutto il pianeta.
Per quanto poi riguarda l'area specifica della cultura - la civiltà occidentale presenta un modello culturale preciso in stretta e diretta connessione con essa e di cui essa è esito ed espressione -, a rendere il quadro ancora più complesso e articolato concorrono molti altri fattori, di cui qui mi preme puntualizzarne due in particolare. Uno è costituito dalla estrema velocità dei processi di trasformazione, e non parlo tanto di quei quindici/venti anni di cui sopra, quanto del fatto che questi processi siano ancora in atto e non tendano a decelerare il passo. Questo comporta l'emergenza di tutta una serie di soluzioni, di risultati insieme parziali ed effimeri, che appaiono in aperto contrasto sia con la linearità evolutiva che ha caratterizzato il progredire del modello occidentale nella sua storia, sia con quelle linee di continuità e di permanenza che sono state alla base di una grande varietà di culture non-europee, reciprocamente separate, di diverso grado di evoluzione e sofisticazione, e di maggiore o minore radicamento nelle rispettive aree di diffusione. Questa emergenza implica molteplici conseguenze, fra cui mi preme anzitutto, e non solo a titolo esemplificativo, ma perché attinenti allo scopo di questa scrittura, pur nella sua occasionalità, indicarne parimenti due intimamente congiunte fra loro. Quella attinente alla distinzione fra lingua e vernacolo che si fa meno netta, così come quella parallela, tenuta in gran considerazione nel modello occidentale, fra cultura alta e cultura bassa, fra high e low, fra specialistico e divulgativo, fra elitario e popolare. La necessità immediata di dare espressione al fino ad allora inespresso, l'apertura subitanea ad un universo di possibilità di comunicazione, tanto ampio quanto mai è stato nella storia di qualsiasi umana cultura, contribuiscono a motivare queste confluenze.
L'altro fattore determinante è costituito dall'essere il modello occidentale, fin dal principio, sempre accompagnato da molteplici mitologie, che non ne riducono tanto il senso, quanto ne provocano deformità, più o meno momentanee, che hanno poi un certo peso, ancora una volta, non tanto sul suo sviluppo, quanto sui suoi modi di apparire. Consideriamo, ad esempio, la mitologia dell'Essere Moderni, quella dell'Arte Moderna, quella dell'Arte Contemporanea, che sono altro sia dalla modernità che dall'arte. Consideriamo quelle del Successo, del Glamour, dell'Attualità, della Moda. Tutte queste mitologie, ed altre ancora, con il loro quoziente di illusioni e di immediata seduzione, hanno effetti macroscopici su atteggiamenti, comportamenti e pratiche operative specie quando agiscono in situazioni deboli e marginali, quali ad esempio la condizione dei giovani o le culture che hanno sofferto un più lungo e duraturo isolamento rispetto a quelle dominanti. L'effetto mitico finisce con il produrre ibridazioni, il cui valore è, spesso ma non sempre, eminentemente fenomenologico, senza con questo contribuire in maniera sostanziale ad un effettivo sviluppo in termini espressivi, comunicativi, linguistici ed estetici. E' chiaro tuttavia che, benché tale sia il trend generale, ci sono molte e valide eccezioni a questa regola.

L'arte di Youssef Nabil riflette di fatto questo stato di cose.

Nabil è egiziano, di padre cristiano, mezzo greco e mezzo libanese, la madre di famiglia musulmana. Lui nasce cristiano e si converte all'islam all'età di trent'anni. Nel corso dei suoi primi due decenni di vita l'Egitto conserva ancora tracce di quel grosso miscuglio di razze (Arabi, Ebrei, Greci, Armeni) e di religioni (Islam e Cristianesimo nelle varie e rispettive confessioni), in specie nelle grandi città del Cairo, dove l'artista nasce nel 1972, e di Alessandria. Fin da piccolo è affascinato dal cinema, in particolare da quello egiziano dagli Anni Quaranta in avanti, che vede soprattutto in televisione. Studia Letteratura Francese alla Ain Shams University, ma è già determinato a diventare fotografo. Fra il 1993 e il 1994 è con David Lachapelle a New York, dal 1997 al 1998 con Mario Testino a Parigi. Nel 2003 lascia il Cairo per Parigi. Attualmente vive a New York.
Se erano stati il disegno e la pittura i suoi primi mezzi espressivi, poi è subito fotografia: una prima macchina prestatagli da un amico, i primi set allestiti nella camera da letto che divide con il fratello gemello. Si tratta perlopiù di ritratti e autoritratti, questi ultimi a partire dal 1993, in messe in scena accuratamente preparate che riecheggiano la sua passione per il cinema. Ma tutte sono fotografie dipinte a mano dove vengono a confluire i riferimenti diretti al Technicolor, alla cartellonistica cinematografica di un tempo, alle foto di famiglia realizzate con la medesima tecnica e di largo uso in Egitto fino a tutti gli anni Ottanta.
Il periodo di formazione e di crescita artistica di Nabil sono gli anni Novanta, il decennio nel corso del quale l'universo dell'arte si apre a tutte le aree del pianeta. Per lui questa apertura significa prima il Cairo, poi New York e Parigi. La sua base di partenza è un territorio di grande storia, una storia perduta di cui restano tracce grandiose, quella degli antichi Egizi, e una storia, quella islamica, che sollecita un modello differente da quello, ormai vincente, dell'Occidente: un contesto alla fine marginale rispetto al Grande Mondo, ma centrale nel proprio ambito geopolitico, cosmopolita nella propria molteplicità razziale religiosa e culturale, ombreggiato da nuance orientalistiche quanto mai seducenti.

La fascinazione del cinema come quella delle grandi mitologie del nostro tempo, lo stardom, il glamour, come la credenza del potere perpetuante dell'immagine, producono nella sua arte quel senso di nostalgia per un tipo di mondo e di esistenza che sembra vertiginosamente allontanarsi nello spazio e nel tempo, fino al punto di apparire di non essere mai stato e di non poter essere. L'esperienza si converte nella sua arte in vagheggiamento desiderante, in sogno arabescato, in memoria destinata a sbiadirsi nel tempo. Proprio la memoria appare allora come tratto fondamentale di tutto il suo lavoro, una memoria che sembra funzionare come quei vetri colorati che filtrano la luce dalle finestre o dalle lampade nelle moschee e tinteggiano i loro interni di un'irrealtà fantasmagorica.

Oggi, nel pomeriggio inoltrato, nella stanza d'albergo che occupo dopo che ho perduto il mio appartamento, sono stato colto da una felicità così pervasiva, che ho dovuto farmi una doccia. Era stato come girare l'angolo di una strada e scoprire un mondo di densa intensità, e avere l'intima certezza che quello che si manifesta all'improvviso davanti a te è il mondo a cui appartieni e di cui senti dentro di te la pienezza.

Pochi fatti nella vita di un uomo hanno l'intensità dell'amore.

Non so quanto questo riguardi l'opera di Nabil, se non per l'effetto di quelle luci, la luce dei tramonti, quelle lontane della città, che l'artista pone come sfondo alla propria figura vista di spalle, le spalle nude. Il suo corpo si staglia, nudo, contro questi fondali che, dipinti, hanno un che di posticcio, ma che allo stesso tempo veicolano, nella loro ostentata inautenticità, un senso di perdita e insieme di scettica certezza che quei momenti di pura, inconclusa, bellezza sono "quel che resta del giorno".
Che è la traduzione italiana del titolo del più noto romanzo di Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains of the Day, a cui qui si fa riferimento non tanto per il contenuto, quanto proprio per questo suo suggestivo titolo.

In una conversazione fra Nabil e l'attrice egiziana Faten Hamama, che aveva avuto luogo al Cairo nel luglio del 2008, l'artista dichiara di aver mutuato l'idea della morte, che costituisce tanta parte della sua poetica, dal cinema egiziano che aveva appassionatamente guardato fin da bambino in televisione.
Roland Barthes nel suo magnifico libro sulla fotografia, La Chambre clair, collega questo mezzo di rappresentazione non tanto alla pittura, quanto al teatro, e questo, a sua volta, all'idea della morte. La pittura nella tradizione dell'arte occidentale, da Giotto all'Abstract Expressionism americano, è trascorsa da un anelito di vita, sia in termini di rappresentazione che di azione, fino al momento in cui proprio la fotografia entra a far parte dei suoi strumenti di elaborazione, da Andy Warhol a Marlene Dumas o a Peter Doig. Ed è allora che un senso di morte vi si infiltra e la attraversa, senza tuttavia prendere il sopravvento, ché l'atto e i materiali della pittura finiscono sempre con il "presentificare" quel che è stato, il ça a été barthesiano, dandogli nuova vita mediante lo splendore dell'arte.
Anche l'immagine fin dalle sue origini più remote - la pittura rupestre di Lascaux e di Altamira, la figurazione pittorica e plastica degli antichi Egizi, la nascita della scultura greca, la vasta e differenziata plastica delle culture animistiche in ogni angolo del pianeta - attinge all'idea della morte come immanente alla vita e costituisce l'esito iconico di una tale consapevolezza, che sembra distinguere l'uomo dalle altre specie viventi. Si tratta a volte di apparati di celebrazione rituale della morte stessa a fini apotropaici, iniziatici o propiziatori. Si tratta altre volte di aperta sfida come affermazione di ciò che resta aldilà di essa nella memoria, individuale e collettiva, e nella cultura trasmissibile dell'uomo. La scultura in particolare, con la sua occupazione di uno spazio concreto, con il proprio ingombro fisico e l'evidenza dei suoi materiali, costituisce un'ineludibile presenza nello spazio della vita mentre viene vissuta e non solo ricordata.
Ogni figurazione alla fine è una sfida alla morte, più che un suo memento: la certificazione di una presenza contro l'inevitabilità della perdita, di ogni perdita, e del dissolvimento. E tutta l'arte, come oggi l'intendiamo ormai a livello planetario, ruota intorno a questa idea, che è espressione di un desiderio, di una passione, più di quanto non sia un concetto.

LL'arte di Nabil ha a che fare con tutto questo. Il suo diario per immagini, di sé e di altri, le sue microstorie melanconiche, la costante espressione di una nostalgia da glamourous nomad - "I never really left Egypt, I really never left anyone."- si rifanno a tutto questo. Le sue fantasie e il suo immaginario si traducono in icone che le attuali mitologie, da quella ad esempio del Successo, da quello cinematografico - da Faten Hamami e Omar Sharif a David Lynch - a quello del Mondo dell'Arte - da Louise Bourgeois e Marina Abramovic a Nan Goldin -, a quella dei luoghi della Beautiful Life - da Parigi a Hollywood e Beverly Hills, da Rio de Janeiro alla Sardegna -, connotano in maniera determinante nello stesso modo in cui le attraversano un certo tipo di decadente erotismo, una sensualità estenuata spesso autoreferenziale, un ostentato esotismo - siamo sempre altrove -, un senso di solitudine che si riflette specie nelle scene che fanno da sfondo agli autoritratti. Ogni immagine appare nella sua irrealtà, nella sua determinata presa di distanza dalla flagranza della pur vissuta esperienza - nulla è vero, si tratta di un film -, mentre resta la sensazione sottilmente dolorosa del dissolvimento che sembra già essere in atto: immagini fatue, nel significato che questo termine possiede nell'espressione e nel concetto di "fuoco fatuo".
Gli stereotipi di un orientalismo desiderante che sembra appena trascorso, quelli della cultura di massa e della moda attuali, ombreggiati da un'obsolescenza già in atto come un male oscuro, interagiscono con uno statuto stilistico che marca una differenza e rendono l'opera di Nabil come retrodatata. L'apparente inattualità che ne consegue è la differenza.

Sono ancora qui, in questa stanza di un modesto albergo vicino a Siam Square. Ogni sera dalle otto un musicista thai intrattiene i clienti nel ristorante dell'albergo eseguendo canzoni sentimentali perlopiù cinesi. Jeab mi ha raccomandato di fermarmi ad ascoltarlo, ma non ci sono ancora riuscito: è sempre troppo tardi, o sono sempre troppo stanco.

Ogni giorno mi racconto storie che, il giorno appresso, alla minima verifica, perdono ogni credibilità. E allora mi dico che non so più quel che sento, pur continuando a sentire. Anche loro mi raccontano della loro insonnia.
Né loro né io tuttavia siamo riusciti ancora a trovare un aggiustamento plausibile.

Forse tutto questo non c'entra per niente con l'arte di Nabil.
Ma è qui che ho pensato e scritto il testo su di lui che state leggendo. Le sue immagini di donne più forti e più belle, donne e immagini, quelle di Fifi e di Tracey Emin, quella di Zaha Hadid e quella di Mona Hatoum e quella di Latifa, hanno abitato questa stanza. E i suoi autoritratti in camere d'albergo non molto diverse da questa hanno minacciato le mie notti: come fanno gli specchi.

Pier Luigi Tazzi
Bangkok, estate 2009.

Pale fires english

Pier Luigi Tazzi

To Ball and Yoyo, to John and Chai, and to their lost kisses.
Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase, London 2003, p.299.

 

I have just finished reading Murakami Haruki's novel, published twenty-seven years ago, and which, for some reason, had escaped me.
The book, which I read in Alfred Birnbaum's English version, and which kept me company for a few days but mainly for a few nights, ends as follows:

I walked along the river to its mouth. I sat down on the last fifty yards of the beach, and I cried. I never cried so much in my life.
I brushed the sand from my trousers and got up, as if I had somewhere to go.
The day had all but ended. I could hear the sound of waves as I started to walk.

I am in Bangkok again, in the same room where I stayed years ago and which, quite by chance, was assigned to me again when I moved here after losing the apartment where I had lived until a little over a month ago in this city.
At night I have to make sure I fall asleep before insomnia gets the better of me.
But yesterday evening, after dinner with Maitree in Ari, I was so tired and lacking energy that I came back early and fell asleep straight away.
This morning I awoke and finished the novel.

All this seems to have something to do with the atmospheres recalled in Youssef Nabil's works, particularly in some of his self-portraits which have the sea or the city by night as their setting, or in those where he appears in bed in a hotel room, not very different from mine now. Perhaps it is because of that sense of loss, of melancholy, of solitude that he moved in his melo-cinematographic universe.

We live in an era in which culture and the practice of art have undergone profound, and often unexpected changes over the last fifteen/twenty years, and these processes of change are still underway. Undoubtedly a very brief period when compared with the enormous mass of history that has preceded us. A period of time in which ancient traditions, some of which interrupted in various ways, and here I refer to the Egypt - Ancient Egyptian, Alexandrine, Roman, Islamic, colonial, post-colonial, to those of other regions like China and Japan, "precipitate", in the chemical sense of the word, on the rapidly moving present, on which the weight of the winning model of Western Civilization lies heavy, that civilization which has been evolving since the end of the XII to the end of the XX century of the Christian Era, and has left a mark of change that has had, and is having, repercussions on the entire planet.
But with regard to the specific area of culture - Western Civilization has a precise model of culture closely and directly connected to it, and of which it is the outcome and expression - many other factors come into play to complicate the already complex and articulated scenario, of which I shall mention two in particular. One is the extreme speed of the processes of change, and here I refer not so much to the fifteen/twenty years mentioned earlier as to the fact that these processes are still underway and show no signs of decelerating their pace. This leads to the emergence of a series of solutions, of partial and ephemeral results that appear to be in open contrast with the evolutionary linearity that has characterized the progress of the Western Model and with those lines of continuity and permanence which were at the basis of a wide variety of reciprocally separate non-European cultures at different stages of evolution and sophistication and rooted to a greater or lesser degree in their respective areas of diffusion. This emergence gives rise to numerous consequences, among which, firstly, and not merely by way of example, but rather because it concerns the purpose of this text, I shall indicate two that are closely inter-related. One regards the distinction between language and vernacular which is becoming less clear-cut, like the parallel distinction, held in great consideration in the Western Model, between high and low culture, between specialist and general, between elite and popular. The immediate need to give expression to what was hitherto unexpressed, and the sudden opening up to a universe of communication possibilities, broader than ever before in the history of human culture, contribute to motivating these confluences..
The other determinant factor is that from the outset it is the western model, invariably accompanied by multiple mythologies, which instead of reducing its sense, provoke more or less fleeting deformities, which carry a certain weight, again, not so much on its development, as on its ways of appearing. Consider for example, the mythology of the Modern Being, of Modern Art, of Contemporary Art, which differ both from modernity and art. Consider those of Success, Glamour, Topicality, Fashion. All these mythologies, and others too, with their share of illusions and immediate seduction, have macroscopic effects on attitudes, behaviours and practices, particularly when they operate in weak and marginal situations, as for example the condition of young people or cultures that have undergone longer-lasting isolation compared with the dominant ones. The mythical effect ends by producing hybridization, the value of which is often, though not always, predominantly phenomenological, without however contributing substantially to an effective development in expressive, communicative, linguistic and aesthetic terms. It is clear, however, that although this is the general trend, there are many valid exceptions to the rule.

The art of Youssef Nabil reflects this state of things.

Nabil is Egyptian, with a half-Greek, half-Lebanese Christian father, and a Muslim mother. Born a Christian, Nabil's father converted to Islam when he was thirty. During the first two decades of his life Egypt still preserved traces of that great mixture of races (Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians) and religions (Islam and Christianity in their various respective professings), especially in the big cities of Cairo, where the artist was born in 1972 in Cairo. Already as a child he was fascinated by the cinema, particularly Egyptian films from the 'forties onwards, which he saw mainly on the television. He studied French literature at Ain Shams University, but had already made up his mind to become a photographer. Between 1993 and 1994 he was with David Lachapelle in New York, from 1997 to 1998 with Mario Testino in Paris. In 2003 he left Cairo for Paris. He now lives in New York.
Although drawing and painting were his first means of expression, he soon turned to photography: his first camera lent to him by a friend, his first sets in the bedroom he shared with his twin brother. For the most part they were portraits and self-portraits, the latter from 1993 on, in carefully prepared settings that echoed his passion for the cinema. They were all hand-painted photographs with a convergence of direct references to Technicolor, to film posters of the past, to family photographs created with the same technique and widely used in Egypt throughout the 'eighties.
Artistically speaking, Nabil developed in the 'nineties, the decade during which the universe of art opened up to all areas of the planet. For him this period of openness meant first Cairo, then New York and Paris. His point of departure was a land of great history, a lost history of which significant traces remain, that of the Ancient Egyptians, and that of Islam, which prompted a different model from the Western one: all in all a marginal context compared with the Great World, but central in its geopolitical sphere, cosmopolitan in its variety of races, religions and cultures, overshadowed by seductive Oriental nuances.

The fascination of the cinema, like that of the great mythologies of our times, Stardom, Glamour, like the belief in image-perpetuating power, produce in his art that sense of nostalgia for a type of world and existence that appears rapidly to recede into space and time, to the point of appearing never to have existed. In his art, experience is converted into contemplation, into an arabesque dream, a memory destined to fade in time. And it is precisely memory that appears as a fundamental trait in all his work, a memory that appears to function like coloured glass that filters light through windows or from lamps in the mosques, colouring their interiors with phantasmagorical unreality.

Today, in the late afternoon, in the hotel room where I am staying after losing my apartment, I was seized by such pervasive happiness that I had to take a shower. It was like turning the corner of a road and discovering a world of dense intensity, and having the inner certainty that what suddenly appears before you is the world to which you belong and of which you feel the fullness within.

Few events in the life of man have the intensity of love.

I do not know how much this concerns Nabil's work, other than the effect of those lights, the glow of sunsets, the lights of a distant city, which the artist uses as a background to his own figure, seen bare-shouldered from behind. His bare body is silhouetted against these backdrops which, painted, seem almost artificial, while at the same time, in their overt inauthenticity they convey a sense of loss together with a sceptical certainty that those moments of pure, inconclusive beauty are "the remains of the day"

In a conversation between Nabil and Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, which took place in Cairo in July 2008 , the artist declared he had borrowed the idea of death, so often present in his poetics, from Egyptian films which he had so passionately watched on television since he was a child.
In his magnificent book on photography, La Chambre clair, Roland Barthes links this means of representation not so much to painting as to the theatre, and this in turn, to the idea of death. Painting in traditional Western Art, from Giotto to American Abstract Expressionism, is permeated by a breath of life, both in terms of representation and action, until precisely photography becomes part of the tools of elaboration, from Andy Warhol to Marlene Dumas or Peter Doig. It is then that a sense of death infiltrates and penetrates within, without however getting the upper hand, because the act and the materials of painting always end by presenting what has been, what Barthes defined as ça a été, breathing new life through the splendour of art.
Images too, from their remotest origins - Lascaux and Altamira cave painting, the pictorial and plastic figures of the Ancient Egyptians, the origin of classic Greek sculpture, the vast and differentiated plastic art of animistic cultures in every corner of the earth - draw on the idea of death as immanent to life and are the iconic results of an awareness that appears to distinguish man from the other living species. Sometimes these are apparatuses for the celebration of death rites for apotropaic, esoteric or propitiatory ends. Other times they are an open challenge as an affirmation of what remains beyond death in the individual and collective memory and in man's transmissible culture. Sculpture, in particular, with its occupation of concrete space, its physical encumbrance and the evidence of its materials, is an inescapable presence in the space of life as it is lived and not just remembered.
At the end, every figuration is a challenge to death rather than a memento: the certification of a presence against the inevitability of loss, of every loss and of dissolution. And all art, as we now intend it at planetary level, centres on this idea, which is an expression of desire, of passion, rather than being a concept.

Nabil's art concerns all this. His diary of images, of himself and of others, his melancholic micro-stories, his constant expression of a glamorous nomad nostalgia - "I never really left Egypt, I really never left anyone." - refer to all this. His fantasies and imagination translate into icons which present-day mythologies, as for example Success, the Cinema, from Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif to David Lynch - to that of the Art World - from Louise Bourgeois and Marina Abramovic to Nan Goldin -, to the places of the Beautiful Life - from Paris to Hollywood and Beverly Hills, from Rio de Janeiro to Sardinia -, connote in a strong way, in the same manner in which a certain type of decadent eroticism pervades them, a languid sensuality, often self-referential, an overt exoticism - we are always somewhere else -, a sense of solitude that reflects particularly in scenes that are settings to self-portraits. Every image appears unreal , in its determination to outdistance the flagrancy of an albeit actual experience - nothing is true, it is a film -, while the subtly painful sensation of dissolution already appears to be underway. Immagini fatue, in the sense that fatuo has in the Italian expression fuoco fatuo which defines will o' the wisp in English.
The stereotypes of a desiring orientalism that barely appears to have passed, those of mass culture and fashion, overshadowed by an obsolescence already underway like an obscure illness, interact with a stylistic statute that marks a difference and makes Nabil's work appear out of date. The apparent outdatedness that follows is the difference.

I am still here, in this modest hotel room near Siam Square. Every evening from eight o'clock a Thai musician entertains clients in the hotel restaurant by playing sentimental songs, most of which Chinese. Jeab urged me to stop and listen to him but so far I have not succeeded: it is always too late or I am too tired.

Every day I tell myself stories which, the day after, on verification lose all credibility. And so I tell myself that I no longer know what I feel, although I still continue to feel.
They too tell me of their insomnia. But neither they nor I have succeeded in finding a plausible adjustment.

Perhaps this has nothing to do with Nabil's art.
But it is here that I have thought and written the words about him that you are now reading. The images of strong and beautiful women, women and pictures, evoked by the art of Nabil, those of Fifi and Tracey Emin, that of Zaha Hadid, of Mona Hatoum and of Latifa, have haunted my room. And his self-portraits in the hotel rooms, not very different from this, have threatened my nights: just like mirrors do.

Pier Luigi Tazzi
Bangkok, Summer 2009.

In conversation with Faten Hamama
Cairo, July 2008

In conversation with Faten Hamama Italian

Faten Hamama: Nei tuoi ritratti c’è serenità. Mi piacciono molto quelli che mi hai fatto. Hanno una sottile aria di drammaticità. Hai la capacità di presentare le persone in modo diverso.

Youssef Nabil: Dipende dal fatto che sono cresciuto guardando i vecchi film che davano sulla TV egiziana, e dall’averli amati molto. In quei film gli attori apparivano molto diversi da quelli di oggi. Dunque, in effetti, questa componente del mio lavoro dipende da come ti vedevo nei film! Hai sempre sognato di diventare una star?

F.H: Ho iniziato molto presto. La mia famiglia racconta che fin da piccola imitavo tutto quello che vedevo. Salivo sul tavolo da pranzo e mi esibivo per loro, facendo le imitazioni. Da lì hanno cominciato a notare che c’era qualcosa in me…

Y.N: La tua famiglia ti ha incoraggiata?

F.H: Si, sebbene all’epoca fosse davvero difficile incoraggiare una bambina a diventare attrice, soprattutto per i miei nonni. Avevo sei anni. E la tua famiglia ti ha incoraggiato a diventare un artista?

