Youssef 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-coloring silver gelatin prints removes the blemishes of reality and recalls the heyday of Egyptian film. Nabil disrupts prevalent notions of color 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, the artist known for his work combining photography and painting presented his first video 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 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.
In 2015, Nabil presented his second video I Saved My Belly Dancer, with actors Salma Hayek and Tahar Rahim, a poetic depiction of Nabil’s fascination with belly dancers and his anxiety over the disappearance of the art form that is unique to the Middle East. The 12-minute video also explores shifting perceptions of the position of women in the region, with the amplified sexualisation of their bodies a growing problem in the new social constructs.
Nabil's work has been presented in numerous solo and group exhibitions at venues including The Villa Medici, Rome; Centre Pompidou, Málaga; La Maison Rouge, Paris; The British Museum, London; Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence; MMK Museum für Modern Kunst, Frankfurt; Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City; Savannah College of Art and Design; North Carolina Museum of Art; BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle; Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town; Galeria Leme, São Paulo; