Youssef Nabil observes his life as if he were in a cinema, watching and witnessing every minute of his own movie. He is fascinated by the idea that in cinematic stories the actors are playing a game in which nothing is real, and if they die in the film they don't actually die in real life. When he realised, as a child, that many of his favourite Egyptian film stars were no longer alive, this kindled a desire to meet those who were still alive and to immortalise them for himself, before they die or before he dies. In so doing, he has created an imaginary reality that reflects both the paradoxes of the Middle East in our times as well as the fantasies and flamboyance of Egyptian movie stars in the cosmopolitan pre-revolutionary years in Cairo.
Nabil began his photography career in 1992 by staging tableaux in which his friends acted out melodramas recalling film stills from the golden age of Egyptian cinema. Later in the 1990s, while working as a photographers' assistant in prominent studios in New York and Paris, he began photographing artists and friends, producing both formal portraits as well as placing his subjects in the realms of dreams and sleep, on the edge of consciousness and far from their public personas. On his return to Egypt in 1999 he further developed his unique approach to hand painted photography, with portraits of writers, singers and film stars of the Arab world. In recent years, especially since settling in Paris and New York, he has started producing self-portraits that reflect his dislocated life away from Egypt. In these liminal scenes he lingers between worldly realities and serene dreams, loneliness and fame, tinged with sex and death.
Nabil's distinctive technique of hand-colouring silver gelatin photographs removes the blemishes of reality and recalls the heyday of Egyptian film. Nabil disrupts prevalent notions of colour photography and painting, as well as assumptions about the type of aesthetics associated with art and those identified with popular culture. His particular medium evokes a sense of longing and nostalgia and allows his photographs to flicker between our time and another era.
In 2010 Youssef Nabil exhibited his first film You Never Left, an 8 minute piece with actors Fanny Ardant and Tahar Rahim set in an allegorical “other place” that is a metaphor of a lost Egypt. Sketching a parallel between exile and death, creating a genuine self-portrait in film, at once intimate and solemn.
You Never Left represents a major turning point in the career of the artist whose entire body of work has been inspired by cinema. In this piece Youssef Nabil reverently and inventively revisits the aesthetic characteristics of Egyptian cinema’s golden age – the stars, Technicolor, the type of film stock – that inspired his own calling as an artist. You Never Left has the same personal, diaristic quality that we find in Nabil’s photographic work.
Nabil's work has been presented on numerous solo and group exhibitions at venues including the British Museum, London; Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City; North Carolina Museum of Art, North Carolina; BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle; Museum of Photography; Thessaloniki, Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art; Doha, Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris; Galeria Leme, São Paulo; FotoFest Houston, Texas; Centre de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona; Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah; Kunstmuseum, Bonn; The Third Line Gallery, Dubai; Galerist, Istanbul; Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Sevilla; Aperture Foundation, New York and La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.
Three monographs have been published on Nabil's work: Sleep in My Arms (Autograph ABP and Michael Stevenson, 2007), I Won't let you die (Hatje Cantz, 2008) and Youssef Nabil (Flammarion, 2013).
Nabil was born in 1972 in Cairo and currently lives and works in New York.