Y.N: All’inizio erano molto preoccupati; non capivano cosa volessi fare. Mi hanno chiesto di finire prima l’università e poi di fare di quello che volevo. Ho studiato Letteratura francese alla Ain Shams University, ho preso la mia laurea e gliel’ho consegnata… Tu eri molto giovane all’epoca del tuo primo film A Happy Day (Yom Said), con Mohamed Abdel Wahab.

F.H: Si, avevo nove anni. Avevo un contratto con la Compagnia di Abdel Wahab, ma non scrissero mai una storia apposta per me come avevano fatto a Hollywood per Shirley Temple. Erano sempre impegnati nella preparazione del successivo film di Abdel Wahab… Nel mio secondo film A Bullet in the Heart (Rossassa Fil Alb), crearono un ruolo apposta per me, nel bel mezzo della storia. Da allora non ho più avuto un contratto di esclusiva e sono stata libera di lavorare nei film di Youssef Wahbi e in molti altri.

Y.N: E’ stato facile trovare i ruoli giusti? Immagino che all’epoca fosse difficile.

F.H: All’inizio non c’era davvero possibilità di scelta. A volte ero felice della parte, altre volte ero così scontenta che arrivavo a odiare sia il mio ruolo che il film. Ma all’inizio, per una giovane attrice, non era possibile scegliere. A partire dai 21 anni però ho cominciato a dire si o no.

Y.N: Mi sembra che le parti che hai recitato negli anni cinquanta siano molto diverse da quelle degli anni settanta, così come diverse erano le storie.

F.H: Negli anni cinquanta dovevi dimostrare di avere intenzioni serie riguardo il tuo mestiere di attore. Questa è stata sempre la mia sfida. Alcuni avevano un’idea molto negativa di questa professione. Persino i miei compagni di scuola facevano commenti sgradevoli sul fatto che fossi attrice, anche semplicemente nel dire “quella fa l’attrice”, lo facevano in senso spregiativo. La mia sfida personale è stata quella di convincerli ad avere rispetto per la recitazione, a vederla come una forma d’arte. E penso di essere riuscita a cambiare il modo in cui la gente vede le attrici.

Y.N: Cosa pensi del cinema di allora e di quello di oggi?

F.H: Prima c’erano più tabù e molte cose semplicemente non si potevano fare. Ora siamo più liberi. Ma anche il cinema è cambiato – è un riflesso dell’epoca in cui viviamo. Prendiamo ad esempio l’immagine della donna: nei film degli anni cinquanta era fragile e impotente, aveva bisogno di ricorrere ai consigli del padre – o altrimenti del fratello – per ogni decisione da prendere. Era sempre sofferente, non solo nel cinema egiziano ma in tutto quello del mondo arabo. A sedici anni la donna smetteva di studiare per dedicarsi al matrimonio. Negli anni sessanta ha potuto continuare gli studi, lavorare ed essere più indipendente. Il cinema è sempre stato uno specchio dei tempi. Rimango sempre scioccata nel vedere come parlano e si comportano gli attori dei film di oggi, mentre per le nuove generazioni tutto questo è normale. Ho imparato a non giudicare mai nessuna generazione. E’ normale, le cose cambiano, e noi dobbiamo accettarle.

Y.N: Penso che prima l’Egitto fosse meglio, che le persone fossero migliori di oggi.

F.H: Era tutto più calmo e sicuramente la gente era meglio. Mi sembra che oggi le persone siano più inclini all’odio reciproco. C’è un’atmosfera di odio, tutto è così faticoso e stressante. Lo vedi ovunque, per strada. Penso che il vero motivo dell’odio tra le persone siano il sovraffollamento e il traffico! C’è troppa gente ovunque. Ieri ci abbiamo messo un’ora e mezza per un tragitto che normalmente richiede un quarto d’ora. Ci sono troppe macchine, è soffocante! Ma basta uscire dal Cairo e andare a Luxor, Assuan o sul Mar Rosso per trovare persone più semplici, più calme, più simpatiche.

Y.N: Ieri in televisione ho visto per la prima volta un tuo film. Penso fosse degli anni cinquanta, con Omar Sharif, River of Love (Nahr El Hub)..

F.H: In realtà è tratto dal romanzo “Anna Karenina”. E il regista riuscì a far amare al pubblico il mio personaggio, una donna che tradisce il marito.

Y.N: Ti piace guardare i vecchi film?

F.H: Mi piace guardarli da un punto di vista diverso. Mi piace vedere come eravamo, come apparivo, com’ero vestita, come recitavamo, e a volte mi chiedo – ma come facevamo a parlare così? [risate].

Y.N: Quali film ti piace guardare, a parte quelli in cui ci sei tu?

F.H: I film di Naguib El Rihani, Laila Morad. Adoro Laila Morad— mi piaceva moltissimo la sua voce.

Y.N: Ti manca quel periodo?

F.H: Mi mancano le persone con cui lavoravo, specialmente Henry Barakat. E Waheed Farid, il mio cameraman, abbiamo lavorato molto assieme, eravamo come una famiglia.

Y.N: Tra tutti i tuoi film quello che preferisco è Mouths and Rabbits (Afwah We Araneb). Lo adoro.

F.H: Anch’io. Lo amo molto. Tra tutti I miei film è forse quello che lancia il messaggio più bello. Era stato scritto per la radio e io accettai subito – mi piaceva l’idea che l’avrebbero ascoltato in ogni parte dell’Egitto, fino al villaggio più remoto, era indirizzato a un pubblico di gente povera con molti figli e con tutto quel genere di problemi. Ma era anche molto divertente e il messaggio non era eccessivamente diretto. Ricordo che nel periodo del Ramadan lo mandavano in onda all’ora del Iftar [il pasto serale dopo il digiuno quotidiano) e quando tornavo a casa, al mio appartamento del dodicesimo piano, sentivo la canzone risuonare ovunque all’interno dell’edificio!

Y.N: Eri così convincente! Hai interpretato in modo perfetto il ruolo della donna egiziana di paese.

F.H: Quando reciti seriamente in una commedia leggera, l’effetto è molto più forte.

Y.N: Durante le riprese, trovavi difficile a fine giornata dismettere i panni del personaggio che recitavi e rientrare nella tua vera personalità?

F.H: Era difficile per l’accento del personaggio. Per certi film, come in Mouths and Rabbits, l’accento mi è rimasto per oltre due mesi dalla fine delle riprese. Oppure, se si trattava di un film triste, continuavo a sentirmi profondamente triste per molto tempo, a volte piangevo.

Y.N: Sai, sono rimasto davvero sorpreso la prima volta che ho sentito questo nuovo termine di "clean cinema," riferito al fatto che un’attrice non debba recitare certe parti, che non possa essere baciata o comparire in scene d’amore!

F.H: In realtà è un termine che non si usa più. Si è sempre parlato di "clean cinema," ma prima il termine veniva usato per indicare film realizzati bene dal punto di vista tecnico. Come i film di Salah Abu Seif — quelli si che avevano un’ottima tecnica, non come le commedie stupide e scontate che si vedono oggi in cui gli attori parlano in modo così volgare. Ora il termine viene usato per criticare certi ruoli. Io invece penso che si possa recitare con stile qualsiasi parte, senza bisogno di essere volgari. Bisogna anche ricordare che prima era l’attrice stessa a prendersi cura del proprio corpo e del proprio aspetto, e dunque con qualsiasi vestito e qualunque fosse il ruolo che recitava, non intendeva mai essere offensiva.

Y.N: Pensi quindi che il modo di apparire possa avere effetto sul ruolo che interpreti?

F.H: Assolutamente si. Il cinema ha i suoi alti e bassi. Per anni è stato davvero grande, meraviglioso, pulito (risate), poi per anni è caduto in basso, si sono visti solo film stupidi e senza senso, pieni di volgari balletti, destinati a intrattenere solo un certo tipo di pubblico. Ricordo una volta in cui il produttore decise di aggiungere un balletto e qualche canzone a un film serio e ben fatto, solo per attrarre il maggior numero possibile di spettatori. Non so perché le cose vadano così. La gente vuole vedere solo danzatrici del ventre.

Y.N: Gli egiziani adorano le danzatrici del ventre!

F.H: Sai, ogni volta che guardo i canali satellitari arabi trovo sempre un canale egiziano con qualche danzatrice del ventre!

Y.N: Anche la danza del ventre era molto meglio nei vecchi film.

F.H: La danza del ventre è una vera arte se fatta bene, come la faceva Samia Gamal o Tahia Carioca, ma ora si assiste a qualcosa di molto diverso, davvero scontato. Comunque sono ottimista. Penso che nel prossimo futuro il cinema egiziano migliorerà.

Y.N: Hai mai pensato di lavorare in occidente?

F.H: Quando avevo più o meno vent’anni ho pensato di andare a Hollywood. Poi ho capito che non avrei potuto recitare quei ruoli femminili. Hanno una cultura diversa e io avrei dovuto imparare il loro modo di parlare e di comportarsi. Ma non conoscevo sufficientemente bene quei personaggi per poterli recitare. Non avrei neanche potuto vestirmi come loro. Se per girare una scena mi avessero chiesto di indossare un costume da bagno non avrei potuto farlo. A quei tempi sarebbe stato un vero disastro per me dover recitare in costume da bagno. Ma al giorno d’oggi la mentalità è molto più aperta.

Y.N: A casa tua ho visto molta arte.

F.H: Sono una collezionista molto particolare. Amo vivere circondata dall’arte. La mia collezione è molto egiziana. Quando per tre anni sono andata a vivere in Europa mi sono portata dietro tutti i miei quadri.

Y.N: Dove vivevi?

F.H: A Parigi. Anche tu hai vissuto a Parigi, ora dove vivi?

Y.N: A New York. Ci sei mai stata?

F.H: Si, è una bella città, molto funzionale, tutto è veloce. Ma amo Parigi. Per me non c’è niente di meglio di Parigi.

Y.N: Sei consapevole del fatto che il cinema ti renderà immortale? Tra cent’anni la gente guarderà ancora i tuoi film. Bello, se ci pensi. Sai, sono stati proprio i film egiziani a farmi avvicinare all’idea della morte. Quando ero piccolo chiedevo sempre a mia madre che fine avessero fatto quegli attori e la maggior parte delle volte la risposta era “sono tutti morti adesso”. Così, crescendo, è nato il desiderio di incontrare i personaggi che amavo, di fotografarli prima che morissero, o prima che morissi io stesso.

F.H: Non dirmi che sei venuto per incontrarmi prima che muoia!

Y.N: Che Dio non voglia, o prima che muoia io! Quando sento il tuo nome ti immagino sempre come la personificazione del cinema egiziano. Avevi mai pensato che un giorno saresti diventata l’icona che sei oggi?

F.H: Da giovane non l’avrei mai immaginato. Amavo recitare e tutto il resto. Fin da giovanissima mi piaceva andare nell’alto Egitto per vedere come parlava e gesticolava la gente dei villaggi. Mi piaceva molto. Amavo studiare i diversi personaggi, come se studiassi per la scuola. Mi divertivo, semplicemente, senza chiedermi se sarei mai diventata famosa. Giocavo con l’immaginazione e questo bastava a rendermi felice.

Y.N: Tu sei per il cinema ciò che Oum Kalthoum è per la musica.

F.H: Adoro Oum Kalthoum. Quando la senti cantare non puoi smettere di ascoltarla fino a che non finisce la canzone.

Y.N: L’hai mai incontrata?

F.H: Si, e mi disse che apprezzava molto i miei film. L’ho incontrata in un periodo in cui mi ero un po’ distaccata dal cinema e lei mi disse: “Nessun artista deve stare lontano dalla propria arte”.

Y.N: Che tipo era?

F.H: Una donna intelligente. Molto intelligente.

Y.N: Anche una donna forte. Mi piacciono le donne come lei, con idee forti.

F.H: Era incredibilmente forte! Sai, era come il contadino egiziano con i piedi per terra che sa quali sono le cose che contano.

Y.N: Mi piace il fatto che abbia cominciato leggendo il Corano e poi sia diventata una cantante. Era convinta che si potesse essere religiosi e essere artisti allo stesso tempo. Ha vissuto la sua vita normalmente, senza separare l’arte dalla religione. Non come certi che oggi sostengono che l’arte sia immorale.

F.H: L’arte porta felicità alla gente. Perchè dobbiamo essere contrari alla felicità?

Cairo, luglio 2008

In conversation with Faten Hamama English

Faten Hamama: There is a serenity to your portraits. I love the ones you did of me. There is a certain subtle drama in them. You know how to present people in a different way.

Youssef Nabil: This comes from the old movies that I grew up watching on Egyptian TV, and which I loved. The actors in those movies looked very different to the actors we see now. So actually, this quality in my work comes from the way I saw you in the movies you acted in! Did you always dream of being a star?

F.H: I started very young. My family told me that, as a child, I was always imitating what I saw. I used to get on top of our dining table and imitate things for them. So they noticed that there was something in me…

Y.N: Did your family encourage you?

F.H: Yes, they did, although it was very difficult at that time to encourage your kid to be an actress, especially for my grandparents on both sides of our family. I was six years old then. And did your family encourage you to become an artist?

Y.N: They were very worried initially; they didn't understand what I wanted to do. They asked me to go to university first, then do whatever I wanted after that. I studied French Literature at Ain Shams University, took my degree, and gave it to them … You were very young when you made your first move, A Happy Day (Yom Said), with Mohamed Abdel Wahab.

F.H: Yes, I was nine years old. I had a contract with Abdel Wahab's company, but they never created a story especially for me, as they did in Hollywood for Shirley Temple. They were always preparing the next Abdel Wahab movie … In my second movie, A Bullet in the Heart (Rossassa Fil Alb), they created a role for me in the middle of the story. After that I no longer had an exclusive contract and I was free to work in Youssef Wahbi movies and many others.

Y.N: Was it easy for you to choose the right roles? I sense that this was difficult at the time.

F.H: In the beginning it was not really possible to choose. Sometimes I was really happy about my role; in other films I was very sad, even hating the movie and my role in it. In the beginning it wasn't possible for a young actor to choose. When I was twenty-one, I started saying yes and no.

Y.N: I think the roles you played in the fifties were very different from the ones you played in the seventies, as were the kinds of stories.

F.H: In the fifties, you had to prove that you were serious about what you were doing as an actor. This was always a challenge for me. Some people had very negative perceptions about the profession. Even my friends at school would make comments that I didn't like about my being an actress, or would just say, "She's an actress," in a negative way. So I had this personal challenge to make them respect acting, to see it as an art. And I think that I succeeded in changing the way people viewed being an actress.

Y.N: What do you think about cinema then and cinema now?

F.H: Previously there were many taboos and we simply couldn't do many things. Now we are freer. But cinema has also changed—it is a reflection of the period we live in. If we take women as an example, in the fifties she was presented in movies as weak or powerless—she would need to consult her father before doing anything, and if not her father then her brother. She was always suffering, not only in Egypt but generally in the Arab world. Then in the sixties, she was able to continue her studies, not like in the fifties when she had to stop studying and get married by the age of sixteen. In the sixties she worked and was more independent. Cinema has always reflected the time we live in. When I see recent movies and how the actors behave and talk today, for me it is a bit shocking, but for the new generation it's very normal. So I've learned not to judge any generation. This is normal, things change, and we have to accept this.

Y.N: But I feel that Egypt was a better place before, that people were better then than they are today.

F.H: It was calmer, and definitely people were better than today. I find that people are more inclined to hate each other now. There is an atmosphere of hate, and everything is so stressful and busy. You see it in the streets everywhere. I believe that the reason people hate each other is because of overpopulation and traffic jams! They just can't stand each other. There are too many people everywhere. Yesterday it took us an hour and a half to get somewhere, whereas it usually takes us fifteen minutes. There are too many cars in the streets, it's suffocating! But once you get outside Cairo, if you go to Luxor, Aswan, Red Sea, you see a much more relaxed people, funnier, simpler, and calmer.

Y.N: Yesterday I saw a movie of yours for the first time, on TV. I think it was done in the fifties with Omar Sharif, River of Love (Nahr El Hub).

F.H: Actually, this was based on the story of Anna Karenina. The director succeeded in making people love my role, which was a woman who betrayed her husband.

Y.N: Do you like watching your old movies?

F.H: I like to watch them from a different point of view. I like seeing how we used to be, how I looked, how I was dressed, the way we used to act—sometimes I say, "How come we spoke that way?" [Laughs]

Y.N: Which movies do you enjoy watching, aside from those you starred in?

F.H: The films of Naguib El Rihani, Laila Morad. I love Laila Morad—I used to love her voice.

Y.N: Do you miss that period?

F.H: I miss people I worked with, especially Henry Barakat. And Waheed Farid, my favorite cinematographer, because we were like family, we worked a lot together.

Y.N: My favorite movie of yours is Mouths and Rabbits (Afwah We Araneb). I really love it.

F.H: Me too, I love it so much. The message of the film is perhaps the best of all my movies. It was initially written for radio, and I said yes immediately—it was perfect because the story would be heard in every little village in Egypt, and it was targeting poorer people who were having lots of children and all the rest of those problems. It was also very funny and the message wasn't overly direct. I remember that during Ramadan they used to play it on the radio at Iftar [the evening meal after the daily fast], and in my building, going up to my apartment on the twelfth floor, I used to hear the song being played everywhere in the building!

Y.N: You were so convincing! You played the role of an Egyptian villager perfectly.

F.H: When you play a light comedy seriously, the effect is much stronger.

Y.N: During filming, was it difficult for you to switch from the role you were playing back to your own personality at the end of each day?

F.H: It was very difficult because of the accent of the character. With some movies, like Mouths and Rabbits, the accent remained with me for two months after I finished filming. Also if it was a sad movie, I would continue to feel sad deep inside me for a long time, and sometimes I cried.

Y.N: You know, I was really surprised the first time I heard this new term, "clean cinema," meaning that an actress shouldn't play certain roles, be kissed or act in a love scene!

F.H: This is actually an old term—they've always spoken about "clean cinema," but previously they used the term to refer to films with good technique. Like Salah Abu Seif movies—these had a very good technique, not like the cheap movies and stupid comedies we see today, with actors talking in a really vulgar way. But now they use this term to criticize certain roles. I think you can play any role if you do it with a certain beauty, without being vulgar. Also don't forget that previously the actress was always taking care of her body and her appearance, so that even if she was doing certain roles or wearing any kind of clothes, she wouldn't offend you.

Y.N: So you think that how you look has an effect on the role you play?

F.H: Yes, definitely. Cinema has its ups and downs. For years it's really great, beautiful, and clean [laughs], and then for years it goes downhill, showing only very stupid movies full of vulgar dancing, with no meaning, just to entertain a certain sector of the public. I remember once they did a good, serious movie, then the producer decided to include a dance and a few songs in it, just to attract the maximum viewers. I don't know why we're going through this now. People just want to see belly dancers.

Y.N: Egyptians love belly dancers!

F.H: You know, when I look at the different Arabic satellite channels, every time I see an Egyptian channel there is always a belly dancer dancing!

Y.N: Belly dancing was also much better in the old movies.

F.H: Belly dancing is a great art if it is done beautifully, as Samia Gamal or Tahia Carioca did it, but I see something else now that is really cheap. But at the same time I am very optimistic. I think the next period in Egyptian cinema will be much better.

Y.N: Have you ever thought of working in the West?

F.H: When I was about twenty years old, I thought about going to Hollywood. Then I realized I couldn't really do the roles that women do over there. They are from a different culture and I would have needed to study how they talk and react. I didn't know them well enough to play their characters. Also I couldn't really wear their clothing. If they asked me to wear a swimsuit in a scene or something, I just couldn't do it. At that time it would have been a disaster to wear a swimsuit in a movie. The period we live in now is much more open minded.

Y.N: I see there is a lot of art in your home.

F.H: I collect art in a very personal way. I love living with art around me. My collection is very Egyptian. Even when I lived in Europe for three years, I took all the paintings I had with me.

Y.N: Where were you living?

F.H: In Paris. You also lived in Paris, but where do you live now?

Y.N: In New York. Have you been there?

F.H: Yes, it is a beautiful city, very practical, everything is so quick there. But I love Paris. For me there is nothing like Paris.

Y.N: Are you conscious of the fact that cinema will immortalize you? In a hundred years people will still watch your movies. It's a great thing when you think about it. You know, it was through old Egyptian movies that I was introduced to the idea of death. As a child I used to ask my mother about the actors and where they were, and most of the time the answer was, "They are all dead now." Later on, I wanted to meet the ones I love, to photograph them before they die, or before I die.

F.H: Don't tell me you came to meet me before I die!

Y.N: God forbid, or before I die! Personally, when I hear your name, I immediately think of you as the embodiment of Egyptian cinema. Did you ever think that one day you would become the icon that you are today?

F.H: When I was young I never imagined this. I was in love with acting, with the whole thing. Even when I was very young, I used to love going to Upper Egypt to see how the villagers there talked and moved. I loved this. I loved studying roles, as if I was studying at school. I just enjoyed it, and I didn't think about whether I would become very successful or not. I was just enjoying my imagination and was happy with that.

Y.N: You are to cinema what Oum Kalthoum is to music.

F.H: I love Oum Kalthoum. When you hear her singing, you can't stop listening until the song is over.

Y.N: Did you ever meet her?

F.H: Yes, and she told me that she liked my movies a lot. I met her at a time when I was a bit removed from cinema, and she said to me, "No artist should be away from his art."

Y.N: What was she like as a person?

F.H: She was a very smart lady, very smart.

Y.N: She was a strong woman too. I like women like her, with strong ideas.

F.H: She was incredibly strong! You know, she was the Egyptian peasant who had her feet on the ground and who knew her real values.

Y.N: I love the fact that she started out reading the Koran, then became a singer. She believed that you could be religious and be an artist at the same time. She lived life normally and didn't separate religion from art. Unlike some people today who say that art is immoral.

F.H: Art brings happiness to people. Why are we against happiness?

Cairo, July 2008

In conversation with Shirin Neshat
New York, June 2008

In conversation with Shirin Neshat Italian

Shirin Neshat: Quando hai avvertito per la prima volta l’esigenza di diventare un artista?

Youssef Nabil: Penso che il desiderio di diventare artista risalga alla mia infanzia e sia legato ai vecchi film egiziani che guardavo alla TV. Avevo quattro o cinque anni quando ho capito davvero cosa fosse il cinema e cioè che nei film gli attori recitavano. Ero affascinato all’idea che si potesse raccontare una storia con un film: mi sembrava un grande gioco coinvolgente che però non era reale, le vicende e i rapporti tra le persone erano finti e se qualcuno moriva non significava che fosse morto sul serio. A un altro livello ero incantato dagli attori che l’arte rendeva immortali, potevi guardarli anche cinquant’anni dopo la loro morte e continuare ad amarli. Ho sempre saputo di voler lavorare con le immagini, che fossero in movimento o meno. Ne ero colpito anche da piccolo e penso di aver capito molto presto la loro forza.

S.N: Interessante, anche perché adesso che ne parli mi rendo conto che i tuoi ritratti sono molto cinematografici… vi si legge una sorta di ossessione per il glamour e il divismo tipici del cinema. Inoltre, le tue fotografie rimandano, in maniera piuttosto ovvia direi, al vecchio stile fotografico mediorientale, in particolare egiziano. Ti sei ispirato anche a questo?

Y.N: Sì, prima c’è stato il vecchio cinema egiziano – i film in Technicolor – poi i manifesti cinematografici dipinti a mano e le foto di famiglia in bianco e nero, colorate a mano. Negli anni Settanta e Ottanta al Cairo se ne vedevano dovunque per la strada. L’idea di intervenire manualmente sulle immagini mi affascinava molto. In quegli anni disegnavo e dipingevo tanto, sempre ritratti. Poi quando ho iniziato a fare fotografie ho pensato di combinare i due medium e ho deciso di mantenere questa doppia tecnica nei miei lavori. Mi sono messo in cerca degli anziani coloristi, quegli artigiani che coloravano i ritratti per gli studi fotografici del Cairo e di Alessandria d’Egitto e ho imparato i loro segreti.

S.N: Nei tuoi ritratti le persone che fotografi sono più belle… Tu hai la capacità di individuare ed esaltare una bellezza comune, trasformando i tuoi soggetti in veri e propri divi.

Y.N: Questo dipende da come li vedo in realtà… e c’è sempre un richiamo ai vecchi film in cui gli attori erano belli, dovevano essere belli. Tutti avevano un aspetto fantastico, vecchi o giovani che fossero. È così che io vedo le persone. Non mi accorgo neppure delle rughe, anche se talvolta una ruga può essere molto affascinante. Insomma, mi piace presentare i miei soggetti al meglio.

S.N: Come hai iniziato?

Y.N: È stato nell’agosto del 1992, quando per la prima volta ho chiesto ad alcuni amici di interpretare dei ruoli in piccole scene che avevo scritto e volevo fotografare. Già allora avevo idee molto cinematografiche. Studiavo letteratura francese all’università Ain Shams del Cairo, ma ho deciso di occuparmi di ciò che mi interessava di più, la fotografia. Prima usavo solo il bianco e nero, qualche tempo dopo ho deciso di colorare a mano le mie immagini, affinché mantenessero un certo spirito del passato. All’inizio la gente non capiva cosa facessi, poi sono arrivati i primi clienti che mi chiedevano espressamente quel tipo di fotografie. È accaduto tutto così in fretta da sorprendere me per primo. A novembre di quello stesso anno stavo fotografando un amico al Marriott Hotel di Zamalek quando un giovane americano mi ha visto e mi ha chiesto informazioni su dove trovare le pellicole e i modelli per un incarico che doveva svolgere in Egitto. Era David LaChapelle, con cui ho lavorato a New York qualche tempo dopo, dal 1993 al 1994. Successivamente sono tornato al Cairo, ho finito gli studi all’università, ho fatto il servizio militare… Nel 1997, tramite un amico comune, ho conosciuto Mario Testino al Cairo, poi sono andato a Parigi per lavorare con lui fino al 1998. A quel punto ho deciso di tornare in Egitto e ho iniziato a esporre i miei lavori.

S.N: Mi sembra che nei tuoi autoritratti ci sia un elemento narrativo che manca nelle altre fotografie che realizzi. Forse dipende dal fatto che ti puoi permettere di prendere tempo, o dal modo in cui metti in risalto l’ambientazione, che sia un interno o un paesaggio. Gli autoritratti diventano una sorta di diario. Visto che viaggi molto, le location geografiche cambiano, l’elemento che rimane costante sei tu. È come se attraverso quelle immagini tu stia tentando di comunicare qualcosa di te, o di quell’esperienza… di quel viaggio, di quel particolare momento. Come spieghi i tuoi autoritratti?

Y.N: Gli autoritratti raccontano una storia diversa rispetto ai ritratti. Sono sempre stato consapevole del fatto che ogni momento della mia vita diventerà un ricordo subito dopo. È l’idea della partenza, siamo qui adesso ma tra poco saremo altrove. Questo pensiero mi accompagna sempre, c’è una forza nella vita a cui non possiamo opporci. Mi riferisco anche alla morte, ovviamente… Ho capito molto presto che siamo qui per andarcene, non per rimanere; nessuno vive per sempre, tutti dobbiamo morire. Io mi fotografo nelle città che visito, in cui sono soltanto un turista. So che partirò di lì a qualche giorno. La stessa considerazione vale per la mia vita in generale, fino a quando non morirò. Vivere è come arrivare in un luogo che non è il tuo e poi dover partire.

S.N: Negli autoritratti vedo Youssef il performer, l’attore, il narratore. Sono curiosa di sapere se sei tu stesso ad azionare la macchina fotografica o se lo fai fare a qualcun altro. Per esempio, ti comporti come Cindy Sherman, che ritengo sia sempre sola nel suo studio, prepara la foto e poi fa “click”? La questione è interessante perché quando si conosce Cindy, si scopre che è molto timida e ci si stupisce di tanta vivacità davanti all’obiettivo. È semplicemente la “privacy” che consente a un artista di essere completamente libero, di interpretare un ruolo o di rivelare tutto se stesso?

Y.N: Per quel che mi riguarda, devo essere da solo quando scatto queste fotografie; si tratta di un processo molto privato. Non mi sorprende sapere che Cindy Sherman sia timida. È facile interpretare con disinvoltura un ruolo davanti a una macchina fotografica ed essere comunque timidi. In ogni caso io devo assolutamente essere solo, anche se non è semplice visto che la maggior parte degli autoritratti sono scattati all’aperto e c’è sempre qualcuno lì intorno. A volte mi è capitato, però, di dover chiedere aiuto per certe fotografie, soprattutto quando sono molto lontano dalla macchina fotografica. In Self Portrait, Vincennes, 2003, per esempio, ero dall’altra parte di un fiume, così ho avuto bisogno di un assistente.

S.N: L’autoritratto è un mezzo d’espressione molto particolare. Io sono una persona insicura, non mi piace stare davanti all’obiettivo e ho smesso di posare per me stessa già alla fine degli anni Novanta. Mi ricordo, però, che quando facevo degli autoritratti interpretavo sempre un altro personaggio. Non volevo in alcun modo che le foto raccontassero qualcosa di me. Quelle immagini assumevano una connotazione in qualche modo sociologica; diventavano piuttosto simboliche, una sorta di indagine sulle persone. Cindy Sherman lavora in modo simile: lei recita, interpreta un personaggio con cui non ha niente in comune. I tuoi autoritratti, invece, sono in un certo senso studi su di te, come se tu stessi tentando di scoprire qualcosa su te stesso e volessi condividere l’esperienza con l’osservatore. Il nostro approccio verso l’autoritratto parte da scopi completamente diversi.

Y.N: Ho iniziato a fare autoritratti nel 2003, l’anno in cui ho lasciato l’Egitto per andare a vivere in Francia. Mi ero lasciato alle spalle la vita al Cairo e mi trovavo in un luogo totalmente nuovo. Ho iniziato a farmi domande sull’esistenza in generale, sulla mia vita, sul mio paese e sul fatto di esserne lontano. Per certi versi, era come se avessi chiuso una porta sul passato, non ero più lo stesso di prima. Anche allora l’idea di base era quella della partenza. Così ho deciso di parlare di questo stato d’animo nel mio lavoro. Ma, vedi, sono stati gli autoritratti a scegliere me, io non li ho mai programmati in anticipo. Ne ho fatto uno di recente a Los Angeles. Ho visto un albero molto vecchio vicino al mio albergo. Le radici sporgevano dal terreno e si diramavano in ogni direzione… Ho visto le radici, ho pensato alla vita, alle mie origini e ho deciso di fotografarmi lì, vicino a quelle radici.

S.N: Questo mi porta direttamente all’altro argomento di cui mi piacerebbe parlare con te, l’idea dei “nomadi” contemporanei, delle persone come noi che si spostano continuamente da un luogo all’altro. Negli autoritratti ti concentri molto sull’idea del ricordo, del tempo che passa e dei luoghi in cui hai vissuto.

Y.N: Non ho mai pensato di appartenere a un solo luogo. Mi sono sempre sentito parte di una sorta di circo: un giorno sei in una città, il giorno dopo ti sposti altrove. Ho imparato ad accettare questa sensazione e la fatica psicologica di ricominciare da zero in un altro paese. Ma sono un nostalgico e per me la cosa più difficile è lasciare le persone che amo, gli amici, la famiglia, i luoghi che mi sono cari, la luce particolare o l’odore delle città in cui ho vissuto. Non so quanto a lungo durerà. Suppongo stia a noi scegliere. Tu senti di appartenere a un luogo specifico?

S.N: Assolutamente no, anch’io sono in uno stato costante di movimento geografico e psicologico e vado in giro per il mondo. Negli ultimi giorni, per esempio, sono stata tormentata dai ricordi del Marocco, pensavo che l’anno scorso in questo periodo vivevo lì, che ero una persona diversa, con amici diversi, immersa una cultura totalmente diversa… e guardandomi indietro non posso fare a meno di provare una certa tristezza perché quell’esperienza è finita e non si potrà ripetere. In genere penso che la storia, i ricordi e un sentimento come la nostalgia suscitino emozioni molto dolorose. Anche nei tuoi autoritratti mi sembra di riconoscere una forte malinconia, un dolore persino, e mi sorprende sentirti parlare tanto della morte… C’è una ragione dietro a tutto questo?

Y.N: Pensavo molto alla morte anche quando ero bambino. A dire il vero è stata una scoperta molto dolorosa per me a quell’età. Ho iniziato a pensare alla possibilità che qualcuno che amavo morisse e pregavo Dio tutti i giorni affinché non accadesse. Non ho idea di come sia nata un’ossessione simile o del perché non riuscissi a convivere tranquillamente con questa realtà. Volevo che le persone a me care vivessero per sempre. Quando ho iniziato a esporre i miei lavori, però, ho avvertito l’esigenza di lasciare l’Egitto. Tra le ragioni più importanti che mi hanno spinto a farlo c’era il bisogno di andare in un luogo in cui mi sarei sentito più libero. Nelle mie fotografie c’è sempre una connotazione sessuale e la cosa non incontrava il favore di tutti. Me ne rendevo conto nelle occasioni più diverse, soprattutto quando ho iniziato a esporre i miei lavori, e mi sono reso conto che in Egitto convivono due mondi, quello moderno in cui sono cresciuto e l’altro molto conservatore che purtroppo ha il predominio.

S.N: Adesso vorrei affrontare un altro argomento che riguarda me, te, Ghada Amer e molti altri artisti che conosciamo. Siamo mediorientali e il nostro lavoro fa spesso riferimento alla nostra cultura d’origine, eppure il nostro pubblico è composto perlopiù da occidentali. Noi tutti corriamo quindi il rischio di “orientalizzare” i nostri lavori. E in effetti molti ci accusano di creare opere “esotiche” per soddisfare le curiosità e le fantasie degli occidentali sui paesi musulmani, sia che i nostri temi siano politici o sessuali… Talvolta siamo stati persino attaccati dagli artisti musulmani residenti in Medio Oriente che contestano la credibilità di chi ha scelto di vivere in un altro paese eppure continua a essere considerato un esponente attendibile dell’arte della nazione in cui è nato. Tu cosa ne pensi in quanto artista? Credi che la distanza dal proprio paese dia la giusta libertà e la prospettiva necessaria?

Y.N: Non credo che il luogo in cui si vive sia determinante. Per me sta tutto nell’essere onesti e in come ci si sente. Nessuno può sostenere che tu sia meno iraniana o io meno egiziano perché viviamo in Occidente, o che tu non possa essere una cosa e l’altra… Noi affrontiamo temi che ci riguardano direttamente, non potremmo occuparci di altro. Una delle cose più belle che mi è capitato di vedere quando siamo andati insieme in Marocco l’anno scorso per le tue fotografie è stato il modo in cui sei riuscita a ricreare un pezzo di Iran al centro del Marocco! E avevi già fatto lo stesso in Messico. Eri attenta ai minimi particolari per ricreare l’atmosfera del tuo paese in un altro luogo, lo trovo estremamente poetico. Secondo me si lascia il proprio paese solo quando lo si deve fare, quando si è sicuri di non poterci più vivere. Si parte e si va alla ricerca di un luogo in cui ci siano persone con cui condividere idee, pensieri e problemi. Per certi versi queste persone diventano la tua nuova famiglia e tu ricrei il tuo mondo. Noi due lo abbiamo fatto, seppure in modo diverso.

S.N: Le tue fotografie hanno una forte carica erotica, sono molto sensuali e penso che tu sia molto coraggioso considerando la tua cultura e i tabù sessuali con cui ti scontri.

Y.N: Per me è molto importante sentirmi libero di dire o fotografare ciò che voglio. Anche quando vivevo in Egitto riuscivo sempre a proporre immagini di nudo nelle mie mostre. Non c’era mai niente di volgare, ma venivo criticato lo stesso. Sai, ho scoperto con mia grande sorpresa che la collezione del Museo d’Arte Moderna del Cairo comprende molti nudi. Le mie mostre suscitano più scalpore perché si tratta di fotografie. La gente tende a essere più aperta e tollerante nei confronti dei dipinti, forse perché può credere che siano il frutto della fantasia dell’artista o qualcosa del genere. Con la fotografia il discorso non regge, la fotografia è più diretta e reale; la gente sa che di fronte all’obiettivo c’era effettivamente una persona nuda e non riesce ad accettarlo. Io non sono mai stato interessato alla nudità fine a se stessa; il mio obiettivo è essere vero e onesto per arrivare a una conoscenza più profonda dell’altro. Sai anch’io provo le stesse sensazioni davanti alle tue opere, alcune hanno una forte carica erotica.

S.N: Hai ragione. I miei soggetti, per quanto spesso siano nascosti, sono molto sensuali. I ritratti, in particolare quelli della serie Women of Allah, ovviamente rimandano al problema dei tabù sessuali nelle culture islamiche, ma il sesso è ovunque ed è inevitabile. Pare addirittura che le restrizioni religiose finiscano con l’esaltare la sessualità, accrescendo la tentazione per il sesso opposto. La fantasia si scatena alla vista di un lembo di pelle attraverso una camicia appena aperta, davanti a uno sguardo o a un linguaggio del corpo pudico, come dimostrano le tue fotografie. Conosco pochi artisti musulmani che hanno la fortuna di esporre le loro opere sia nei loro paesi sia in Occidente. Per quanto concerne noi due, il nostro pubblico si trova per lo più all’estero e i nostri connazionali possono vedere i nostri lavori solo su Internet. Abbiamo un pubblico diviso: alcuni non lo capiscono fino in fondo ma ne sono attratti (in Occidente), mentre altri lo capiscono ma nella maggior parte dei casi lo disprezzano (in Medio Oriente). Siamo artisti e abbiamo imparato a vivere in quello che viene chiamato villaggio globale, cercando di sopravvivere sia dal punto di vista emotivo sia da quello professionale. Inutile dirlo, mi sento frustrata davanti alla lettura riduttiva e semplicistica delle mie opere da parte di alcuni critici occidentali che non hanno la giusta conoscenza storica e culturale del mio background. E tu cosa pensi del modo in cui la tua arte viene interpretata nei paesi occidentali?

Y.N: Ho avuto esperienze simili, ma non credo che si tratti di un vero problema. Penso che dipenda da chi siamo. Ovviamente quando esponi in Occidente, c’è sempre qualcuno che tira fuori argomenti legati alla tua cultura – l’Islam, le donne velate, la sessualità, ciò che si può o non si può esporre nel tuo paese, eccetera – perché non potrà mai considerarti un artista americano, anche se hai vissuto la maggior parte della tua vita negli Stati Uniti. Ma non lo considero un problema, è accaduto a molti in passato e continuerà ad accadere sempre. Sai capita spesso che in una conversazione si cominci a parlare dell’Iran e ho scoperto che molte persone pensano subito ai tuoi lavori, considerandoli un importante riferimento a ciò che accade nel tuo paese. Per certi versi sei diventata una sorta di portavoce della nazione, magari involontariamente – non penso che ne avessi l’intenzione – ma è successo. E credo che sarà sempre così.

S.N: Sotto molti aspetti, allora, siamo impegnati in una battaglia su due fronti. Da un lato, opponiamo resistenza ai cliché e agli stereotipi occidentali sulla nostra cultura e insistiamo sulla complessità delle nostre società e sul valore universale della nostra arte. Dall’altro, ci scontriamo con i pregiudizi di molti mediorientali che guardano con sospetto agli artisti che non vivono più nel loro paese ma scelgono temi legati alla cultura d’origine. Ho posato spesso per te e ho notato che riesci sempre a tirare fuori il meglio della persona che hai davanti. Non so proprio come fai. Hai un modo particolare di porti nei confronti dei tuoi modelli? Ricordo che quando mi hai fotografato l’anno scorso a Casablanca siamo stati insieme solo dieci minuti!

Y.N: Innanzitutto mi deve piacere la persona, mi deve piacere ciò che fa o semplicemente il suo aspetto. Tu, per esempio, rientri in tutti e tre i casi. In un certo senso ho bisogno di essere d’accordo con l’idea che sta dietro il soggetto che fotografo; è necessario che io voglia che quella persona continui a vivere con me, attraverso il mio lavoro. È come se avessi una grande famiglia o un grande spazio in cui invitare la gente che mi piace.

S.N: Ma c’è anche il modo in cui riesci a far recitare i tuoi personaggi davanti all’obiettivo, il modo in cui li rendi più belli, il modo in cui intervieni sulla fotografia stampata colorandola. Mi fa pensare al cinema, tu sei il regista che sceglie gli attori, li prepara, sceglie i costumi, e poi cerca di ottenere il meglio da loro. Ricordo la prima volta che ci siamo incontrati, mi hai chiesto di indossare i miei gioielli preferiti… è stato come giocare a travestirsi, una cosa che mi diverte molto ma che faccio raramente per troppa timidezza.

Y.N: Certo, si tratta proprio di interpretare un ruolo; io devo scegliere la persona giusta per la parte oppure creare una storia attorno a un “personaggio” che già mi piace. Ammiro le persone dal carattere forte. Mi piacciono le donne forti come Tracey Emin, Zaha Hadid, Marina Abramovic, o la danzatrice egiziana Fifi Abdou. Le considero già icone dei nostri tempi, senza che abbiano scelto di esserlo. Ma se devo pensare a una donna artista dotata di una bellezza o di un aspetto unici, mi vengono in mente pochissimi nomi e fra questi ci sono il tuo e quello di Frida Kahlo.

S.N: È una delle mie artiste preferite. Ciò che mi affascina di Frida è il fatto che la sua bellezza non ha niente a che vedere con la vanità, quanto piuttosto con la sua ricchezza interiore. Era ossessionata dai gioielli così come le piaceva circondarsi di oggetti belli. La facevano sentire completa… Era femminile e mascolina allo stesso tempo, dura e delicata, forte e debole. Secondo me con il passare degli anni è diventata ancora più bella. Le sofferenze fisiche, per quanto devastanti, non sono riuscite a distruggere il suo stile. È una continua fonte d’ispirazione, la creatrice di un’arte totale: lei era la sua arte, lei indossava la sua arte… Ancora oggi quando si pensa all’arte di Frida Kahlo vengono subito in mente la sua immagine, il suo corpo, il suo stile.

Y.N: Ed era messicana fino in fondo, negli abiti, nel trucco, nei gioielli, nelle corone di fiori che indossava. Non ha mai copiato nessuno; era lei stessa un’opera d’arte. Ricordo la prima volta che ho visto una sua immagine, mi sono innamorato subito di lei, con la coroncina di fiori tra i capelli. Era il 1993 e mi trovavo a New York. Sarei dovuto andare in Martinica per lavorare con David LaChapelle ma non sono riuscito a ottenere il visto. Così sono rimasto nel suo appartamento dell’East Village e nella stanza in cui dormivo ho trovato un libro, la prima biografia di Frida Kahlo pubblicata negli Stati Uniti. Da quel momento ho voluto sapere di più sulla sua vita e sul suo lavoro e ho passato il resto del tempo a leggere cose su di lei. Ero molto colpito dal modo in cui raffigurava se stessa e dal fatto che esibisse il suo dolore, la sua sofferenza, il dispiacere. Tu vivi a New York dal 1983. Suppongo che essere stata qui negli anni Ottanta sia stata un’esperienza fantastica. Io sono venuto a New York nel 1993 e abitavo nell’East Village. A quei tempi si diceva che in quel quartiere si respirava ancora l’atmosfera degli anni Ottanta. Penso che sia stato un periodo fantastico. Io ero in Egitto allora, sognavo di vivere a New York e leggevo tutto il possibile sugli artisti newyorkesi. Ero un ragazzino e ricordo di aver coperto la parete dietro il mio letto con un collage di immagini degli artisti che mi piacevano, come Keith Haring e Jean-Michel Basquiat. Ho sempre saputo che un giorno sarei venuto a vivere in questa metropoli, ne ero certo. Sapevo già allora che in qualche modo appartenevo a questa città.

S.N: Nel 1983 avevo poco più di vent’anni e ricordo quando sono arrivata a New York e sono andata a vivere nell’East Village, che in quel periodo era pieno di gallerie d’arte underground. Eravamo in pieno boom economico, ma la vera attrazione era la scena underground. Ricordo che alle inaugurazioni delle mostre ti poteva capitare di incontrare Haring, Andy Warhol o Basquiat e Madonna si esibiva nel circuito dei locali notturni. A quei tempi uscivo con un graffitista piuttosto famoso che esponeva alla Tony Shafrazi Gallery, e tramite lui ho conosciuto diversi artisti affermati. L’ambiente era davvero multiculturale, c’erano molto artisti ispanici e afroamericani, anche ballerini di breakdance. A New York si respirava un’atmosfera molto emozionante e bohémienne.

Y.N: In quel periodo sognavi già di diventare un’artista?

S.N: Poco tempo dopo essere arrivata a New York ho pensato che fosse meglio mettere da parte quell’idea. Ero molto intimidita dalle gallerie d’arte e dalla competitività di chi voleva avere successo come artista. Ho deciso che mi sarei accontentata di rimanere a osservare. Inoltre non potevo dimenticare la realtà e cioè che avevo bisogno di guadagnarmi da vivere… così ho iniziato a lavorare pur continuando a vivere nell’East Village e a frequentare il mondo dell’arte. Ho lavorato per quasi dieci anni in una galleria no profit, la Storefront for Art and Architecture, che per me è stata una vera e propria scuola di formazione, mi ha fatto scoprire un mondo che non conoscevo. Poi un giorno, nel 1993, mi è capitato fra le mani per puro caso un volantino pubblicitario in cui si chiedeva agli artisti emergenti di presentare una proposta per una personale alla Franklin Furnace, una nota galleria alternativa. Ero appena stata in Iran e avevo delle idee, così ho scritto un progetto di una pagina e con mia enorme sorpresa sono stata accettata. Ho fatto alcune fotografie e due video e ho allestito una mostra… è stato così che ho iniziato, esattamente dieci anni dopo essere arrivata a New York.

Y.N: È fantastico quando riesci a farcela da solo, quando vuoi realizzare qualcosa con tutte le tue forze e investi tutte le tue energie in quel progetto finché non ci riesci. Io ho iniziato con pochissimi mezzi, non avevo denaro e neppure una macchina fotografica. All’inizio me la facevo prestare da un amico, poi ho cominciato a risparmiare il più possibile per comprarne una e per continuare a lavorare, a fare fotografie. Non avevo un posto da usare come studio, solo la mia camera da letto che dividevo con il mio gemello. Non so più quante volte gli ho chiesto di dormire nel soggiorno per avere la stanza a mia disposizione; mettevo un letto sopra l’altro e usavo lo spazio che rimaneva come studio. Poi ho deciso di mettere da parte i soldi per comprare un biglietto per New York e tentare di esporre i miei lavori in America. Quando sono venuto qui avevo pochi soldi così ho cercato subito un lavoro. Mi sembrava strano trovarmi all’improvviso nella necessità di sopravvivere in questa città folle. Volevo rimanerci il più a lungo possibile, volevo che accadesse qualcosa, volevo conoscere persone e mostrare loro il mio lavoro. Ho capito presto che dovevo dimenticare tutte le comodità a cui ero abituato in Egitto e adattarmi alla nuova situazione e fare di tutto per rimanere a vivere qui. Ho consegnato pizze, ho lavorato in un negozio di manifesti vintage e ho fatto il cameriere in un ristorante. Lo confesso, non ero bravo in nessuno di questi lavori. Il mio pensiero fisso era diventare un artista.

S.N: Mi sono trovata in una situazione simile quando sono arrivata a New York dopo aver ottenuto un master in Belle Arti all’Università di Berkeley, in California. Il titolo di studio non mi ha aiutato a trovare lavoro, ho fatto la receptionist in un salone di bellezza e sono stata licenziata poco dopo perché sembravo sempre annoiata. Poi ho lavorato per un’azienda tessile, disegnavo tessuti… un lavoro molto stupido. Un giorno non ce l’ho fatta più, sono andata dal capo e gli ho detto: “Me ne vado. Preferisco essere un’artista povera piuttosto che continuare a lavorare qui”. È stato il giorno più bello della mia vita.

Y.N: La nostra vita è fatta di capitoli, uno termina e ne inizia un altro.

S.N: Hai ragione, la vita è come un susseguirsi di capitoli. La mia vita ha seguito uno schema imprevedibile, sviluppandosi in tante direzioni diverse. Talvolta mi chiedo quale sarà la prossima. La gente come me e te non ha seguito le orme paterne né le vie più normali, quelle in cui solitamente si ha il conforto della prevedibilità… Noi stiamo meglio nell’incertezza. Il fatto di assumersi personalmente dei rischi sembra parte integrante del nostro fare arte.

Y.N: L’incertezza è così grande nelle nostre vite perché non sappiamo mai veramente cosa ci riserva il futuro. Sai, a volte penso alla mia vita come a un film, io sono qui solo per vedere cosa accadrà dopo. A te non capita mai?

S.N: Sì, succede anche a me. Devo ammettere che quando la situazione diventa troppo normale, divento molto nervosa.

Y.N: Penso che ci sentiremo così per il resto della nostra vita.

New York, giugno 2008

In conversation with Shirin Neshat English

Shirin Neshat: When was the first time you felt the urge to become an artist?

Youssef Nabil: I think the desire to be an artist came from my childhood, and from watching old Egyptian movies on TV. I think I was about four or five years old when I really understood cinema, that people were acting in movies. The idea that someone is telling a story through a movie fascinated me—that these people are playing a kind of game to tell us a story, but nothing in this story is real, no one is actually related to anyone else, and if they die in the story they don't really die in real life. On another level, I was fascinated by actors being immortalized through art, that you could watch actors fifty years after they died and still be in love with them. I always knew I wanted to work with images—moving or still. Images affected me strongly even then. I think I understood early on how powerful an image could be.

S.N: That is very interesting because, now that you say that, it occurs to me that your portraits are very cinematic … They have a kind of obsession with the notion of stardom and the glamour of cinema. Also, aside from cinema, your photographs are of course reminiscent of old-fashioned photography in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt. Were you inspired by this?

Y.N: Yes, first it was old cinema in Egypt—Technicolor movies—then, later on, hand-painted movie posters and hand-colored black-and-white family portraits influenced me. They were all over, lining Cairo's streets in the seventies and eighties. I really liked the idea of working by hand on images. I used to draw and paint a lot, always portraits; then, when I started making photographs, I thought of mixing them with my painting and felt that I wanted to keep this technique in my work. So I looked for the old colorists, the ones who used to color portraits for portrait studios in Cairo and Alexandria, and this is how I learned the technique.

S.N: Your portraits have an ability to make everyone you photograph look more beautiful than they are … You sort of detect and then exaggerate an ordinary beauty, and turn your characters into "superstars."

Y.N: This comes from the way I see them really … again, as in old movies, where everyone was beautiful, had to be beautiful. Everyone looked great in those movies, the old actors and the young ones. This is how I see people. I don't see wrinkles—even though sometimes a wrinkle can be very beautiful, but I try to present people at their best.

S.N: How did you get started?

Y.N: It was in August 1992, when I first called some friends from school to ask them to play roles in little scenes that I had written and wanted to photograph. These scenes were very cinematic. I was studying French literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo, but I decided that I wanted to do what I loved most, which was photography. First I was shooting only in black and white, then later I decided to color my photographs by hand, to keep this old feeling in them. People didn't understand what I was doing at first, but soon I had clients calling and asking me to photograph them in the way that I did these first photographs. It happened so fast even I was surprised. Then in November, while shooting a friend at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, a young American guy saw me and started asking me questions about where to get these films, and how to find models to shoot for his assignment in Egypt. It was David LaChapelle, with whom I worked in New York afterwards, from 1993 to 1994. After this I went back to Cairo, finished my studies at university, my military service … In 1997, through a common friend, I met Mario Testino in Cairo, then went to Paris and worked with him between 1997 and 1998. Then I decided I wanted to return to Cairo and started exhibiting my work.

S.N: I find that in your self-portraits, there is a narrative aspect to the photographs that does not exist in other portraits you take. Perhaps it has to do with the way you can afford to take time, and the way that, for example, you emphasize the background, whether interior or exterior landscape. Your self-portraits become a type of diary. As you travel through places, we see geographical locations changing, but what remains constant is you. It feels like through these images, you are trying to say something about yourself, or that experience … that journey, or that single moment. What is your explanation for your self-portraits?

Y.N: My self-portraits tell a different story from the portrait work. I've always been very aware that every moment I live will be a memory soon afterwards. It's the idea of leaving, that we might be here now but leave for somewhere else afterwards. This idea was in all my thoughts, this force of life that is stronger than us. Also in relation to death, of course … I understood at a very young age that we are here to leave, not to stay; that no one lives forever, everyone must go. I do my self-portraits in cities that I visit, in which I am just a visitor. I know I will be leaving in a few days. I feel the same about my whole life, up until death. For me living is about coming to a place that is not yours, then having to go.

S.N: I see in your self-portraits Youssef the performer, the actor, the storyteller. I'm curious whether you actually operate the camera or someone else does. Are you like Cindy Sherman, for example, who I believe is usually alone in her room—she sets up the photos, then "click"? It's interesting because in Cindy's case, when you meet her, you discover how timid she is, and then one wonders how she can be so animated in front of the camera. Is this simply the question of "privacy" that allows an artist to become totally free, either to play a role or to truly reveal themselves?

Y.N: I definitely have to be by myself when making these works—it is a very personal process. I'm not surprised that Cindy Sherman is a shy person. I think someone could easily play roles in front of the camera and still be a shy person. But I definitely have to be by myself, although this is not easy as I shoot most of the self-portraits outdoors, and there are always a few people around. I take the photographs by myself, but I've had to ask for assistance a few times, especially in those photographs where I am really far away from the camera. In Self-Portrait, Vincennes, 2003, I was on the other side of a river so I had to have an assistant with me.

S.N: Self-portraiture is a very sensitive subject. I'm a very self-conscious person, I really don't like being in front of the camera, and I stopped posing for my own photographs back in the late nineties. But I remember that while I was shooting self-portraits, it was always that I was performing another character. I by no means wanted the portraits to say something about myself. The images almost had a sociological approach to them; they became rather iconic, studies of people. What Cindy Sherman does in a way is very similar: she acts, she plays roles of people with whom she has absolutely nothing in common. But your self-portraits in a way become studies of you, as if you are trying to discover something about yourself, and you share that experience with your viewer. So we approach self-portraiture for totally different purposes.

Y.N: It was mainly in 2003 that I started doing them. It was the year I left Egypt to live in France. I left my life in Cairo behind, and I found myself in a totally new place. I started asking myself questions about life, my life, my country, and the idea of being away. In a way, I felt that I had closed a door behind me, that I was no longer the person I used to be. Again it was the idea of leaving. So I decided to talk about this in my work. But you know, self-portraits sort of come to me, I never really plan to do them in advance. I did one recently when I was in Los Angeles. I saw this very old tree next to my hotel. Its roots came out of the ground and went all over … I saw the roots and I thought of life and where I come from. I decided to make a self-portrait there, with roots.

S.N: This takes us to the next topic I'd like to bring up, the idea of contemporary "nomads," like the two of us, who are constantly on the move from one place to another. In your self-portraits you seem to focus a lot on the notion of memory, the passage of time, and places that you have experienced.

Y.N: I've never really felt that I belong to one place. I've always felt like part of a circus team—now we are in this city, tomorrow we move somewhere else. I became familiar with this idea and what it takes emotionally to start all over again somewhere else. But I am a very nostalgic person, and the most difficult part for me is leaving people I love—my friends and family, places I used to go to, the particular light or smell of each city I have lived in. I don't know how long this will last. I guess it is our choice. Do you feel like you belong to one place?

S.N: Not at all, I'm also in a constant state of geographical and psychological shift as I move about the world. For example, the past few days I've been obsessing about my memories of Morocco, how this time last year I was living there, how I was a different person, in a different community of friends, a totally different culture … and somehow as I look back, I can't help but feel a sort of sadness in how that experience is gone and cannot be repeated. Generally, I find history, memory, and the feeling of nostalgia very painful emotions. In your self-portraits I also detect a strong feeling of melancholy, even pain, and I'm surprised to hear you talk about the subject of death so much …Why is that?

Y.N: I thought a lot about death when I was a child. It was actually a very painful discovery for me as a kid. I started thinking that someone I love might die, and I prayed to God all the time to keep everyone I love alive. I have no idea why I became obsessed with this and just couldn't be at peace with it. I wanted the people I love never to die. But once I started exhibiting my work, I felt that I would have to leave Egypt. A big, important part of it was that I felt I needed to go somewhere where I would feel freer to show the work I do. My work has always had a sexual connotation to it, and not everyone was happy with that. I felt it in so many ways, especially when I started showing on exhibitions, and I sort of felt that there are two Egypts living next to each other—the very modern one I grew up in, and a very conservative one. Unfortunately the conservative one is the majority.

S.N: Now let me bring up another subject which is that, for artists such as myself and yourself, Ghada Amer, and many other artists we know, although we are Middle Eastern and our topics often refer to our own cultures, our work is mostly viewed by Westerners. So we all risk this idea of the Orientalization of our cultures. In fact, many people from our own culture accuse us of making "exotic" work for Westerners to fulfill their curiosities and fantasies about Muslim countries, whether our topics are political or sexual … And at times we have been attacked by Muslim artists living in the Middle East who question the credibility of artists who no longer live on their own turf, yet whose art somehow functions as a type of dialogue about their homelands. How do you position yourself as an artist? Do you think that distance from one's country in fact gives the proper freedom and necessary perspective?

Y.N: I don't think it's about where you actually live. For me it is about being honest, and about what you feel about yourself. No one can really tell us that you're less Iranian or that I'm less Egyptian because we live in the West, or that you're not supposed to be this or that … We talk about issues that are related to us; we cannot do work that we have no relation to. One of the most beautiful things that I saw when we were in Morocco last year for your filming was how you created a whole Iran in the middle of Morocco! And you did it before in Mexico. You were paying attention to all the details in order to create your country somewhere else, and I find that very poetic. I think you leave your country only when you have to, when you feel that you can't live there any more. You leave and try to find another place, where other people share your ideas, your thoughts, and your problems. In a way these people become like family and you create your own country around you, and this is what each of us did in a different way.

S.N: I find your photographs sexually charged, very erotic, which I find very courageous considering your culture and all the sexual taboos that you face.

Y.N: It's very important for me to feel free about what I want to say or photograph. Even while living in Egypt, I always managed to show some nudity in my shows there. It was never in a vulgar way, but still I was criticized for doing it. You know, I was surprised to find that in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo there are a lot of nude portrait paintings. In my shows people were actually more shocked by the fact that it is photography. I think people tend to be more open minded and accepting toward a painted nude, because it could be from the artist's imagination or something, but with photography, this is not the case. Photography is more real and direct; people are sure that someone was actually naked in front of the camera, and they don't like that. For me it was never about showing nudity. For me it was about being true and honest and getting to know someone in the most intimate way. But you know, I feel the same way about your work—some of your work is very erotic.

S.N: It's very true. My characters, as much as they are often concealed, are also very erotic. The portraits, particularly from the Women of Allah series, clearly touch on how sexuality is taboo in Islamic cultures, but sex is everywhere and unavoidable. In fact, the religious restrictions seem to heighten the sexual experience, the temptation for the opposite sex. One becomes quite imaginative with the slightest hint of an open shirt, a gaze, or modest body language, just as your photographs show. Very few Muslim artists that I know seem to have the luxury of showing their art both in their own country and in the West. In the case of some artists like you and me, our public is mostly outside of our country, and at home people can only access it through the Internet. We therefore have a divided audience, with some who don't entirely understand the work but are drawn to it (in the West), and others who understand it but mostly dismiss it (in the Middle East). So we as artists learn to live in what they call the global village, and try to survive both emotionally and professionally. Needless to say, I'm frustrated by often reductive and simplistic readings of my work by Western critics, who I think lack the proper cultural and historical knowledge about my background. How do you feel about the way your art has been interpreted in the West?

Y.N: I've had a similar experience, but I've never felt it's a real problem. I think it's part of who we are. Of course, if we show our work in the West, they are always going to pick up on issues that are related to our culture—Islam, veiled women, sex issues, et cetera, what you can and cannot show in your country—because they will never really see you as an American artist, although you have lived most of your life in the United States. I don't think it is a problem—it will always be the case, and it always has been for many artists. You know, it has happened so many times that the subject of Iran comes up in conversation, and I find a lot of people immediately think of your work as a strong reference to what is going on. In a way, you have become like a speaker for a whole nation, involuntarily—I don't think you intended to, it just happened. I think it will always be like this.

S.N: In many ways, it appears as if we're fighting the battle on both grounds. On the one hand, in the West, we are resisting Western clichés and stereotypes about our cultures and trying to insist on all the complexities of our societies as well as the universal values of our art. And in the Middle East, we often face prejudices as many find us suspicious as artists who no longer live in their own countries but choose subjects related to their authentic culture. Having been a frequent subject of your portraits, I've noticed that you always manage to get the best out of the person you're photographing. I don't know how to explain it. How do you approach your characters before you take their portraits? I remember in the portraits you did of me last year in Casablanca, we only had ten minutes together!

Y.N: It is very important for me to like the person, to like his or her work, or simply how he or she looks. In your case it's all three of these. I need to kind of agree with the idea behind the person I will photograph; I need to want to keep part of them living with me, through my work. It is like a big family or a big land to which I invite people I like.

S.N: Then there's also the way you get your characters to perform in front of your camera, the way you beautify them, and the way you intervene after the photograph is taken by painting it. It reminds me again of film making, where as the director you choose actors, you have to work with them, dress them, and then try to get the best performance out of them. I remember the first time we met, and you asked me to wear my favorite jewelry … it was a little like playing dress up, something that I really enjoy but am often too shy to try.

Y.N: It is definitely a role that you play, and I either have to choose the right person to play this role, or create a story around a person whose character I already like. I like people with strong characters. I like strong women, like Tracey Emin, Zaha Hadid, Marina Abramovi´c, or Fifi Abdou in Egypt. For me they are already icons of our times without really choosing to be. But you know, when I think of women artists who have a very unique look or beauty, among the very few who come to mind are you and Frida Kahlo.

S.N: She's one of my favorite artists too. What I like about Frida is that her beauty is not about vanity, it's about an inner beauty. Her obsession with jewelry is similar to how she liked to surround herself with beautiful objects. It made her complete … She was feminine and masculine, tough and delicate, strong and weak. In my opinion she became even more beautiful with age. Her physical pain—as devastating as it was—never robbed her of her style. She was a true inspiration, an artist whose art became total—she was her art, she wore her art … To this date, you cannot think about Frida's art without thinking about her self image, her body, her style.

Y.N: She was also very Mexican in the way she dressed, her make-up, jewelry, the flower crowns she wore. She never copied anyone else; she herself was a work of art. I remember the first time I laid eyes on her, I immediately fell in love with her picture, the way she wore these crowns of flowers. It was in 1993 in New York. I was supposed to go to Martinique for a shoot with David LaChapelle but couldn't get a visa. So I stayed in his apartment in the East Village, and found this book in my room—it was her first biography that came out in the United States. And I became very interested in knowing more about her and her work. So I spent the whole time in New York reading about her. She was very human in the way she represented herself, and I was deeply affected by the fact that she exhibited her pain, her suffering, her sorrow. You've been living in New York since 1983. I imagine New York in the eighties was a great experience. I missed it, but the first time I came to New York, in 1993, I stayed in the East Village. At that time people always said that the East Village still had something left from the eighties. I think all the fun happened in the eighties. I was in Cairo at the time, dreaming of living in New York, reading about all the artists there. I was a teenager, and I made a big collage on the wall behind my bed with pictures of all the artists I liked, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I always knew that I would live in New York one day; I was almost sure of it. I knew that somehow I belonged there.

S.N: I remember in 1983, when I was in my early twenties, I arrived in NYC and moved to the East Village. At that time, the East Village was a central place for underground art galleries. Although the economy seemed to be booming, the underground scene was the attraction. I remember at art openings you often ran into Haring, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, and on the club scene you could find Madonna performing. I dated a well-known graffiti artist who showed with the Tony Shafrazi gallery, so through him I met several well-established artists. The scene was very multicultural; there were a lot of Hispanic and African American artists, break dancers. There was truly an exciting and bohemian atmosphere in New York.

Y.N: At that time, were you dreaming of becoming an artist?

S.N: Soon after I arrived in NYC, I thought, "Forget about being an artist" … I became extremely intimidated by galleries and the competitive nature of making it as an artist. I decided I would be happy just to be an observer. Plus there was also the reality that I had to earn money to survive … so I took jobs while still living in the East Village and following the art world. I also worked for about ten years at a non-profit gallery, Storefront for Art and Architecture, which became an opening to a whole new world, and a great education. Then one day in 1993, by total accident, I saw a flyer asking emerging artists for proposals for a solo exhibition at the well-known Franklin Furnace, an alternative gallery. I had just been in Iran and had some ideas, so I wrote a one-page proposal, and to my shock I was accepted. I went on to produce several photographs and two videos, and made a show … So this became the beginning, exactly ten years after I arrived in NYC.

Y.N: It feels great when you do it on your own—when you really want to realize something, and spend all your life trying, till you get it. I started with very little—I had no money, not even a camera to use. I borrowed my first camera from a friend, then tried to save all the money I made to buy this camera so I could continue to work, to take more pictures. I had no place to shoot except for my bedroom, which I shared with my twin brother. I can't count the nights I had to ask him to sleep in our living room, because I would put both beds on top of each other and use the space in order to turn our bedroom into a studio. Then I had to save every penny to try to buy an airplane ticket and go to New York for the first time, and to try to show my work in New York. When I first came here, I had very little money and immediately started looking for a job. It felt really strange that I suddenly had to think of how to survive in this wild place. I just wanted to stay here as long as possible. I wanted things to happen. I wanted to meet people and show them my work. So I realized that I had to forget about all the comforts I had in Egypt, and I adapted to this new situation, where I only had to think of how to stay here as long as possible. I had to do jobs like pizza delivery, I worked in a vintage posters place, then in a restaurant, and I can tell you that I wasn't good at all in any of these jobs. I was thinking all the time of my art career.

S.N: I was in a similar situation when I came to NYC after getting my Master of Fine Arts degree from a university in Berkeley, California. This degree did not help me to find a job, so I started out working as a receptionist at a fancy hair salon, where I was fired after a short while for being bored. Later I worked at a textile company, designing patterns for fabrics … a very silly job. One day I could not handle the job any more—I walked over to my boss and said, "I quit! I'd rather be a poor artist than work here." This was the happiest day of my life.

Y.N: These are like chapters in our lives. One chapter ends, another one opens.

S.N: You're right, there seems to be one chapter after another in life. My life has been one unpredictable pattern that has been blown in different directions, and sometimes I wonder what is next. People like you and I have not followed in our parents' footsteps or the normal paths that people seem to take in life, where there is usually some comfort of predictability …We seem to thrive on the unknown. Taking risks in our personal lives seems integral with our art making practice.

Y.N: Uncertainty is so big in our lives because we never really knew where the future would take us. You know, I feel sometimes that I am living in my own movie—that I'm just here to witness what is going to happen. Don't you feel that way sometimes?

S.N: Yes, I really do. I have to say I get incredibly nervous when things become too normal.

Y.N: I think we will feel like this for the rest of our lives.

New York, June 2008

In conversation with Ghada Amer
New York, June 2008

In conversation with Ghada Amer Italian

Ghada Amer: Sai, sei l’unico artista egiziano con cui riesco a parlare tranquillamente del mio lavoro. Tu conosci il mondo da cui vengo, ti piacciono le mie opere, non le critichi né le consideri immorali o roba del genere. Credo sia molto importante sentirsi liberi, di certo lo è per noi che siamo artisti.

Youssef Nabil: Se ci pensi, abbiamo fatto un percorso simile: abbiamo frequentato la stessa scuola francese al Cairo, il lycée El Horeya; ci siamo trasferiti entrambi prima in Francia e poi negli Stati Uniti e adesso viviamo tutti e due a New York, a Harlem. Apparteniamo anche alla stessa classe sociale. Le nostre famiglie non erano molto ricche ma hanno voluto mandarci nelle scuole migliori. Il denaro è sempre stato un problema.

G.A: È vero! Noi eravamo i bambini più poveri della scuola francese al Cairo. Perché hai deciso di venire negli Stati Uniti?

Y.N: Vivere in America era il mio sogno più grande. Sentivo sempre parlare degli artisti che vivevano a New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol… Per me New York era la città degli artisti. E poi, avevo uno zio che viveva a Detroit.

G.A: Stai parlando del tuo zio cristiano? È stato difficile avere una famiglia in parte cristiana e in parte musulmana?

Y.N:Mio padre era per metà greco e per metà libanese. Era cristiano ma intorno ai trent’anni si è convertito all’islam. Così io sono cresciuto con parenti musulmani da parte di madre e parenti cristiani da parte di padre. Mi piaceva, soprattutto quando si trattava di celebrare le feste religiose, festeggiavamo sia il Ramadan sia il Natale. In realtà, non è che pensassimo troppo al fatto di essere musulmani con parenti cristiani. Io sono sempre stato orgoglioso del lato cristiano della mia famiglia. Anzi, una situazione del genere dovrebbe essere la norma in Egitto: musulmani e cristiani insieme. Mi dispiaceva quando a scuola ci separavano durante l’ora di religione. Pensavo che fosse crudele dividere le persone anziché unirle, ed ero sempre curioso di sapere cosa studiassero i cristiani. Credo che l’educazione religiosa a scuola debba comprendere tutte le fedi perché quel tipo di separazione poi ci segue anche nella vita: io vado da una parte, tu dall’altra… È sbagliato.

G.A: Sono d’accordo con te. Sai che sei l’unica persona in America con cui parlo in arabo? Con le mie sorelle parlo in francese, con i miei genitori che vivono al Cairo in arabo. È curioso, ma solo quando parlo in arabo mi sento egiziana.

Y.N: Ma tu ti senti egiziana?

G.A: Be’, mi sento francese, americana ed egiziana. E tu?

Y.N: Egiziano e un po’ francese.

G.A: Quando sei venuto a New York per la prima volta?

Y.N: Sono venuto a New York per la prima volta nel 1993, per lavorare con David LaChapelle. Ho amato questa città sin dal primo giorno. Ricordo che nevicava quando sono uscito dall’aeroporto e fuori c’era una lunga limousine nera che mi aspettava per portarmi allo studio di David nell’East Village. Per me, a quell’età, è stato un evento.

G.A: Com’è stato lavorare con lui?

Y.N: È stato il mio primo incontro con un altro artista ed è stato fantastico. Non ho frequentato una scuola d’arte così quando l’ho conosciuto al Cairo alcuni mesi prima mi è sembrato un segno del destino. E poi abbiamo avuto l’opportunità di continuare a lavorare insieme a New York. È stato un po’ come nel Rinascimento, quando gli artisti andavano a bottega dai maestri prima di aprirne una propria. Ho tanti ricordi bellissimi di quel periodo a New York. David mi portava in quei bar folli e stava a parlare con un sacco di donne e quando uscivamo mi diceva: “Ti sei accorto che erano tutti uomini, vero?”. Mi sono divertito molto.

G.A: E New York ti piace ancora?

Y.N: Sì, è cambiata ma ci sono ancora tante cose che mi piacciono. Probabilmente anche io sono cambiato. Quando sono lontano mi manca sempre.

G.A: Ti piace vivere a Harlem?

Y.N: Sì, mi ricorda alcuni quartieri del Cairo. Ci sono moltissimi musulmani africani, vendono prodotti dei loro paesi. È un quartiere vivace e la gente è cordiale. Ci sono tante moschee, e a volte il venerdì si sente anche il richiamo alla preghiera. È un po’ come vivere in un paese povero, detto in senso positivo.

G.A: Sono d’accordo. A Brooklyn ci sono intere strade di negozi egiziani, ma Harlem mi fa pensare di più all’Egitto.

Y.N: A Harlem c’è la giusta dose d’Egitto, una sorta di profumo che si sente in lontananza.

G.A: Pensi che riusciresti a tornare a vivere in Egitto?

Y.N: Forse un giorno… Probabilmente vivrei al Cairo, nel quartiere dove sono cresciuto, Heliopolis, o forse nel deserto. Mi piacerebbe vivere in una zona tranquilla e andare al centro o a Zamalek solo quando ne ho voglia. Per questo vivo a Harlem, è più tranquillo rispetto a Manhattan.

G.A: Il mio unico problema con il Cairo è la famiglia e la morale che vige in quel paese, a cui non potrei sfuggire perché sono donna. Forse per te è diverso perché sei un uomo. Gli uomini sono liberissimi in Egitto, possono uscire e tornare a casa all’ora che preferiscono, possono anche passare la notte fuori, ma a me non è permesso, giusto?

Y.N: Quando vivevo al Cairo, dovevo chiamare i miei genitori per avvisarli se passavo la notte fuori. Tu non potresti fare lo stesso?

G.A: Impossibile! Alle nove di sera comincerebbero già a chiamarmi al cellulare, dove sei? Quando torni? Se non sono a casa entro mezzanotte sarebbero capaci di telefonare alla polizia! No, non lo trovo giusto. Quando sono lì e vedo come vivono gli uomini provo una sorta di invidia; anch’io vorrei poter vivere in quel modo. A volte i miei familiari mi lasciano andare in giro da sola per qualche giorno e allora mi sento felicissima e mi ritrovo a pensare che mi sarebbe piaciuto essere un uomo. L’Egitto è un posto fantastico per gli uomini.

Y.N: Penso che lo stesso valga per la maggior parte dei paesi arabi. Se non sei un uomo, non hai lo stesso rapporto con il paese.

G.A: Proprio così. E se non sei sposata è ancora più difficile, perché la gente ti guarda in modo diverso. È ingiusto. Ma ho sentito dire che in Egitto anche un uomo che vive da solo è guardato con diffidenza.

Y.N: Il punto è che alla gente piace comunque parlare, così quando qualcuno vive da solo – che sia uomo o donna fa poca differenza – significa che nella sua casa succede qualcosa di sbagliato! Ma sai le cose sono cambiate anche lì. Io conosco molte ragazze che tornano a casa dopo mezzanotte. Il Cairo è molto animata di notte: i negozi e i caffè rimangono aperti fino a tardi. È come New York.

G.A: Sì, a volte anch’io ho quest’impressione, ma di notte per strada vedo soltanto uomini!

Y.N: È interessante il fatto che tu abbia due vite completamente diverse, una in Egitto e l’altra a New York. Mi colpisce anche il modo in cui porti i capelli: lisci in Egitto per avere l’aspetto di una brava ragazza egiziana e più ricci a New York per far furore in discoteca… Mi accorgo adesso che sei molto timida; non lo avrei mai detto, soprattutto guardando il tuo lavoro.

G.A: Ma tu mi preferisci in versione egiziana!

Y.N: Certo, sembri la regina di una dinastia faraonica! Hai mai pensato di usare la fotografia nel tuo lavoro?

G.A: La fotografia è stata il mio primo amore. Mio padre mi ha regalato la prima macchina quando avevo quattordici anni, ho scattato molte fotografie, ho seguito dei corsi… Ero davvero molto presa ma non ho continuato. L’unico lavoro fotografico che abbia mai esposto è stato I Love Paris del 1992. Avevo intenzione di fotografare le opere che avevo realizzato nelle strade di Panama, ma sono state confiscate prima che ci riuscissi. E tu hai mai pensato di disegnare o dipingere?

Y.N: Disegnavo moltissimo prima di iniziare a occuparmi di fotografia. La mia idea di combinare pittura e fotografia risale a quel periodo. Il mio principale interesse erano le fotografie, ma volevo farle apparire come dipinti. Per questo coloro a mano le mie stampe in bianco e nero. In effetti è stato proprio il disegno a spingermi ad adottare questa tecnica.

G.A: La tua famiglia ti ha incoraggiato?

Y.N: Quando ho comunicato loro che volevo comprare una macchina fotografica per diventare un fotografo si sono preoccupati. Non avevano capito bene di cosa parlassi, visto che in Egitto i fotografi non esponevano in galleria come gli artisti. La famiglia, però, è stata il mio primo pubblico. Ho scattato le prime foto nella mia camera da letto. Tutte le volte che avevo un’idea nuova la trasformavo in una sorta di studio. Molti dei miei primi lavori sono nati in quella stanza e la mia famiglia era sempre presente, mi guardava lavorare. Sono stati molto importanti per la mia carriera.

G.A: Sei felice quando vengono a trovarti a New York?

Y.N: Sì, mi ricorda di quando vivevamo insieme in Egitto. Per loro io non sono cambiato. E quando sono qui rimangono tutto il giorno a guardarmi mentre lavoro o dipingo. A volte mi sento in colpa perché non ho tempo per portarli in giro a visitare la città. Per me New York è un luogo in cui lavorare, è una grande metropoli.

G.A: Un grande ufficio.

Y.N: Sai, tutte le volte che vado al JFK, quando il taxi attraversa il fiume mi volto sempre indietro a guardare la città. Non la vedo come una città vera, ma come una grande fabbrica. E tutti quei grattacieli altissimi sono le sue ciminiere. Quando torno a New York mi sento come un operaio in mezzo a milioni di altri.

G.A: Ma qui lavori meglio che a Parigi?

Y.N: Qui lavoro molto di più. Parigi è troppo bella per lavorare.

G.A: Per me è lo stesso. Lavoro meglio a New York perché qui mi sento molto più libera e poi mi sento davvero a casa.

Y.N: Be’ ci vivi da undici anni.

G.A: Ma ho vissuto in Francia per ventun’anni e non mi sono mai sentita a casa! L’unica città francese in cui mi sento a mio agio è Nizza.

Y.N: Credo che ci si possa sentire a casa in più di una città.

G.A: Io non mi sento a casa in Egitto, non provo un vero senso di appartenenza a quel paese ma lo amo. Tu senti di appartenere a New York?

Y.N: Sì, ma non voglio morire qui. O per meglio dire, non voglio essere sepolto qui.

G.A: Neppure io. Non voglio essere seppellita qui, se è per questo neanche in Egitto, per quanto il deserto…

Y.N: Il deserto è sempre una buona idea.

G.A: Parlo di vita e tu finisci col parlare di morte. È triste e al tempo stesso affascinante.

Y.N: La morte fa parte della vita. Io le ho sempre considerate insieme.

G.A: Lo si capisce dai tuoi autoritratti. Quali temi affronti nelle altre serie?

Y.N: L’amore, il sesso, la solitudine…

G.A: È vero, ma c’è anche un forte richiamo al passato, giusto? Le tue immagini sono molto cinematografiche.

Y.N: Sì. Ti piace il cinema?

G.A: Quando ero bambina non guardavo mai i film. A casa mia la TV era proibita.

Y.N: Io la guardavo sempre! Tornavo a casa da scuola e la guardavo mentre pranzavo, mentre facevo i compiti e mi addormentavo persino davanti alla TV!

G.A: Noi guardavamo la TV il giovedì sera, forse il film del venerdì pomeriggio… Ma in realtà non ci era proprio permesso di guardarla. In Francia non avevamo neppure il televisore. Non ho una cultura televisiva. Per di più è un oggetto che mi distrae, le immagini scorrono troppo velocemente per i miei gusti. E poi quello che non mi piace nella maggior parte dei film egiziani è la morale. Si tratta sempre di storie moraliste. Li detesto! Anche se devo ammettere che nei vecchi film egiziani c’è un che di nostalgico.

Y.N: Il cinema di quel periodo era moralista in tutto il mondo. Era lo stesso a Hollywood.

G.A: Sarà, ma non mi piace lo stesso.

Y.N: A me i vecchi film egiziani piacciono perché mi ricordano com’era l’Egitto allora e mi fanno riflettere su ciò che è diventato oggi. E mi diverto a leggere i titoli di coda tanto quanto a vedere il film! Da quelli si capisce che mescolanza di nazionalità e religioni esisteva in Egitto. Sono la dimostrazione della ricchezza culturale del paese in quell’epoca, la gente si amava di più. Si leggeva il nome di un musulmano accanto a quello di un ebreo, un greco accanto a un armeno. La nostra società era molto ricca e più tollerante.

G.A: Mi sembra che oggi ci sia anche una forte frustrazione sessuale. E sotto questo profilo America ed Egitto non sono affatto diversi. In ogni caso in Egitto ci sono molte questioni relative alla sessualità da risolvere.

Y.N: Sono d’accordo ma sono convinto che oggi in Egitto la gente affronti questi argomenti in maniera più aperta. Ho visto molti programmi sui canali arabi e ad alcuni dibattiti partecipavano persino gli sceicchi religiosi.

G.A: Perché mai doveva esserci uno sceicco religioso?

Y.N: Perché c’è sempre un punto di vista religioso e uno più propriamente scientifico.

G.A: E il punto di vista dello spettatore!

Y.N: Ma a New York hai la TV e la parabola, li guardi i film?

G.A: Guardo soltanto i notiziari. L’accendo a volte quando sono un po’ giù di corda. Mi piacerebbe guardarla di più, ma in effetti mi stanca, ti ripeto le immagini scorrono troppo rapidamente!

Y.N: Tra le storie che ti riguardano c’è n’è una molto divertente, che non dimentico. Ricordi quella volta che eravamo sullo stesso volo Il Cairo-New York? Io leggevo una rivista e mi hai chiesto cosa stessi leggendo. Ti ho detto che era un articolo su Kate Moss e tu mi hai detto che non la conoscevi! La cosa mi ha sorpreso moltissimo.

G.A: Ma io non so ancora chi è!

Y.N: Sai chi è Elizabeth Taylor?

G.A: Ne ho sentito parlare. La riconoscerei, credo, se vedessi una sua fotografia.

Y.N: Sei fantastica, vivi in un mondo tutto tuo… Ma, ascolta, ciò che è strano è quello che è accaduto dopo. Un paio di giorni dopo sono andato a comprare la rivista Interview, un numero speciale su Elizabeth Taylor, e al momento di pagare il ragazzo alla cassa mi ha chiesto: “Chi è, è famosa?” “Sì” gli ho risposto, “non hai mai sentito parlare di Elizabeth Taylor?”. E lui: “No!”. Quella stessa settimana ho fotografato Louise Bourgeois. Siamo rimasti insieme per tre ore e mentre chiacchieravamo è saltato fuori il nome di Eva Hesse e lei ha detto di non conoscerla. Forse l’ha dimenticata o chissà che altro. Il giorno dopo ho rilasciato un’intervista al telefono a una giornalista australiana e lei mi ha chiesto di parlarle dell’ultima persona che avevo fotografato. Quando le ho risposto che si trattava di Louise Bourgeois mi ha detto: “Non la conosco, le spiace sillabarmi il suo nome?”. È stato stranissimo, mi sembrava di essere in un film o qualcosa del genere… Secondo me tutta questa storia conteneva un messaggio: forse dovevo riflettere sul fatto che niente è come lo si vede, che tutti noi vediamo le cose da angolazioni diverse. Ciò che è importante per uno non lo è per l’altro.

G.A: È vero. E lo trovo bellissimo!

Y.N: Io credo nel fatto che la vita ci mandi dei messaggi. Credo anche nei sogni, nei sogni veri con un significato speciale, non quelli che sono soltanto il riflesso di ciò che ti è accaduto durante il giorno.

G.A: Di recente in Egitto mi è successa una cosa davvero strana: confondevo i ricordi. All’improvviso non riuscivo più a ricordare se una cosa era accaduta due o venti anni prima!

Y.N: Quella è un’altra storia, ha a che fare con il tempo. In effetti il tempo l’abbiamo inventato noi. Il tempo non ha sempre la stessa lunghezza. Non hai mai l’impressione che alcuni giorni passino più velocemente di altri? E alcuni anni sono più lunghi di altri. Quest’anno, per esempio, è velocissimo. Ero in Egitto sei mesi fa ma mi sembra di esserci stato la settimana scorsa.

New York, giugno 2008

In conversation with Ghada Amer

Ghada Amer: You know, you are the only Egyptian artist with whom I feel completely secure talking about my work. I feel that you understand where I come from, and you like my work—you don't criticize it or say things like, "This is immoral." I think it is very important to feel free. This is surely our role as artists.

Youssef Nabil: When you think about it, we have both followed similar paths—we went to the same French school in Cairo, the lycée, El Horeya; we both moved first to France and then to the United States, and we both live in New York, in Harlem. We also come from the same social level. Our families didn't have much money but they wanted to send us to good schools. Money was always an issue.

G.A: Me too! We were the poorest kids at the French school in Cairo. Why did you want to come to the United States?

Y.N: It was my first big dream to come and live in America. I always heard about artists living in New York, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol … For me New York was the place for artists. I also had an uncle who lived in Detroit.

G.A: This is your Christian uncle? Was it difficult to have a Muslim side and a Christian side in your family?

Y.N:My father is half Greek, half Lebanese; he was born Christian then converted to Islam when he was about thirty. So I grew up having Muslim relatives on my mother's side and Christian relatives on my father's side. I loved it, especially when it came to celebrating all the religious festivals like Ramadan and Christmas! We never really thought about the fact that we were Muslims with Christian relatives. I was always proud of the Christian side in my family. For me this was how things should be in Egypt—half Muslim, half Christian. I never liked it when they separated us in school during religious classes.
I thought this was a cruel idea, separating people rather than unifying them, and was always very curious to know what the Christians were studying.
I think religious education in schools should encompass all religions, not just your own, because this separation follows us in life: I go here, you go there … It is very wrong.

G.A: Yes, I agree with you. Do you know that you are the only person in America with whom I speak Arabic? I even speak French to my sisters, although I do speak Arabic to my mother and father who live in Cairo. And it's only when I speak Arabic that I feel Egyptian.

Y.N: But do you feel that you are an Egyptian?

G.A: I feel French, American, and Egyptian. And you?

Y.N: Egyptian, and a bit French.

G.A: When did you first come to New York?

Y.N: I came to New York for the first time in 1993, to work with David LaChapelle. I loved it from the first day. I remember it was snowing when I stepped out of the airport, and a black stretch limousine was waiting to take me to David's studio in the East Village. For me, at that age, it was quite something.

G.A: What was it like working with him?

Y.N: It was my first encounter with another artist, and that was great. I didn't go to art school so it felt like destiny when we met in Cairo a few months before, and the opportunity came to continue working together in New York. It felt like the Renaissance period when artists worked in the studios of other artists before having their own. I have a lot of great memories of New York from that period. David used to take me to these crazy bars where he would talk to all these women, and when we left he would say, "You know they were all men, don't you?" It was a lovely time.

G.A: And do you still love New York?

Y.N: Yes—it has changed but there are still so many things I like about New York. I might have changed too. I always miss it when I'm away.

G.A: Do you like living in Harlem?

Y.N: Yes I do, it reminds me of some neighborhoods in Cairo. Lots of African Muslims live here—you see them selling stuff from their countries. It is a busy neighborhood and people are friendly. There are also lots of mosques and some Fridays you hear the call to prayer. It feels a bit like living in a poor country, in a good way.

G.A: I agree. In Brooklyn, there are whole streets with only Egyptian shops, but I have more of a sense of Egypt when I'm in Harlem.

Y.N: In Harlem, there is exactly the right dose of Egypt, like a perfume you smell from far away.

G.A: Could you ever go back and live in Egypt?

Y.N: Maybe one day … I would perhaps live in Cairo, in the neighborhood where I grew up, Heliopolis, or perhaps in the desert … I'd like to be able to live somewhere calmly and then choose to go to busy places, like Downtown or Zamalek, if I wanted to. This is the reason I live in Harlem—it's calmer than downtown Manhattan.

G.A: My one problem with Cairo is family—and the morals, which are everywhere because I am a woman. Perhaps you don't feel that so much because you are a man. Men are super-free in Egypt. You can go out and return home any time you want; you can also spend the night away from home, but I can't do that, right?

Y.N: When I was living in Cairo, I would have to call my parents to tell them I was not coming home for the night. Can't you do that?

G.A: Impossible! At 9 p.m. they already start calling me on my mobile—where are you, when will you be home? If I wasn't home by midnight they would call the police! No, it's not right, it doesn't feel fair. When I'm there and I see how men live, I become very jealous and want to be able to live my life that way too. Sometimes my family let me go somewhere by myself for a few days, and I feel extremely happy and just wish I was a man. It's a great place for men.

Y.N: I think most of the Arab world is like that. If you're not a man, you don't have the same relationship with the country.

G.A: Absolutely. And if you're not married it's more difficult, people look at you in a different way. It's not fair. But I've heard that in Egypt it's a bad thing even for a man to live alone.

Y.N: In general people like to talk, so when someone lives alone, whether they're a man or a woman, it means there is something wrong happening inside the apartment! But, you know, things have changed. I know so many girls who go home after midnight. Cairo is a night city; shops and cafés are open till very late. It's like New York.

G.A: Yes, sometimes I get that sense—but I only see men in the streets at night!

Y.N: It's very interesting how you have two completely different and opposite lives, one in Egypt, one in New York. Even the way you straighten your hair in Egypt to look like a good Egyptian girl, and the way you do it in New York to look like a disco queen … I also find you a very shy person, although I never think of you as shy, especially when I look at your work.

G.A: But you prefer my hair in Egypt!

Y.N: Yes, you look more Pharaonic! Have you ever thought of using photography in your work?

G.A: My first love was photography. My father gave me my first camera when I was fourteen and I took many photographs, did workshops … I was really into it but I didn't continue. The only photographic work I've exhibited is I Love Paris which I did in 1992. I also had the idea of photographing work I did in the streets in Panama, but they confiscated the work before I could photograph it. And you, have you ever thought of doing drawings or paintings?

Y.N: I did lots of drawings before I started working in photography. My idea of combining painting and photography comes from this time. I knew that I wanted to work with photographs, but I also knew that I would like them to be seen as paintings. That's why I hand color my black-and-white prints. It was actually drawing that made me color my photographs.

G.A: Did your family encourage you?

Y.N: They were very worried when I told them I wanted to buy a camera and be a photographer. They didn't really understand as there weren't any artists/photographers showing in galleries in Egypt. My family was really my first public. I started taking pictures in my bedroom. I used to transform it into a studio whenever I had an idea for a photograph. A lot of my early work was done in my room and my family was always around, watching me work. They are very important in my career.

G.A: Do you like it when they visit you in New York?

Y.N: Yes, it reminds me of living in Egypt. For them I haven't changed. They still watch me working and coloring all day long. Sometimes I feel bad because I can't really take them around and show them things in New York. For me New York is a place to work, a big metropolis.

G.A: A big office.

Y.N: You know, every time I go to JFK, when the cab crosses the river I always turn around and look back at the city, and sometimes I don't see it as a real city but as a big factory. I see all the long towers as the chimneys of one big factory! And when I get back to New York, I feel like I'm a worker among millions of other workers in this big factory.

G.A: But do you work better here than when you were in Paris?

Y.N: I work much more here. Paris is too beautiful to be a place for work.

G.A: Me too, I work better in New York because of the freedom I feel here. I feel very free in New York. I also feel at home in New York.

Y.N: Because you've lived here for eleven years.

G.A: But I lived in France for twenty-one years and never felt at home! I feel a bit at home in Nice.

Y.N: I think we can feel at home in more than one city.

G.A: I don't feel at home in Egypt—I don't feel that I really belong there—but I love Egypt. Do you feel like you belong in New York?

Y.N: Yes, I do. But I don't want to die here. I don't want to be buried here—that is another way of putting it.

G.A: Me too, I don't want to be buried in New York, or in Egypt—but perhaps in the desert there…

Y.N: The desert is always a good idea.

G.A: I talk about life and you talk about death. It is sad but beautiful at the same time.

Y.N: Death is part of life. I've always mixed them.

G.A: You see this in your self-portraits. In your other series, what concerns you?

Y.N: Love, sex, loneliness.

G.A: I can see that. You also speak about the past, don't you? Your work is very cinematic.

Y.N: Yes. Have you ever loved cinema?

G.A: I never really watched movies when I was a child. My family forbade us to watch television.

Y.N: I watched TV all the time! After school I would watch TV while eating, then I'd watch more TV while doing my homework, then I'd sleep in front of the TV!

G.A: We only watched TV on Thursday nights, maybe the movie on Friday afternoon … But we weren't really allowed to watch TV. In France, we didn't have TV at all. I have no TV culture. I also find that TV distracts me—the images move too fast for me. And what I don't like about most Egyptian movies is the morals. They are very moralistic. It's disgusting! But there is something nostalgic about old Egyptian movies.

Y.N: Cinema of that era was very moralistic all over the world. It was the same in Hollywood.

G.A: Yes, but I don't like it!

Y.N: What I like about old Egyptian movies is that they always remind me of what Egypt was like then, and what it has become today. I also enjoy reading the credits at the end of the movie as much as I enjoy watching the movie itself! You get a sense of this salad of nationalities and religions that existed in Egypt. It shows you how culturally rich we were at the time—people seemed to love each other more. You see a Muslim name next to a Jewish name, a Greek name next to an Armenian name. We had a very rich and more tolerant society then.

G.A: There is also huge sexual frustration now. I think America and Egypt are alike when it comes to sexual frustration. We have so many sexual issues to resolve in Egypt.

Y.N: I agree but, you know, people talk more openly about sexual issues in Egypt now. I have seen many programs on Arabic TV channels, some even involving religious Sheikhs in the discussions.

G.A: Why a religious Sheikh!

Y.N: There's always the religious opinion and the medical opinion!

G.A: And the viewer's opinion!

Y.N: But in New York you have a TV and a satellite dish—do you watch movies on it?

G.A: I only watch the news. I turn it on sometimes when I'm bored. I bought it just in case. I would love to watch more but find it very tiring—the images move too fast!

Y.N: One of the funniest stories about you, which I can't forget, is when we were together on the airplane from Cairo to New York. Do you remember—I was reading a magazine and you asked me what I was reading about? I told you it was an article about Kate Moss, and you said you didn't know who she was! I was very surprised that you had never heard of Kate Moss.

G.A: I still don't know who she is!

Y.N: Do you know who Elizabeth Taylor is?

G.A: I've heard of her. If I see her picture I'll know who she is.

Y.N: I find that very cute, you seem to live in your own world … But what is strange is what happened after that. A couple of days later I went to buy an Interview magazine, a special issue about Elizabeth Taylor, and when I was paying the guy asked me, "Who is she, is she famous?" I said, "Yes, you've never heard of Elizabeth Taylor?" and he said, "No!" That same week I photographed Louise Bourgeois. We spent three hours together and Eva Hesse came up in the conversation, and she went, "Never heard of her." Perhaps she'd forgotten her or something. Then the following day I did an interview over the phone with a journalist from Australia and she asked me about the last person I'd photographed. I said, "Louise Bourgeois," and she said, "I don't know who she is, could you please spell her name?" It was the strangest thing, like being in a movie or something … I think there was a message for me in this story. Maybe the message was that nothing is exactly the way we see it, that we all see life from different angles. What is important to you is not important for another person.

G.A: Absolutely. I love it!

Y.N: I believe in life sending you messages. I also believe in dreams—real dreams with messages, not the kind of dreams that reflect what you went through during the day.

G.A: You know, recently, in Egypt, something really strange happened to me: my memories got mixed up. Suddenly I couldn't remember if something had happened two years ago or twenty!

Y.N: That's another thing—time. We actually created time. Time doesn't always have the same length. Don't you feel that some days pass more quickly than others? And some years are longer than others. This year was so quick, for example. I was in Egypt six months ago but I feel like I was there last week.

New York, June 2008

Unfolding Youssef Nabil's desire
by Octavio Zaya, New York, 2008

Unfolding Youssef Nabils Desire Italian

Swallowed in the shadows that glow
(inghiottito dalle ombre che brillano)
—Anthony and the Johnsons

Ho scoperto il mondo di Youssef Nabil in un’occasione direi quasi familiare. Non solo perché Shirin Neshat mi aveva convinto ad accompagnarla all’inaugurazione della prima mostra newyorkese di un suo amico, “un fotografo egiziano”. Lo stile delle immagini di Nabil – il suo laborioso sforzo di colorarle tutte a mano pazientemente – che appariva così insolito agli altri visitatori non distraeva la mia attenzione da altre questioni, forse meno curiose e immediate; al contrario mi sentivo a mio agio, o perlomeno mi muovevo in un terreno a me familiare. In quel momento, la tecnica che aveva sedotto Nabil e che lui aveva imparato a usare in maniera così completa e brillante, mi parve semplicemente un effetto superficiale, al di sotto del quale il fotografo intrecciava e dipanava una storia personale e contemporanea – sia sua che nostra – sincera e allo stesso tempo ricca di allusioni. Ho scoperto successivamente, tuttavia, che questa attrattiva di superficie, all’apparenza curiosa e seducente, serve anche per comunicare un più profondo senso di ritardo e perdita, come se ci fosse sfuggita l’esperienza un tempo offerta da un mondo già sul punto di scomparire e fossimo costretti a contemplare, nello stesso tempo, l’immagine unica e la singolare sensibilità di un poeta che riflette sul generale declino della cultura.

Nabil condivide con l’amico Van Leo (Leon Boyadjian, 1921-2001), leggendario fotografo armeno-egiziano, l’atmosfera di fondo che conferisce alle sue fotografie quella fatale qualità di bellezza svanita, di decadente eleganza del passato, e di nostalgia sradicata. Come nel caso di Van Leo, il rapporto che lega Nabil al cinema – in particolare quello egiziano degli anni Settanta e i grandi classici degli anni Quaranta e Cinquanta – è inequivocabile e altrettanto evidente risulta il riferimento alla fotografia di scena di quella sorta di fotoromanzi con cui si pubblicizzavano o presentavano i film negli ingressi dei cinema (Nabil si ritrae spesso sotto la luce vivida di un’insegna)./font>

In effetti, il cinema è stato il primo amore di Nabil, un richiamo che l’ha poi indirizzato verso la fotografia. Ed è forse il cinema ad avergli ispirato l’ovvia attrazione per il racconto melodrammatico che traspare in ogni sua composizione e nella maggior parte degli autoritratti. Il passaggio da un medium all’altro non è stato arbitrario. La fotografia, come il cinema, è uno spazio bidimensionale, privo di “profondità” e incorporeo. E, come in un film, le scene e i ritratti nati dalla fantasia di Nabil si prestano a qualsiasi genere di trasformazione, non oppongono la benché minima resistenza al cambiamento. Ciò consente a Nabil di scivolare sulla superficie e proiettare il proprio desiderio, qualunque esso sia: al pari del cinema, la fotografia rappresenta per lui lo specchio con cui l’artista impara a trasformare se stesso e a recitare a piacere. L’artista sceglie ruoli e generi diversi, offrendo anche ai suoi modelli la stessa libertà. Attraverso la fotografia, Nabil perde la propria identità nell’apparente scenario della superficie fotografica dove non c’è sostanza, peso sufficiente o densità. Tuttavia, questa dissoluzione dell’io non è abbastanza. Nabil colora a mano meticolosamente quella superficie per “trascenderne” la piattezza e “restaurare” l’originale dignità perduta dell’io. Un impegno gravoso, ridondante, ma anche tardivo come in Prima che il tempo li guastasse di Konstantinos Kavafis.

A prima vista, questa sensazione di tardività e il “restauro” non rimandano a una realtà tangibile, quanto piuttosto – come nei film – a una fuga dalla “realtà”, evocando così un locus del desiderio, uno spazio di infinito differimento, dominato da un’immagine (colorata a mano) che mettendo in dubbio l’esistenza del reale e la nostra capacità di conoscerlo e di viverlo è diventata lo spazio in cui noi “viviamo davvero”. In questo contesto, Nabil flirta deliberatamente con una certa concezione dell’esotico, che talvolta sembra sconfinare nell’orientalismo. Non intendo sostenere con ciò che le fotografie di Nabil identifichino o addirittura affrontino quella che si suppone sia una struttura più o meno discorsiva per dominare l’orientale vittimizzato. Credo, al contrario, che le sue immagini lascino intravedere le irregolarità, insicurezze ed eterogeneità che derivano dall’ansia di arrivare dopo ciò che c’è stato prima; un senso di dislocamento del tempo e dello spazio, che talvolta proietta uno scenario di disorientamento e perdita e talaltra sembra desiderarne un altro coerente e forse più “autentico”. La situazione è complicata dalla passione di Nabil per le rappresentazioni in cui si intrecciano fantasie inconsce, immagini sessuali, desideri, paure e sogno che forse necessitano una più approfondita analisi e comprensione dei rapporti che legano sogni e fantasie alla storia e alla cultura. Mi preme aggiungere, comunque, che le fotografie di Nabil oscillano tra la ricerca insoddisfatta di un’esperienza immaginaria che si opponga alle trite dicotomie dell’Occidente e dell’Oriente – un’esperienza che magari affermi e simultaneamente denunci gli stereotipi e le discrepanze del desiderio coloniale – e la rassegnata e malinconica accettazione che essa sia impossibile nell’epoca della globalizzazione e della mercificazione. Nabil è consapevole del fatto che tutte le culture sono attraversate da un profondo processo di globalizzazione e che intendere questo processo come una mera occidentalizzazione significhi ignorare e trascurare i profondi movimenti culturali che animano il mondo islamico, il Giappone e altre potenti economie asiatiche che stanno trasformando il mondo al punto che in effetti si potrebbe parlare di orientalizzazione delle culture contemporanee.

Inoltre, le fotografie di Nabil sembrano includere la cancellazione delle distinzioni tra cultura alta e bassa, che nelle sue opere si traduce in un effetto del processo di globalizzazione, l’universalizzante presenza della cultura di massa, la cultura dell’obsolescenza e la pervasività degli stili di vita in continuo mutamento. Nel fronteggiare il generale effetto livellante e l’indifferenza della cultura di massa, tuttavia, l’artista pare tentato dall’idea di ricreare una forma di cultura del passato per redimere l’io dalla finzione e dalla vacuità delle forme di cultura contemporanee. Questa apparente contraddizione è caratterizzata dall’ambiguità o ambivalenza tra i soggetti e lo stile – e la tensione che risulta da ciò che appare come stereotipo e ciò che appare come differenza – e il presunto conflitto tra estraneità e familiarità.

Come indicato in precedenza, un aspetto particolarmente delle fotografie di Nabil è tentativo di cristallizzare i diversi soggetti, interessi e preoccupazioni mediante alcuni degli strumenti, dei linguaggi e dei generi del cinema. Youssef Nabil non solo progetta e arreda i suoi set come fosse un regista pronto a girare una scena, ma prepara e posiziona meticolosamente anche i suoi modelli. Molte delle sue foto e la maggior parte degli autoritratti potrebbero essere facilmente scambiati per foto di scena. In ogni caso si nota un forte interesse e una grande attenzione per l’aspetto narrativo. Alcune immagini, infatti, potrebbero comporre insieme un fotoromanzo. Ma quello di Nabil è il racconto dell’insaziabilità, del differimento della soddisfazione, dell’oggetto del desiderio sempre elusivo. Benché queste fotografie sembrino raccontare una storia, non ne conosciamo il contenuto, l’inizio o la fine. Molte sono pervase da una sorta di tranquilla disperazione, alcune trasmettono un senso d’attesa, di malinconia e di rassegnazione. Molti soggetti non mostrano tutto il volto, molti ci danno le spalle, molti sono a letto e perlopiù dormono… e, come nel caso della narrativa e del desiderio, ogni conclusione diventa una decisione arbitraria.

Ma ci sono altri soggetti – personaggi se lo si preferisce – che svolgono un ruolo parallelo nelle storie di Nabil. Anche qui torna in gioco l’illimitata fascinazione dell’artista per il cinema, stavolta per il suo glamour e per i suoi divi. Si tratta di celebrità internazionali; cantanti, attrici, artisti, musicisti, scrittori e cineasti del calibro di Naguib Mahfouz, Louise Bourgeois, Natacha Atlas, Shirin Neshat, Rossy de Palma, Julian Schnabel, John Waters, Mona Hatoum, Nan Goldin, Tracey Emin, Ghada Amer, Marina Abramovic… Miti, colleghi e amici di Nabil che rappresentano anche – come nel caso delle sempiterne stelle del cinema – il desiderio elusivo d’immortalità, un’immortalità che garantisce l’eternità del desiderio fissandolo nel tempo, come un fossile. Come ha dichiarato una volta Nabil: “Quando fotografo le persone penso sempre al modo di rendere eterno quel’attimo, prima che muoiano loro o io stesso”.

Sono convinto che attraverso il suo lavoro Nabil abbia capito che nell’epoca del crollo dei miti, del quarto d’ora di celebrità, delle merci e dell’obsolescenza, anche l’eternità può aver bisogno di una qualche forma di restauro, di essere colorata a mano. Tutto il resto è falso, è desiderio realizzato. Per citare le sue stesse parole: “Niente è completo, e niente rimane uguale”.

Octavio Zaya
New York, 2008

Unfolding Youssef Nabils Desire English

by Octavio Zaya

Swallowed in the shadows that glow
—Anthony and the Johnsons

My first encounter with the world of Youssef Nabil was a familiar occasion. It was not just because Shirin Neshat had persuaded me to go with her to the opening of the first New York exhibition of her friend, "an Egyptian photographer." The characteristic style of Nabil's photographs—his laborious effort in patiently hand coloring each one of them—which seemed so unusual to my fellow viewers, did not distract my attention from other matters, perhaps less exotic and immediate; rather, it allowed me to feel quite at home, or at least on familiar ground. For me, at that time, this technique, which had seduced Nabil, and which he had learned to master so thoroughly and deftly, was merely a surface effect, beneath which the photographer wove and unfurled a history both personal and contemporary, both his and ours, at once frank and fraught with allusions. But—as I have come to understand—this apparently quaint and seductive enticement on the surface serves also to get across a deeper feeling of belatedness and loss, as if we had missed an experience once offered by a world already in the process of disappearing, and we were made to contemplate, at the same time, the unique image and the singular sensibility of a poet who reflects upon the general decline of culture.

Nabil shares with his friend, the legendary Egyptian-Armenian photographer Van Leo (Leon Boyadjian, 1921–2001), the general background that imbues Nabil's photography with that deathly quality of faded beauty, the decadent elegance of old times, and some uprooted longing. As is the case with Van Leo, Nabil's relationship with film—especially with Egyptian film of the seventies and with forties and fifties classics—is unmistakable, as is his manner of evoking the film-set photography of those sorts of photo novellas that used to advertise or introduce films in movie theater lobbies. (Nabil often portrays himself under the bright lights of marquees).

Film was, in fact, Nabil's first calling, which he later channeled toward photography. And it is perhaps from film that he drew his obvious affinity for melodramatic narrative, which looms over every one of his compositions and most of his self-portraits. The switch was not arbitrary. Photography, like film, is a two-dimensional space, without "depth," disembodied. And, as in film, the scenes and portraits that Nabil composes out of his imagination are suitably malleable for any kind of transformation—they do not offer the slightest resistance to change. This quality allows Nabil to slip through the surface and to project whatever his desire might be: like film, photography provides Nabil with the mirror in which the artist learns to transform himself and where he can play at will. The artist uses different roles and genres, and he grants the same possibilities to his models. Through photography, Nabil loses his identity, in the apparent scenario of the photographic surface where there is nothing of substance, of sufficient weight, or density. But this dissolution of the self is not enough. Nabil carefully hand colors that surface in order to "transcend" its flatness and to "restore" the original, lost dignity of the self. This is an effortful task, redundant, but also belated—as in Konstantin Kavafis's Before Time Altered Them.

This belatedness and that "restoration" do not suggest a tangible reality, but rather, on first glance, as in the movies, an escape from "reality," thus seeming to point toward a locus of desire, a space of endless deferment, dominated by a (hand-colored) image that casts doubt upon the existence of the real and of our ability to know it and experience it, and that has become the space where we "truly live." In the context of that space, Nabil deliberately flirts with certain notions of the exotic that at times seem to border on Orientalism. I don't mean to say that Nabil's photographs identify or even confront what supposedly stands as a more or less discursive framework to dominate the victimized Oriental. I believe, instead, that his photographs slip through the irregularities, insecurities, and heterogeneities that derive from an anxiety of coming after what has come before; a sense of displacement of time and space, sometimes projecting a scenario of disorientation and loss, and sometimes seemingly longing for a coherent, perhaps more "authentic," other. The situation is complicated by Nabil's fondness for representations interweaving unconscious fantasies, sexual imageries, desires, fears, and dreams that perhaps require a closer exploration and understanding of the relations of these fantasies and desires with history and culture. I should quickly add, however, that Nabil's photographs vacillate between an unsatisfied search for an imaginary experience confronting those tired dichotomies of the Occident and the Orient—an experience which perhaps simultaneously affirms and exposes the stereotypes and discrepancies of colonial desire—and the melancholic resignation of its impossibility in the age of general globalization and commodification. Nabil is aware of the fact that all cultures are undergoing a profound process of globalization, and that understanding this process as a mere Westernization amounts to ignoring and overlooking the profound cultural movements coming out of the Islamic world, Japan, and other strong economies in Asia that are transforming the world in such a way that we can actually talk about the Orientalization of contemporary cultures.

Furthermore, Nabil's photographs seem to embrace the erosion of the distinctions between high and low culture—which in his work could translate as an effect of the process of globalization, the universalizing presence of mass culture, the culture of obsolescence and the pervasiveness of ever-changing lifestyles. But facing the general leveling effect and indifference of mass culture, he seems attracted to recreate a past form of culture to redeem the self from the simulation and emptiness of contemporary cultural forms. This apparent contradiction is characterized by the ambiguity or ambivalence between his subjects and his style, and the tension that results from what appears as stereotype and what appears as difference, and the presumed conflict between strangeness and familiarity.

As I suggested before, what is particularly interesting about Nabil's photographs is the way they try to crystallize all those subjects, interests, and concerns through some of the devices, languages, and genres of cinema. Youssef Nabil not only decides and designs his sets as if he were a movie director ready to shoot a scene, but he also carefully prepares and arranges his models accordingly. A good number of his photos, and most of his self-portraits, could easily pass for film stills. In every case there is a strong interest in, and attention to, narrative. So much so that some of the photographs could be fragments of a photo novella. But Nabil's is a narrative in its insatiability, its deferral of satisfaction; a permanently elusive object of desire. For these photographs seem to tell us a story, but we don't know what it is about, its beginning or its end. Many of them have a mood of quiet despair, some a sense of waiting, melancholy, and resignation. Many of his subjects do not show their full faces, many give us their backs, many are in bed, mostly sleeping … And, as it is with narrative and with desire, any closure becomes an arbitrary resolution.

But then there are other subjects—characters, if you will—who play a parallel role in Nabil's stories. They are also related to Nabil's never-ending fascination with cinema—this time, its glamour and stardom. They are international celebrities by their own right; singers, actresses, visual artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers such as Naguib Mahfouz, Louise Bourgeois, Natacha Atlas, Shirin Neshat, Rossy de Palma, Julian Schnabel, John Waters, Mona Hatoum, Nan Goldin, Tracey Emin, Ghada Amer, Marina Abramovi´c … They are Nabil's icons, colleagues, and friends. And they also represent—as in the case of the sempiternal movie star—the elusive yearning for immortality, an immortality that warrants desire forever and fixes it in time, as a fossil. As Nabil once declared, "When photographing people I always think of how to make this moment eternal, before they die or before I die."

I believe that throughout his work, Nabil has realized that, in the age of fallen idols, fifteen seconds of fame, commodity, and obsolescence, eternity might also need some restoration, some hand coloring. Everything else is fake, fulfilled desire. As he puts it: "Nothing is complete, and nothing will remain the same."

Octavio Zaya
New York, 2008

La dimension spectrale et interculturelle du portrait chez Youssef Nabil
by Sahar Amer and Martine Antle, North Carolina, 2008

French

par Sahar Amer et Martine Antle

Les photographies de Youssef Nabil nous renvoient toujours vers un ailleurs intemporel (Simon Njami)

Les portraits photographiques de Youssef Nabil déroutent par leur singularité et leur originalité et nous invitent à re-penser la culture contemporaine franco-arabe. Retouchés au pinceau, ces portraits engagent en un premier temps un dialogue avec les lieux communs de la photo hollywoodienne depuis les années 1900 et font appel à des modes de narrativisation complexes. Car en effet, ses portraits dépassent le premier effet conventionnel de la reconnaissance et prennent la forme d’un oracle qu’on interroge. Les retouches au pinceau qui accentuent les contours des visages, des yeux et des lèvres des personnages de Youssef Nabile, font allusion aux développements du médium photo photographiques, à ceux du cinéma tout autant qu’à l’éthique de l’époque postmoderne, période dans laquelle on a ravivé les photographies anciennes et les films en noir et blanc par le biais de la couleur. Ce sont précisément ces effets techniques qui donnent un sens d’étrangeté et qui mettent en scène une dimension spectrale. Clin d’œil sans doute à l’esthétique postmoderne et aux romanciers minimalistes des Editions de Minuit qui, depuis les années 1980, s’attachent à faire du neuf avec du vieux, les photographies de Youssef Nabil réveillent notre mémoire collective, tout en nous ramenant néanmoins, dans le présent.

Le jeune photographe franco-arabe qui se positionne lui-même devant une enseigne de cinéma, dénonce par ailleurs la disparition d’une culture qui a été remplacée par les salles Multiplex Grand Ecran. Le sujet, inscrit ici en tant qu’objet-de-représentation, nous signale par la même la disparition d’une communauté, celle des petits cinémas.

Jouant à la fois sur une culture en voie de disparition et sur la dimension spectrale de la représentation photographique, Youssef Nabil construit de nouvelles communautés et se tourne résolument sur l’avenir. Tout comme dans l’écriture contemporaine, il établit un rapport étroit entre forme, structure et contenu. Ses portraits sont à fois des spectres du passé qui hantent l’imaginaire occidental tout autant qu’oriental. Ils interrogent notre contemporanéité avec acuité. Ici se mêlent des visages aux allures hollywoodiennes à ceux de la culture populaire franco-arabe contemporaine. C’est là, dans cet entre-deux du passé et du présent, de la France et du monde arabe, que se révèle la créativité du photographe. C’est bien dans cet entre-deux culturel que les cultures passées et présentes se confrontent et font appel à de nouveaux dialogues propices à l’interculturalité.

Le créateur de mode Jean-Paul Gauthier y côtoie la chanteuse populaire Natacha Atlas. Des premières femmes artistes avant-gardistes comme Louise Bourgeois, à d’autres provenant des diasporas arabes comme la Palestinienne Mona Hatoum et l’Egyptienne Ghada Amer figurent aussi dans cette nouvelle communauté de femmes radicales depuis le début du vingtième siècle jusqu’à aujourd’hui. Mais là à nouveau opèrent de nouveaux déplacements, de nouvelles stratégies qui renversent les stéréotypes. Tandis que certains portraits sont mimétiques (Gauthier, Hatoum), d’autres font appel à un certain type de culture cinématographique en voie de disparition, ou rendent hommage à de grande figures qui meublent notre imaginaire cinématographique, Omar Sharif. D’autres portraits reposent sur le ludique, défient les discours et travaillent les clichés souvent associés aux artistes représentés. C’est ainsi que l’artiste Ghada Amer, connue pour son travail à partir des modèles pornographiques, apparaît voilée, telle une femme de la campagne du siècle dernier. Natacha Atlas, reprenant délibérément les poses des odalisques, se les réapproprie, s’affiche ouvertement, et se théâtralise dans le rôle de fumeuse de narguilé. En démantelant et en mettant terme aux clichés traditionnellement échus à la femme dans le monde franco-arabe, Youssef Nabil met en avant de nouvelles pratiques culturelles plurielles et crée de nouvelles mythologies.

Les visages, en mettant en scène une nouvelle théâtralité de la visagéité et les regards qui nous confrontent, réveillent notre mémoire collective et notre imaginaire en nous invitant à repenser les cultures franco-arabes d’hier et d’aujourd’hui. Cette oeuvre affirme la nécessité de repenser aujourd’hui le legs historique et culturel de l’arabo-francophonie.

Sahar Amer et Martine Antle
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
North Carolina, 2008

On the Train from Paris to London, April 12, 2008
by Youssef Nabil

English

I am aware that every moment is passing by and going away, that each moment is a different moment, and that everything is changing too, including us. I want to photograph everyone I love, I want to keep part of them with me, I want them to live forever through my work.

We all die one day, at one specific moment. I think about this every day. No one knows when their time will come; some people choose to die earlier, earlier than their time. Some people wish to live forever, to never die. But we will all die.

I left Egypt. I missed it, I missed my family, everything in it. Then I went back one year later and it was as if nothing had changed, as if I had never left. Everything was the same, I saw everyone. We felt the same, as if I was there yesterday. Then I left again. After many times of going back then leaving again, I stopped missing people and things and they sort of lived with me. I carried them within my soul. I never really left Egypt, I never really left anyone.

I wake up at night wondering where I am, and if I am alive or dead. Every night, when I go to bed, I think of God for a moment. It's like getting ready to go somewhere, somewhere more profound than the world we live in, our real life. Then in the morning, when I wake up, I am often surprised to find that I am still living. But how do I know if I am dead or alive? I think that when we die, we won't notice that we are dead. I think we will just enter the other world easily, without noticing any difference. It's like what we do every night when we go to sleep, and live in our dreams.

Sometimes I feel that I am living my life backwards. That I died the day I was born, and that I will be born once I am dead. It is a strange feeling but somehow this has always helped me to remember that the moment I am living is not exactly the real moment I am living, and that whatever I'm passing through will go away and new moments will come after, so I could live them too ... and so on.

Nothing is the way it seems, a new moment will come soon, just after.

Youssef Nabil

Alexandria, December 31, 2007
by Youssef Nabil

Italian

È strano come un’esperienza possa cambiare il tuo modo di vedere le cose. E persino influenzare tutta la tua vita.

Sono cresciuto al Cairo come musulmano e la religione islamica parla molto del destino, del fatto che per ognuno di noi ci sia un tempo scritto per venire in questo mondo e un altro per lasciarlo… Anche tutto ciò che accade nella nostra vita è già scritto, scritto da Dio.

Per certi versi, quest’idea è sempre rimasta nella mia mente. E ho iniziato a osservare la mia vita come se fossi al cinema… spettatore e testimone del mio film privato. Un film deciso e scritto prima che entrassi in sala, e a me non resta che sedere e guardarlo.

Eppure mi capita ogni tanto di preoccuparmi e di chiedermi perché sono qui? In cosa consiste la mia esperienza? Che significato ha la vita? A quel punto mi viene subito in mente che non ho nessun bisogno di trovare le risposte… perché tutto era già scritto lassù molto tempo prima che il film iniziasse. Adesso devo solo rilassarmi e aspettare. Aspettare fino alla fine del film, la fine di tutto. Il momento in cui in sala si riaccendono le luci ed è tempo di andare via, di uscire dal cinema.

Sono cresciuto nella convinzione che quando il mio film finirà vorrà dire che sarò morto, che avrò completato la mia vita. Ho vissuto ogni giorno pensando che potesse essere l’ultimo, per me o per qualcuno che amo. Ho pregato Dio di essere il primo ad andarmene in modo da non veder morire nessuno di quelli che amo. Era il mio modo per mantenere vivi tutti coloro che compaiono nel mio film. Non permetterò che muoiano prima di me.

Non so quanto durerà. Dopotutto, è possibile che il mio film sia breve. Veniamo al mondo con uno scopo e moriamo una volta portato a termine il nostro compito? Perché devo vivere più a lungo se so di aver vissuto la mia vita?

Ricordo il momento in cui per la prima volta ho capito il concetto di morte. Avevo quattro o cinque anni e stavo guardando un vecchio film egiziano alla TV quando chiesi a mia madre chi fossero gli attori e dove si trovassero in quel momento. “La maggior parte è morta” mi rispose. Fu una scoperta sconvolgente per me a quell’età. Io adoravo tutte quelle belle persone morte! In qualche modo questo episodio mi ha segnato, perché ho sempre voluto incontrare gli attori che amo prima della loro o della mia morte.

Youssef Nabil

English

It's strange how an experience can change someone's way of seeing things. And even influence their whole life.

I grew up in Cairo as a Muslim, and in Islam we speak a lot about destiny—that each of us has a written time to come into this world and a time to leave … and whatever happens in between is also written, written by God.

In a way, this has stayed in my mind forever. And I started observing my life as if I was in a cinema … watching and witnessing every minute of my own movie. The movie was set and written before I entered the theater, and now it is time just to sit and watch.

Still, every now and then, I worry about things and start asking myself, why am I here? What am I experiencing? And what is the reason for life? Then I quickly remind myself that I don't need to try to figure things out … that it was all already written up there, way before the movie started. Now I just need to relax and wait, wait till the end of the movie, till the end of it all. When the lights come on and it is time to leave, time to leave this cinema.

I have grown up with this idea in my mind that the end of my movie would mean I am dead, that I have completed my life. I have lived every day thinking that this might be my last, or the last day of someone I love. I prayed to God that I will be the first one to leave so I don't see anyone I love dying. That was my way of keeping everyone in my movie alive. I won't let them die before me.

I don't know how long this will last. Maybe my movie is a short one after all. Do we live for a purpose and die once we have finished what we are supposed to do? Why would I need to live longer if I knew that I had lived my life?

I remember the first time I understood the concept of people dying. I was watching an old Egyptian movie on TV when I was about four or five years old, and I asked my mother about the actors in the movie and where they were. "Most of them are dead," my mother said. It was a shocking discovery for me at that age. I was in love with all these beautiful dead people! And this somehow influenced me, and I wanted to meet all the actors I love, before they die or before I die.

Youssef Nabil

As close as I can get
by Jerome Sans, Venice, June 2007

English

Jerome Sans: When did you decide to go from cinema into photography, and why?

Youssef Nabil: About 15 years ago I started taking black and white pictures of my friends in Egypt, asking them to play specific scenes from movies. Cinema is central in Egypt and I've been inspired specially by woman actresses with strong characters. I was excited about photographing them in a different waY. Then I decided to colour photographs with the same method Technicolor movies were done in the past.

J.S: Why did you chose to use this traditional egyptian photographic technic?

Y.N: I grew up with it and it was all around me, between hand painted family portraits, hand painted movie posters in Cairo's streets… It was so much that I decided to keep it in my work. It's an old technique that was still practiced in Egypt in the 1970s and in the 1980s. So I went to one of the last portrait studio to learn this old technique and be able to add a contemporary edge to it in my work.

J.S: How do you choose the characters you photograph?

Y.N: Well, it depends. I either have to like them, their work or their face character. Something has to move me.

J.S: You have started a portrait serie of artists with Mona Hatoum, Shirin Neshat, Marina Abramovic, Tracey Emin, Julian Schnabel, David Lynch…, what is the genesis of this project?

Y.N: I first portrayed the writer Naguib Mahfouz. My idea was to photograph them as close as one can get to someone, to feel the skin, reach out to any face expressions and avoid being distracted by how they are dressed. The proximity with their face makes you feel like if you were seeing them naked. You're straight into their soul, out of time.

J.S: In many of your portraits the subject is asleep with a stardust, why?

Y.N: Sleeping takes a big part of my thinking, and mostly because its relation to death… which is a subject I always talk about in my work… but it is also sexual… and I like that about it… there are many meanings for it… people also look so peaceful, natural and honest when they close their eyes… you almost want to hold them in your arms… have you seen anyone looking unnatural or superficial while sleeping?

J.S: You have done many naked portraits, how would you define your position within the art of the naked body?

Y.N: Although I'm a voyeur… when I photograph someone naked, it's neither about sex nor about seeing that person naked. It's about love. It's about getting to know someone through the most intimate door. My approach stresses more on the emotions, the tenderness naturally expressed by the body, then the body itself. It is the same process as the close-up portraits I was describing earlier, in the opposite way.

J.S: You have moved in Paris in 2003 for a long stay, did it had an impact on your work?

Y.N: When I moved to Paris, I had a different life from the one I had in Egypt… I was in a residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts, at that period I had a lot of time for myself and I started asking myself questions about life, my relationship to my country, etc… So I decided to talk about it in my self portrait serie, where I am a witness of this reflexion and the stories it has generated from places to places as each portrait is done in a different city, I felt in all of them that I was a visitor and I had to leave… the same feeling I had when I was living in Egypt… the same feeling always had about my whole existence… for me it is about coming to a place that is not yours, then having to go…

J.S: The way you compose pictures is very close to painting, could we say that you handle photography like a painter?

Y.N: You can say that, I never felt like I'm a photographer really, my approach to my work is not photography in the first place… my work for me is like a painted diarY.

J.S: Are you building a diary of your own life with your photographs?

Y.N: Yes I am. I'm very preoccupied by death and each of my photograph immortalizes my meeting with someone, engrave a moment that will not happen anymore. Already when I was a child watching movies, I was asking where are all those actors and why people dissappear. I was developing my own relationship with each actor to the point that their death even in the film was affecting me. That's the reason why my work deals with this dialogue between love and death. Photographying is a way to say I'm still alive and that I also keep other people alive and remembered through my work.

J.S: Did you ever think of making a film in slow motion with your pictures?

Y.N: Actually I was approached by a production company in Los Angeles last year and I wrote a short movie. Now we're in the process of looking for funding. The story is half autobiographical, about a boy and his relation to his mother and religion. I'm stage the two attitudes towards Islam that we have right now. I grew up as a Muslim and in Egypt it has never been a problem to be rather Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. Wearing the veil or not has always been a personal choice, and it was never an issue. But today it is a matter to separate and point out people upon their beliefs, who wears what and who covers more, and if you're not covering enough then you're a bad person… So the aim of my film is to ask the right questions and reverse the wrong clichés about Islam, for me religion must gather people and not separate them… and it is one of Islam's messages…

J.S: How do you see the situation for contemporary art today in the Arab countries?

Y.N: I think contemporary art can really help showing another side of the arab world, a side that nobody knows todaY. It's high time to focus on the creative and positive movements underway here.

Jerome Sans
Venice, June 2007

Le journal intime de Youssef Nabil
by Simon Njami, San Francisco, April 2007

English

by Simon Njami

Youssef Nabil's photographs always, inevitably, take us back to another time. A past where attention to detail, old-fashioned fragrances and a manifest wish to change the nature of things and of beings is not shameful. To reproduce reality, like faithful memoirists, wasn't the objective of this era that survives in our time in Nabil's work. Our century, materialist and concrete, has banished the poetic from the realm of contemporary art. The intellectuals who rule us and determine good taste don't want to be caught out by emotion when thinking about justice and the new moral order. They are wrong. What is life without emotion? What is art without emotion? Nabil is a romantic and relishes going against the prevailing ideas of our time. He is not afraid of exploring the emotive because he is not engaged in a fruitless search for a past long gone. He knows that emotions are integral to human nature and, consequently, to all artistic projects.

His images carry the same magical associations and aromas that madeleines evoked for Proust. Rather than being sentimental and crying over the past or indulging in senseless nostalgia, Nabil instead emphasises emotion as a way of observing the world with a poetry that transcends time and place. The Armenian photographers who arrived in Ethiopia at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as those who travelled to Cairo, come to mind. Black and white photography aimed to reproduce an objective reality. But for them, there existed no reality other than the world we see and feel. So they turned their backs on black and white photography's Promethean pretensions and took refuge in a universe of dreams. A universe in which colours would finally have a place of honour. Abundance, a feast for the eye, bouquets of life. Nabil follows in their footsteps. This way of viewing the world required that he undertake an apprenticeship in colouring. A real one. With a master, as is the tradition. Because expressing emotion cannot be learnt in schools or in the world of computers. Learning to express emotion is a daily task, sometimes an unrewarding one, a task that has to be mastered. It is a language that is not easily understood, a vocabulary that is not easily learnt.

Initiation. The magical word. Nabil was initiated in the tradition and, in initiating himself, he didn't simply learn a technique, he gained a sensibility. A particular way of seeing the world. Because of that, he certainly understood that we all have the right, every one of us, to expand our own universe and to be the artists of our own revelations. His favourite subject is the portrait. Could it be otherwise when one has chosen to explore the mystery of humanity? What is a portrait other than the reflection of our gaze? As in Oscar Wilde's novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray", the loving eye that Nabil directs towards his subjects transforms and takes them into a surreal realm. They are no longer themselves but rather what he imagines them to be. We are definitely no longer within the bounds of photography. Of course, there are the actual photographic shots and, of course, there are the technicalities of printing. But for Nabil, the work of the artist starts thereafter, like a painter who transforms reality into an impressionistic image. The colours are his. They are not the reproduction of an illusory reality; rather they are imagined and invented, but also more real. Over many days, with the strokes of his brush, he slowly transforms a subject with his alchemy of colours.

This is why none of his images are left untitled. Not in the sense that they are about a public persona; on the contrary, the private or intimate relationship between two people comes first. Whether they are celebrities or friends unknown to us, he depicts individuals with whom he has a special connection. This is the case with Frida Kahlo, who emerges from his dreams reincarnated into a fantasised portrait. This quest for the intimate is also clearly illustrated in his self-portraits which illuminate his art and his quest. If it is him or someone else in his images, they all partake in the same artistic pursuit. Whether he stages himself or others in his photographs, we remain in the same universe, the universe of his private diary.

San Francisco, April 2007
Translated by Catherine Gadeyne

French

par Simon Njami

Les photographies de Youssef Nabil nous renvoient toujours inévitablement vers un ailleurs temporel. Un passé où l'obsession du détail, les parfums surannés et la volonté manifeste de changer la nature des choses et des êtres n'étaient pas une démarche honteuse. Reproduire la réalité, comme des mémorialistes fidèles n'était pas l'objectif de cette époque qui semble avoir survécu au temps. Notre siècle, matérialiste et concret, a banni toute poésie hors du champ de l'art contemporain. Les intellectuels qui nous gouvernent et qui veillent au bon goût, à la pensée juste et au nouvel ordre moral ne veulent plus être pris en flagrant délit d'émotion. Ils ont tort. Qu'est la vie sans émotion ? Qu'est l'art sans émotion ? Youssef Nabil est un sentimental et s'amuse à aller à l'encontre des idées dominantes. Il n'a pas peur des sentiments parce qu'il ne s'y trouve aucune recherche stérile d'un passé révolu. Il sait que les sentiments sont ce qui fondent la nature humaine et, partant, toute prétention artistique.w does one describe Youssef Nabil's pictures…

Ses images, revenons-y, portent en elles le même parfum magique que les madeleines de sa grand-mère évoquaient à Proust. Non pas de ces sentimentaux qui pleurent sur leur passé ou qui cultivent une nostalgie inutile, mais quelqu'un qui s'appuie sur le sentiment pour regarder notre monde contemporain avec une poésie qui échappe à la géographie temporelle. On se souvient de ces photographes arméniens débarqués en Ethiopie à la fin du dix-neuvième siècle. D'autres, dans le même temps, faisaient le voyage du Caire. La photographie en noir et blanc voulait singer le réel. Ils ont compris qu'il n'existait, qu'il ne pouvait exister de réel autre que le monde tangible et palpable que nous foulions de nos pieds. Alors ils ont tourné le dos à cette prétention prométhéenne pour se réfugier dans la reconstitution d'un univers onirique. Un univers dans lequel, enfin les couleurs seraient à l'honneur. Un foisonnement, une fête du regard comme autant de bouquets de vie. Nabil a suivi leur trace. Comme l'exige cette manière particulière d'apparaître au monde ou de faire apparaître le monde, il a suivi un apprentissage. Un vrai. Auprès d'un maître, comme il se doit. Car l'émotion ne s'invente pas dans les écoles ni avec des ordinateurs. L'émotion est une tâche quotidienne, parfois ingrate, qu'il faut apprendre à maîtriser. C'est un langage qui n'est pas à la portée du premier venu, un vocabulaire qui ne va pas de soi.

Une façon de voir le monde. C'est sans doute ainsi qu'il a compris qu'il nous revenait, à tous, d'élaborer notre propre univers, d'être les artisans de nos propres révélations. Son espace de prédilection est le portrait. Pouvait-il en être autrement lorsque l'on s'est donné pour tâche d'explorer le mystère humain ? Qu'est un portrait si ce n'est le reflet de notre regard ? Comme dans le roman d'Oscar Wilde, le regard amoureux que Nabil porte sur ses sujets les transfigure et les projette dans une dimension surréelle. Ils ne sont plus eux-mêmes, mais ce qu'il en a vu. Nous ne sommes plus dans le domaine de la photographie, évidemment. Bien sûr, il y a des séances de prise de vue. Bien sûr, il y a des tirages. Mais ensuite commence l'ouvrage de l'artisan, du peintre qui transfigure le réel pour en faire un tableau impressionniste. Les couleurs sont à lui. Elles n'entrent pas dans le cadre de la reproduction mais dans celui, plus vaste, de la création dans le sens le plus pur, à savoir l'invention. Il transfigure au fil des jours et des coups de pinceau une matière dont le sens ne semble venir à la lumière qu'après cette alchimie des couleurs. C'est sans doute la raison pour laquelle aucune de ses images n'est anonyme. Non pas au sens où il ne s'intéresserait qu'à la personnalité publique des gens qu'il immortalise. Bien au contraire. C'est d'abord le privé qui compte. La relation privilégiée qui s'est forgée entre deux êtres. Fussent-ils des célébrités, comme ce fut le cas, ou des inconnus, il s'agit toujours d'êtres avec lesquels il entretient un rapport particulier. Comme cette Frida Khalo qu'il a fait ressurgir de ses rêves pour l'incarner dans une projection fantasmée. Cette quête de l'intime s'illustre sans plus aucune ambiguïté à travers les autoportraits qui jalonnent son travail et éclairent sur sa manière de faire et sur sa quête. Si c'est lui qui désormais figure sur ces images, elles n'en participent pas moins au même projet artistique. Qu'il se mette en scène ou qu'il scénographie d'autres que lui, nous sommes toujours dans le même univers : celui du journal intime.

San Francisco, Avril 2007

Sleep in my arms' Foreword
by Tracey Emin, London, April 2007

English

by Tracey Emin

I came across Youssef's work in Egypt, Cairo about 7 years ago. I was in Egypt to accept a prize from the Cairo Biennale and whilst I was there decided to look around some galleries. After going down lots of little alleyways I finally arrived in what I can only describe as a mechanics area. A place full of garages, rust and old bits of car. I found Youssef's work at the Townhouse Gallery. I was quite taken aback. The photos were very beautiful, evocative and in the most old fashioned kind of way very camp. A hand-tinted ghostliness that I found very attractive. Youssef seemed to be dealing with very personal subject matter and very open. Later I met him on a boat, sailing down the Nile. We both talked about how we had made work with our mothers in and about the notions and ideas about leaving home. Not in a literal sense but in a metaphysical sense and understanding that we are just our true selves and not necessarily a constant attachment to another. This is what I liked about Youssef's work, whether he is starring in the photo or taking the photo, from all angles he stands alone. Youssef sees the world in a truly singular way and I find that very beautiful.

Tracey Emin
London, April 2007

Ambivalent Cosmopolitan
by Jessica Winegar, Philadelphia, 2007

English

by Jessica Winegar

I want you to know.

I'm gonna be a big, bright shining star.

That's what I want and what I'm gonna get.

In the course of art history, artists have used the genre of self-portraiture to claim and promote the creator's worldly status. Alternatively, self-portraits have been a vehicle for self-exploration, for researching emotions and the past and creating from them a visual narrative of self. One tradition is extroverted, the other introspective. One is often seen as less authentic, a selfish promotion of the artist. The other is usually viewed as the paragon of authenticity, the epitome of the modernist enterprise of tortured self-reflection. But what happens when an artist uses the glamorizing elements of self-portraiture in order to examine one's life and existence?

In his recent work, Youssef Nabil marries these seemingly contradictory traditions of the genre and in doing so reveals their similarities, especially the ways that artistic introspection, for any well-known artist, must take into account the phenomenon of fame and worldliness that they live with. Nabil explores and narrates his story in the visual language of cosmopolitanism. The result is a conflicted narrative of the cosmopolitan artist, in which one's ability to travel around the world like a movie star appears on the surface to be an invigorating exciting experience but is sometimes more like the prelude to death – an exhausting process of wandering and wondering. At a time when exilic rootlessness is celebrated by the avant-garde wary of fixed gender, ethnic, and national identities, Nabil provides a sobering look at the realities of the cosmopolitan life by carefully examining its potentialities and its problems. The cosmopolitan artist claims to want to be a star, but shows that the bright star light has the capacity to blind.

We can see this ambivalent cosmopolitanism emerging in Nabil's portraits, for which he is most well-known. His hand-colored photographs of popular stars of movies, pop music, dance, and the international visual art scene often call forth film stills of the 1930s and 1940s, especially when the subjects appear in luxuriously staged studio settings striking a certain pose. Many of these images convey a nostalgia for a bygone cosmopolitan era – one before strident nationalisms and fundamentalisms rendered this kind worldliness suspect. The staging of contemporary stars in the poses, settings, and colors of this earlier era are not only nostalgic, but reinvigorate these signs of sophistication for the present. They are the part of Nabil's oeuvre that is inspired by his early love of classic Egyptian cinema. But other images of these international figures reveal a darker side of glamour and fame. These are the images of anxiety, death, or threats of it. The artist Ghada Amer lies face down, splayed across one of her works, the threads resembling streams of blood, giving the whole image the effect of a murder scene. Tracey Amin's legs in cowboy boots stand in front of her Egyptian bag on the floor, communicating a state of transient waiting. Amina Mansour looks creepishly out from a cotton burial. In the portraits of older artists, one senses a desire to capture them for eternity. Indeed, speaking of his work with public icons, the artist says, "I wanted to meet these people before they die or before I die."

This incipient ambivalence of the cosmopolitan life appears more dramatically in Nabil's new self-portraits. The artist's 2003 departure from Egypt, his country of birth, was the impetus for turning the camera on himself. Going about the world for various exhibitions and projects, Nabil says he finds himself "away from all the things I was used to," spending "a lot of time with myself." In this sense, these works are an examination of the self in the same vein as other modernist self-portraiture. But it is a search that consciously uses the language of cosmopolitanism, along with a tinge of the deathly elegance that characterizes his portraits of stars. Thus, alongside the narrative of the allure and privilege of travel is the narrative of not belonging, of always feeling like he "will be leaving one day…coming to a place that is not yours then having to go." As Nabil investigates the pleasure and pain of the nomadic existence, he also glamorizes and deadens it. The glamour is in the death, and vice-versa.

The ambivalence of the cosmopolitan life comes forth in many ways. Moving through the images is like being on a fancy jet. His titles tell us we are now in France, now Austria, now Spain, Italy, Brazil, Cuba. We see Nabil looking at sunsets in Rio and Sardinia, at the harbors of Naples and Havana, in the Paris streets, in a church in Vienna. The hand-painted colors on some of the images place them in the realm of travel postcards or 1930s and 40s film stills again, giving everything a rosy glow. In these ways, the work is a contemporary version of the status-claiming, wealth-displaying tradition of self-portraiture. Yet, in images like Self Portrait, Barfleur 2005 and Hope to die in my sleep, self portrait Viñales 2005, Nabil looks like he's dead or dying. In It's a short road, self portrait Paris 2005, he looks anxiously away from the camera. In many of the works he's unclothed. We see just a back, a refusal to engage with the viewer. This is not exactly the glamorous cosmopolitanism of the artists and singers who are featured in his other works.

he ambivalence is also marked by the artist's relationship to light in the works, with the light playing an enchanting yet simultaneously peculiar or even ghostly role. In Funfair, self portrait, Paris, 2005, Nabil stands in front of a ferris wheel lit up against the night sky. It is a scene of merriment in the background, but a hooded Nabil looks melancholically out of the frame, beyond the camera. A fireplace fire, the symbol of warmth, radiates in the background of Self portrait next to the fire, Paris 2004. But Nabil lays on the ground in front of it, muscles tensed, arms crossed, looking intensely at the floor. An antique nightstand light glows in Hope to die in my sleep…, revealing through beautifully diaphanous mosquito netting the sleeping subject – about to die or already dead. On the Rio beach in Self portrait with the sunset, Rio de Janeiro 2005, Nabil looks off at a warm red sunset, but then the light on his skin and the tree beside him is from the other direction, with an eerily cold, fluorescent, almost morgue-like quality. In Autumn self portrait, Paris 2004 Nabil is lying in dead leaves, looking at a small lantern – a kind of light one associates with night watchmen of yesteryear. The contrast between light and dark/death, merriment and melancholy, and between warmth and cold gives these self-portraits a tension that is not often found in self-portraiture, which often tends to be either boastfully positive or, in the modern era especially, only dark and brooding.

The life of the cosmopolitan may be the life of a star, but the light can also blind, can render the self unseen. In Big, bright shining star, Madrid 2002, the artist shields his eyes and camera from the light, showing not his flesh but his shadow. And in Sun in my eyes, self portrait, Sardinia 2005, the camera looks upwards towards the subject, deifying him into a nude Adonis, but at the same time the profusion of light actually hides the details of his form. In these works, Youssef Nabil not only reworks the tradition of self-portraiture. He also shows the darkness in the light of the cosmopolitan life.

Jessica Winegar
Philadelphia, 2007

Waiting
by Mark Sealy, London, May 2007

English

by Mark Sealy

There is a wonderful sense of calm about Youssef Nabil's photographs. It's a type calm that says to the viewer, nothing in this space is harmful. Within the confines of his frames, there is a sense of security and pleasure. The photographs project an overriding message that says, its right to love. They speak to the vulnerable condition of desire, the risks of commitment and the fear of loss. Nabil's photography consciously flirts with notions of the exotic and the erotic. The images slide seamlessly across a variety of different genres, they meld together to create a dreamlike mise en scéne. The photographs operate as visual narcotics, inviting the viewer, into a place of transgressive otherness, a place that breaks with convention.

Nabil's visual web draws us into the land of fantasy and strategies for survival, for without dreams we are in fact doomed. His photographs have a resonance with "Molina" the character in Manuel Puig's famous 1974 novel "Kiss of the Spider Woman". Nabil like "Molina" leaves us hanging on a thread of narrative tension. These photographs are loaded with a mood of quiet despair, they contain a sense of waiting that on reflection addresses a deep underlying personal political message that talks to issues of desire and freedom.

Mark Sealy
London, May 2007

Fragments of a journey
by Rose Issa, London, January 2007

English

by Rose Issa

I first discovered Youssef Nabil's work in Alexandria in 2000, while celebrating the millennium with friends. There was already a buzz around this young artist, and I was impressed by his lovingly and painstakingly hand-coloured photographs. I first responded to the physical objects themselves; his use of an old, classical technique with a modern, sexy twist.

When we later met in London, I was slightly unsettled by his stare: he has a way of fixing you with his gaze, as if looking beyond you, already behind a camera, photographing. He seems to want to discover the character within you that sets your story in motion, as if casting for a film. His eyes work like a camera.

No wonder most of his photographs look like film stills, tell a story or hide a secret, keeping you in suspense. Could it be that the implied dramas behind his pictures come from his earlier desire to be a filmmaker? Is it his love of the golden age of Egyptian cinema, the 1940's and 1950s' matinées shown on Arab TV, that led him to adapt an older technique - studio settings, hand-coloured photographs - to the new faces that inspire him? Or does this narrative gift come from his literary studies in Cairo?

Youssef Nabil was born in Cairo in 1972, and now lives and works between Cairo, Paris, London and New York. He is now well known for his portraits of stars, artists and friends, often posed in theatrical settings: images of beauty and glamour, scenes of intimacy or violent encounters, of models almost unaware of the photographer's presence. And yet his subjects are complicit in a photographic mis-en-scene: the viewer has to unravel clues, interpret the details. His portraits are clearly derived from film-set photography, where his sitters perform, making him a director who portrays desire, ambiguity, death, secret attractions, and open love. "I like people, and I like the idea of meeting someone I don't know, putting him or her in a different context from their own and then photographing them doing what I tell them to do. I like watching people. I think I am a voyeur by nature."

Youssef Nabil also has a very special relationship with female artists. In 2005 we went together to the lavish opening of Frida Kahlo's retrospective at the Tate Modern in London. I lost Youssef in the crowd - he was far more attentive than me to the artworks, X-raying almost each painting - and I left before him.. I remembered that one of Youssef's earliest works had been about Frida, from his time in Cairo - "My Frida, 1996". He was so immersed in her life, knowing every little incident, that he could see her in others.

When living in Paris, Youssef used to come to London often to work and most of the time he would stay with friends - mostly Natacha Atlas, another muse for him - and we discussed doing an exhibition of female artists, his icons; the people whose work he admired. So he met and photographed the British-Turkish artist Tracey Emin, with whom he struck a friendship; and later many others in New York, like Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, Ghada Amer, Nan Goldin, Adriana Varejão, Marina Abramovic, and recently Louise Bourgeois.

Youssef Nabil is also a hard working, confident and ambitious artist. One of his early self-portraits is of his shadow holding a camera. The tagline states: "I want you to know. I'm gonna be a big, bright shining star. That's what I want, and it's what I'm gonna get." We are left with no doubt that he will get there, for there is no trace of naivety in his character.

His self-portraits portray an outsider, and indicate a state of transition in different cities – Rio de Janeiro, Havana, Paris, London, Athens, Naples… Devoid of attachment, they reflect the artist's nomadic lifestyle, and he is seen mostly from the back, facing a landscape, a rooftop, a beach, sometimes partly naked, and often vulnerable. "I do them in different cities; I was a visitor in all of them and I knew that I must leave… My relation to my whole life is the same… For me it is about coming to a place that is not yours, then having to go…" In Self portrait with the sunset, Rio de Janeiro, his back faces us from a beach overlooking the mountains. The atmosphere is of a twilight zone; a moment associated with complex and potentially ambiguous feelings of loss, transition and nostalgia. In many of these self-portraits, taken in darkness or low light, the atmosphere suggests the end of a journey or nocturnal wanderings. There is also a resigned sadness in the solitary self-portraits.

Other images hint at his obsession with death, parks, beaches, crime scenes, and beds, not unlike the Italian film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini. "Hope to Die in my Sleep, Self-portrait, Vinales, 2005", says it all. But he has a far simpler answer: "When I was a kid and watching old Egyptian movies, I used to ask my mother about all the actors and where they were. Most of the time the answer was that they were all dead. It was a strange idea for me to watch and love all these beautiful dead people. I think it did something to my subconscious. Later on in my work and when photographing people I always think of how to make this moment eternal, before they die or before I die."

By adding narrative to glamour, Nabil pays homage to those who in some way influenced his work: the Egyptian-Armenian photographer Van Leo (Cairo, 1921-2002), David Lachapelle, with whom he collaborated in New York (1992-1993), and Mario Testino, in Paris (1997-1998). And by inviting us to share his perception of a moment when a drama can unfold anytime, through the enigmatic glimpses of a few lives, loves, and loss, Youssef Nabil takes us on his journey of discovery. Youssef Nabil is an eye.

Rose Issa
London, January 2007

Youssef Nabil turns his lens on himself
by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, Beirut, 2005

English

by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Young Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil turns his lens on himself self portrait exhibition at Cairo gallery one of artist's four high-profile shows this year.

Beirut: Renowned novelist Naguib Mahfouz: all glasses and graying goatee with a smile pronouncing itself in the curve of his cheeks. Legendary bellydancer Fifi Abdou: her famous waist cinched in a black evening gown, standing on what look to be a powerful pair of shins, her body cropped at her sternum. The movie star Sevine Nassim, aka Youssra: eyes closed to convey lust and longing, planting a sumptuous kiss on the lips of her own reflection. The crude yet immensely popular singer Shaaban Abdel Rehim: a close-up of his hands, weighed down with heavy gold rings and bracelets, gently folded over his soft and protruding gut.

Young Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil may be best known for his celebrity portraiture (all of the above plus Paulo Coelho, Julian Schnabel and John Waters, to name a few) and his quirky images of colleagues and friends, such as singer Natacha Atlas (a close-up of her cleavage), actress Rossy De Palma (sticking her tongue out the corner of her mouth) and artists Shirin Neshat (in severe black eyeliner), Tracey Emin (in cowboy boots over argyle socks) and Ghada Amer (face down on her drafting board with a thimble on her middle finger). But from now through October 12, Nabil is showing a much different face at Cairo's Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art - his own.

"I've spent a lot of time with myself since I moved to Paris three years ago," says Nabil, in an interview conducted between Paris and Beirut. "It reminded me of my childhood. I was a very introverted child, always by myself in my room. That made me ask myself many questions about my life and existence. I decided to talk about it in my work."

The Townhouse show, titled "Realities to Dreams," features 11 self portraits, all done in Nabil's signature style. He takes evocative, high-contrast black-and-white photographs with a 35-millimeter camera. Then he applies the antiquated technique of hand-painting them all, meticulously, painstakingly, one at a time (he prints his photographs in editions of 10, but the hand-coloring essentially renders each picture unique).

Whether he's shooting himself or a subject, Nabil works on location, not inside a studio. The set-up doesn't take much time, he says. "I ask people to look the way they usually are… No makeup as I do it myself when coloring the photo. I like to meet people at least one time before the shoot. We feel things [out] and talk about everything. Then the day of the shoot is really fast, sometimes it's only for 10 or 15 minutes… Most of the time I spend is when I color. It takes me three days to do one photo. I also could photograph any time of the day, but to start coloring I need to be in a certain mental flow and free from all other thoughts."

Nabil, who turns 33 next month, originally wanted to be a filmmaker. As a kid he was inspired by the retro glamor of Egyptian cinema's golden age, and particularly by the photo-novels used to accompany those old films. He studied literature at Cairo University and began taking pictures at 19. Then he got two opportunities he'd be crazy to refuse - the first as an assistant to New York-based fashion photographer David Lachapelle (who, interestingly enough, just released his own first film, the critically acclaimed documentary "Rize" about hip-hop dance styles krumping and clowning in Los Angeles), the second as an assistant to Paris-based fashion photographer and celebrity portraitist Mario Testino.

In addition to learning from the expertise of Lachapelle and Testino, both giants in terms of fashion photography and skilled at crossing over into contemporary art, Nabil benefited immensely from a long friendship with legendary Egyptian-Armenian photographer Leon Boyadjian, better known as Van Leo. With Van Leo's work, Nabil shares a sense of faded beauty, crumbling elegance, and rootless nostalgia. While it is tempting to read Nabil's self portraits as an homage to Van Leo, who once rather famously shot 400 pictures of himself donning 400 different identities in a single year, Nabil insists his intentions are personal, interior and reflective.

"I started doing them in 1992 in my room," he explains. Of the images on view at Townhouse, he adds: "I did all of them during the past three years, in my travels. Some I had the idea [for] before and traveled specially to do the portrait, and some were more spontaneous. I felt in all of them that I was a visitor."

The effect of Nabil's current exhibition in Cairo, and of his self portraits on their own as a body of work, is subtle, like a graceful accumulation of gestures. What becomes clear when looking at them all at once is that Nabil never faces his own camera directly. He looks above or to the side of the lens or he turns his head completely. The viewer becomes Nabil's accomplice, gazing out onto the same scene and then, inevitably, searching for something. What can be seen in this quaint lantern nestled into a pile of autumn leaves? What can be found hidden among the delicate leaves and lily pads of an English park east of Paris?

"There is always something that we look for, that we wish to have or understand or achieve," he says. But "nothing is complete, and nothing will remain the same."

As a title, Realities to Dreams is "a personal thing. Since I was a kid I had a way of mixing my dreams with my realities and realities with my dreams. It's my way of seeing things, too…"

The Townhouse show is one of four high-profile exhibitions Nabil has lined up for the rest of this year. Through October 14, his more glamorous imagery and celebrity portraiture is on view at the upstart Dubai gallery Third Line.

Nabil doesn't imagine he'll ever give up black-and-white film, hand-tinting or the idea of portraiture. "I like people and like watching them," he jokes. "I guess I'm a voyeur by nature." He hasn't given up on film and is writing his first movie now. He hopes to take Elizabeth Taylor's portrait one day. And he still pines for never having the chance to shoot Frida Kahlo or Umm Kalthoum. Impossible in reality, perhaps. But highly plausible in Nabil's dreams.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star, Beirut, 2005

Time to be alone
by James Parry, London, 2004

English

by James Parry

Installed in a grand apartment overlooking the parkland and trees of the Bois de Vincennes, Youssef Nabil shrugs his shoulders and grins: "I don't mind being on my own. In fact, I rather like it. Finally I have time to think". And let's face it, there's a lot to mull over. Still only 32, Nabil has established himself as one of the most stimulating art photographers of his generation and a powerful voice for new approaches to photography in the Arab world and beyond. His distinctive style - whereby he hand-colours black and white prints to create powerful and highly individual artworks combining beauty, glamour and sexuality - has brought him to the attention of celebrity clients and fellow artists alike. Increasingly admired for the swanky retro feel of his work, Nabil has been based in France for almost two years now, following the offer of a initial artist's residency from the French Ministry of Culture. His international reputation develop is now well established, with shows in venues ranging from Barcelona to Bamako and Mexico City to Cape Town. In many senses he seems to have 'outgrown' his native Egypt, yet identity and location continue to preoccupy him: "Deep inside you prefer to be supported in your own country, but it doesn't always work out like that. Even so, I can't live without going to Egypt regularly."

Nabil's recent achievements belie his somewhat uncertain start into the world of photography. After initially wanting to be a movie director, he turned to photography instead, trying his hand at a range of different subjects in Cairo. His striking ability for creating drama and sensuality in his pictures drew the attention of visiting maestro David Lachapelle, who hired Nabil as his local assistant. New York beckoned soon thereafter, followed by a stint with Mario Testino in Paris - possibly no better springboard for a photographer at the start of his career?

Yet despite the early presence in his professional life of such global 'big guns', Nabil retains a curiously homespun quality. An early influence - and one that was to develop into a close friendship - was the Armenian-Egyptian photographer Van Leo, who specialised in studio portraits, particularly of famous Egyptian actresses of the 1950s and 60s. This aspect of his work fascinated Nabil, who would visit Leo regularly in his studio and sit with him whilst he worked. Such attention notwithstanding, Leo felt generally unappreciated in his native city, only attaining some degree of recognition when he was in his mid 70s. "I never felt the age difference with Van. It was as though we were of the same generation" Nabil recalls. One thing clearly struck a chord between the two: deep frustration at the reluctance of the Egyptian authorities to understand and appreciate photography as an art form. Nabil extends this idea further, to a general criticism of the way in which the Egyptian artistic establishment still operates as an 'old guard', working against the emergence of new generations of artists; "People like me have always had to rely on non-Egyptians and private galleries to support us, places such as the Townhouse Gallery and Cairo Berlin Gallery". The Cairo Berlin, owned by Renate Jordan, has since closed, but the Townhouse continues to flourish under the stewardship of William Wells.

Nabil has made his name primarily with extravagant and revealing portraits of singers and movie stars, including works such as Youssra (1996) and the outstanding Rossy de Palma (2003). Natacha Atlas, one of the Middle East's biggest singing stars, has sat for Nabil several times, and British artist Tracey Emin has also subjected herself to the Youssef Nabil 'treatment', as Nabil recalls: "Tracey was in Egypt for the Biennale in 2001 and came to one of my exhibitions in Cairo, where we met at a party organised by the British Council. Two years later, a friend rang me to say that Tracey had nominated me in a UK magazine as a future top artist. So I rang her and suggested we do something together. We did, and are both very pleased with what came out of it."

Although depictions of people - and especially women - are the most obvious component in the Nabil portfolio, closer examination reveals a surprisingly detailed and well-crafted attention to context and environment, such as with In the Circus with Nan Goldin (2001). In some more recent works Nabil appears to draw back from his subject to allow the setting to come to the fore. In Tracey Emin (2003), for example, Emin is shown mid-distance, sitting in her bra in a 'nest' of laundry baskets surrounded by bare floorboards. Hardly a tectonic shift in style, but arguably the sign of a more detached and maturing eye. Furthermore, in Paris Nabil has begun to move away from portrait format towards landscape, and is enjoying working on a bigger scale, something he could not do in Egypt simply because the larger format paper on which he would have liked to print his images was unavailable there.

Perhaps most significant is the fact that after several years of creating a dramatic and sumptuous limelight for others to inhabit, Nabil has now decided that it is time to turn attention onto himself. A couple of intriguing self portraits have resulted, works that whilst representing his first foray into this particular territory build quite clearly on the emotions and aspirations that drove many of his earlier compositions. Surely the pensive young man in Can't Wait to Fly Again (1997) was a direct representation of the young Nabil planning his next escape from Egypt? Either way, Nabil enjoys the space that life in France is currently providing: "I had a very busy life in Egypt, but here I have more time for myself and have been able to develop a clear idea about what I want to do. I am able to create my own world here inside the French world". Cosy as that may seem, one doubts if the creative energy of Nabil will be quite so easily satisfied. The urge to fly is always there - it is only the destination that is in doubt.

James Parry, Canvas magazine
London, 2004

Pour un moment d'éternité
by Michket Krifa, Paris, 2003

English

by Michket Krifa

Born in Egypt in 1972, Youssef Nabil grew up in a Cairo drenched in the cinema of the golden age of Hollywood on the Nile: a black and white film world of which he nostalgically recalls the glamour, the ease, the elegance and the melodrama.

He began to take photos very young, when he was only nineteen and studying literature at the University of Cairo. Two meetings with artists were to prove turning points in career terms: the first with David Lachapelle, whose assistant he became in New York, and the second with Mario Testino, whom he followed to Paris. The ensuing experiences with two of fashion photography's most talented exponents not only taught him the sophistication the genre demands, but also, paradoxically, helped him to develop his eye and personal style. That early attachment to the cinema lives on in his photos in a special fondness for mise en scène and choice of settings. Youssef Nabil goes to enormous lengths to evoke the deliciously outmoded feel of the photo-novels that accompanied the cinema at the time; creating his images in the spirit of the top studios of the period, he seeks to highlight in each portrait the extraordinary character of his models. Taken in black and white, the developed photos are then scrupulously hand-coloured.

His models are Egyptian or international artists: actors, singers, musicians and practitioners of the visual arts. For him, taking someone's photograph requires feeling affection for the person concerned: his work is a way of approaching people who attract or fascinate him, or whom he would like to get to know. There are also his personal icons, figures who are no longer with us but whom he succeeds in reincarnating via his friends or models. He sees celebrity as conferring a kind of immortality, something that enables those touched by it to conquer death via an existing or re-created image.

Despite this touch of eternity, these figures basking in admiration remain trapped by a loneliness that fossilises them in their role as stars: living out fame cuts the individual off from others and isolates him or her in a solitude not far removed from death. Such is the despair of the human being faced with the emptiness of a life ultimately reduced to a mere coloured image.

More recently Youssef Nabil has gone even deeper into the connections between love and death. More metaphysical in character, his latest photos mix menacing, sexually charged objects with people seeing the sense and the essence of their lives eluding them – a long way from the frivolousness of the Glamour years.

Michket Krifa, curator of the "Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie"
Arles, 2003

French

par Michket Krifa

Né en égypte en 1972, Youssef Nabil grandit au Caire où il est bercé dès son enfance par la grande époque du cinéma égyptien des années cinquante, celle du Hollywood sur Nil. De ces images en Noir et Blanc il garde de la nostalgie du glamour, d’une certaine légèreté, de l’élégance et du mélo.

Très jeune, à l’age de 19 ans, il commence à prendre des photos en marge de ses études littéraires à l’université du Caire. Deux rencontres artistiques viendront donner un tournant décisif à sa carrière. La première avec David Lachapelle dont il sera l’assistant à New York et la seconde avec Mario Testino qu’il suivra à Paris. Cette double expérience dans la photo de mode avec deux des plus talentueux photographes lui permettra non seulement d’apprendre à leurs côtés la sophistication de la photo de mode et paradoxalement l’aidera aussi à développer son regard et son style. Dans ses photos, il retiendra de ses amours cinématographiques un attachement particulier à la mise en scène et au choix des décors. Tout un dispositif est mis en place pour rappeler l’univers suranné du roman-photo, corollaire du cinéma de cette période : à partir de ses prises de vues réalisées dans l’esprit des " Studios ", il s’attache à mettre en valeur dans chacun de ses portraits l’aspect extraordinaire de ses modèles. Réalisées en Noir et Blanc, une fois développées, les photos sont soigneusement mises en couleur à la main.

Ses modèles sont des artistes égyptiens ou internationaux : acteurs, chanteurs, musiciens ou plasticiens. Pour les photographier, il doit avant tout les aimer. Ses photos l’aident à approcher les êtres qui l’attirent, le fascinent ou qu’il a envie de conna&icric;tre. Il y a aussi ses propres icônes, celles qui ne sont plus de ce monde mais qu’il réussit à réincarner sous les traits de ses amis ou modèles. Pour lui, la célébrité offre une part d’immortalité qui permet à ceux qu’elle touche de vaincre la mort par une image existante ou recréée.

Par de là cette touche d’éternité, ses personnages auréolés d’amour n’échappent pas à la solitude qui les fige dans leur destin de stars. Les moments de célébrité détachent l’individu des autres et l’isolent dans une solitude extrême proche de la mort. Il y a là le désespoir de l’être qui se retrouve face à toute cette vanité où finalement, il ne restera de la vie qu’une image coloriée.

Dans un travail plus récent, Youssef Nabil pousse encore plus loin les liens qui rattachent l’amour à la mort. D’inspiration plus métaphysiques, ses dernières photos sont composées d’objets à connotation sexuelle chargée de danger et d’êtres qui voient le sens et l’essence de leur vie leur échapper. L’insouciance des années Glamour est bien loin.

Michket Krifa, commissaire des Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie
Arles, 2003

Noir et blanc en technicolor
by Olivier Gaulon and Alin Avila, Paris, 2003

French

par Olivier Gaulon et Alin Avila

LE JEUNE ÉGYPTIEN FAIT DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE EN AMOUREUX DU CINÉMA.
PORTRAIT GLAMOUR DE STARS ET MISES EN SCÈNE DE SES INTERROGATIONS INTIMES.

Area Revues : Vous qui avez travaillé partout dans le monde, vous gardez dans votre photographie quelque chose, qui sans être en rien relié à la tradition, vous rattache et évoque votre pays : en quoi vous sentez-vous égyptien ?

Youssef Nabil : Je suis égyptien, mais ça ne veut pas dire que je me balade en djellaba dans le désert… Oui, je me sens très égyptien, mais je mène une vie moderne au Caire… Mon travail est une réflexion sur ma vie : que je réalise une photo au Caire, à Londres ou à New York, je les traite de la même manière… Je n'ai jamais cherché l'aspect ethnique que le sujet le soit ou pas. Ce sont surtout mes couleurs qui viennent de l'égypte où j'ai grandi et vécu toute ma vie. Il y avait, dans les rues du Caire, des affiches de films et de chanteurs peintes à la main comme dans les années 40… Enfant, puis adolescent, j'ai baigné dans cet univers, et je l'ai gardé en moi.

A.R : Quel parcours vous a conduit, de l'amour pour le cinéma et les vieilles affiches, à la photographie ?

Y.N : J'ai toujours voulu faire du cinéma. Quand j'ai commencé la photographie, en 1992, je voulais raconter des histoires à travers mes photos. J'ai alors demandé à des amis de poser pour moi, dans des mises en scène que j'organisais. Je ne fais que du noir et blanc, jamais de couleur. C'est en 1995 que j'ai décidé de colorer mes photos noir et blanc traditionnellement à la main, toujours pour garder ce côté ancien que j'aime tout particulièrement. C'est vrai que j'ai mené ma carrière à l'envers. Normalement, tu dois étudier d'abord, ensuite tu deviens assistant et peut-être un jour, tu exposes. Moi, j'ai appris en expérimentant : l'idée derrière la photo m'a toujours plus intéressée qu'étudier comment faire une photo. C'est ma passion du cinéma égyptien des années quarante qui m'a amené à faire de la photo de cette manière-là.

A.R : Vos photographies fonctionnent comme des icônes : plus simple est l'image, plus complexe semble l'histoire que vous racontez. Bien au-delà de l'anecdote, il semble que vous développez un propos dont la gravité paraît autobiographique ?

Y.N : Il y a des photos que je réalise d'après une idée bien précise. Pour d'autres, j'improvise autour de mon modèle : pour cela il faut que je rencontre cette personne avant de faire la photo, pour sentir ce qu'on peut vraiment faire ensemble… D'autres photos parlent de moi, comme I always need some water at night… ou encore Seeing myself leaving, d'après une idée très personnelle que j'ai depuis l'enfance : je pense beaucoup à la mort, au moment où on se rend compte que c'est là qu'on va partir. Chaque jour, j'ai le sentiment que ça peut être mon dernier jour. Quand je me réveille le matin, je m'étonne d'être toujours là !

A.R : Et vos influences ? De quels artistes vous sentez-vous proche ?

Y.N : Tout ce que j'ai traversé m'a influencé : ma vie en général, mon pays et le cinéma égyptien des années 40 et 50… Le travail et la vie de Frida Kahlo aussi, que j'ai connue en 1992, l'année où j'ai commencé la photographie… Dès mes débuts, j'ai travaillé avec David Lachapelle au Caire puis à New York. Ensuite j'ai été l'assistant de Mario Testino, d'abord au Caire, puis à Paris en 1997, pendant un an et demi. En égypte, j'ai aussi été très proche de Van-Léo, qui est mort l'année dernière, à l'âge de 80 ans : j'aime beaucoup son travail, et il m'a beaucoup encouragé et inspiré.

A.R : Qu'est-ce qui vous rapproche, vous éloigne de Pierre et Gilles par exemple ?

Y.N : Pierre et Gilles sont des amis et je les ai photographiés trois fois. Ce qui nous rapproche c'est d'abord, sur un plan technique, le fait qu'on colore nos photos, mais c'est aussi ce qui nous éloigne… Car nos couleurs et nos univers sont très différents… C'est un peu la même chose avec Jan Saudek ou Ouka Lele…

A.R : Pouvez-vous brièvement parler de la vie culturelle au Caire ?

Y.N : On a principalement la Biennale du Caire, organisée par le gouvernement. Il faut faire partie du groupe institutionnel de la Culture pour participer à un festival pareil : les artistes égyptiens, ce sont un peu toujours les mêmes, sortant de l'Académie d'Art ou faisant partie du Ministère… L'année dernière, la Galerie Townhouse a organisé Photo Cairo, le premier festival de la photographie. C'est la galerie la plus importante en Égypte en ce moment, elle est soutenue par des fondations internationales et des ambassades en Égypte qui croient en ce lieu dédié à l'art contemporain en plein centre ville. Il y a aussi la très bonne galerie Karim Francis.

A.R : Et le cinéma ?

Y.N : Je crois que je ferai du cinéma de la même manière que j'ai fait de la photo. J'ai déjà quelques idées, d'après mon univers, et toujours avec les mêmes techniques, appliquées à des images qui bougent. En égypte, il y a d'excellents réalisateurs, de bons acteurs… il existe une vraie industrie cinématographique. Malheureusement, c'est très commercial. On peut voir très peu de films artistiques qui échappent à la logique commerciale ; mais ils sont à l'affiche quelques semaines alors qu'un grand succès y reste plus d'un an ! Actuellement, c'est la comédie qui marche. Alors, bon, la comédie c'est génial, mais quand même, tu ne peux pas voir que de la comédie pendant six ans parce que le peuple a besoin de rire !

Olivier Gaulon et Alin Avila
Area Revues Magazine, Paris 2003

The Art of Youssef Nabil
by Natacha Atlas, London, 2001

English

by Natacha Atlas

How does one describe Youssef Nabil's pictures…

What is it that captivates the observer?… is it the way he sheds sumptuous light on a subject?… is it the way beauty just jumps out at you?… like a canvas brought to life… each picture talking to you with vibrancy and classy etherealism, it's a pleasure for the eye to behold. Take for instance Youssef’s Frida Kahlo… a perfect serene gaze, this portrait is truly stunning, the composition… the almost Mona Lisa like gracious poise… the colors drip into your subconscious and stay there for an eternity… and the thorns… a reminder of the artist’s fragility. He gives each project a life of its own… he turns an ordinary scene into something larger than life… a woman in the sea… Youssra becomes a delicious mermaid adorned by a turquoise sea blanket, and Natacha Atlas is the perfect flirtatious "falaha" (peasant) in a fairy-tale field. Youssef seems to have a third eye with which he finds the hidden character in a subject and brings it to the surface…

Sweet temptation is one of my favorites, I can stare at it for ages, it is a divine portrait of forties film glamour… seduction at its best, the red wine in that glass looking so sweet, you could drink the entire picture… Youssef puts his subjects at ease even though he himself gets almost frenzied running back and forth aching to get that idyllic shot, while he is photographing you… you are his goddess and there is nothing but you and him, or so it seems but at the same time he is a stickler for the minutest detail… what’s above you… what’s behind you framing the picture… all this has to be brush stroked intricately so as to complete the fairy-tale, so as to complete the ultimate feast for the eye… all this is Youssef Nabil,… a photographer… an artist in love with beauty, in love with art, in love with a thousand and one stories… in love with love, all this can be seen and sensed when looking at a painted photo made by Youssef Nabil.

Natacha Atlas, singer
London, March 2001

Obsesiones
by Martha Zamora, Mexico City, 2001

Spanish

por Martha Zamora

El fin de una obra de arte es producir un efecto, no reportar un hecho. Esta verdad absoluta se comprueba en la exposición del siglo veintiuno de Youssef Nabil, que produce en el espectador una impresifón indeleble, combinación de deseo de una comprensión más profunda de esas imágenes transmisoras de historias así como de una mayor información respecto a la casi desaparecida técnica de la coloración manual que logra sobre fotografías en blanco y negro.

"Todas mis forografías son historias" dice el autor autodidacta, quien absorbió el oficio mientras aprendía de manera práctica en los estudios de David Lachapelle y Mario Testino en Nueva York y París. Aunque el arte de colorear se ha perdido en muchos países, en Egipto hubo al menos dos artistas que lo practicaron en el pasado reciente: Van Leo y Youssef Selim. Ahora permanece vivo y modernizado en la obra de Nabil, que va adquiriendo sus propias armonías.

La iconografía personal de Nabil tiene su propia calidad narrativa de índole absolutamente cinematografíca. Fue el cine su primera vocación, pero al verse truncada por circunstancias fuera de control del artista, canalizó empeños hacia la fotografía fija que rodea de toda una atmósfera y una producción. Crea totalmente un ambiente y lo decora a veces hasta hacerlo palpable, ver La Rose du Caire - Natacha Atlas 2000.

En ciertas imágenes, con el paso de su inteligencia por las emulsiones, invita al espectador a completar la historia y en el proceso, a hacerla suya, como en la desgarradora imagen bautizada Seeing myself leaving 2000, donde el rojo intenso de la sangre, que se acerca a quien la mira, invade nuestro espacio vital y nos sumerge en su mundo.

Es quizás esa obsesión por la sangre la que lo acerca, a través del espacio, a otra artista de tierras lejanas que Nabil ha visitado: Frida Kahlo, la Frida de México. La piel del artista de la lente se adhirió a las tierras altas, floridas y espinosas, y la herida abierta de su amor por ella cicatrizó en la fotografía que recrea el Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas de 1940. Es otra mujer y otro momento de la historia. Es la misma angustia y el inmenso tributo a una obra original como resultado de un proceso de apropiación - creativo y cuidadoso - de la artista mexicana.

Nabil se nutre de obsesiones y las alimenta para que subsistan, porque sabe que, cuando el análisis y la instrospección limpia el alma, hay quien despierta a la perplejidad de un vacío blanco. Quizás así se pudiera purificar y liberar de la fecunda asimetría que es un camino personal del alma, aunque con ello quedaría también estéril y plano.

Una fotografía memorable debe ir más allá de la imagen fija para conservar o identificar. Debe entrar hacia el fondo del ser humano. Los retratos del artista egipcio nos hacen conocer al sujeto profundamente, percibir su personalidad en la forma total Mona Lisa 2001 y la serie de Natacha Atlas 2000 o Youssra 2000. Sus modelos son de un material maleable, y los dirige como si se tratase de actores, les narra su nueva realidad, los incorpora a su sueño por más remoto que éste sea, My Frida 1996 y La Joconde 2001.

"Tomo imágenes congeladas de mi propia mente y cada una de ellas corresponde a una historia, una idea, un sentimiento… Simplemente tengo que decir algo" explica Youssef.

Aunque se entrega totalmente a la concepción plástica de cada imagen, que puede llevar horas o días, ver Body 2000 posada por Fifi Abdou o The place where I Sleep every night 2000 posada también por Fifi Abdou, la más famosa bailarina de vientre de Egipto y todo el Oriente Medio.

Sabe Nabil que por los ojos de sus artistas los pueblos aprenden a ver. Le inquieta desde temprana edad la necesidad de trascender, de probar que dar fruto es la única manera de demostrar que se ha vivido y lo explica: "Trato de construir mis fotografías en dos niveles. Si se comtempla superficialmente puede considerárselas, quizás, como una buena fotografía, pero, si el espectador se permite interiorizar más en ella, espero que sienta algo más, que es el mensaje escondido dentro. Lo único que pienso cuando estoy tras la cámara es que quiero hacer ese momento dure para siempre. Quiero alcanzar la eternidad a través de mi trabajo. "Soy consciente de que todos moriremos, pero al menos quiero dejar algo que viva eternamente".

Uno de estos días, como Byron, podrá decir: "Me desperté una mañana y me encontré famoso."

Martha Zamora, autora de Frida Kahlo - El pincel de la angustia
México, D.F., marzo 2001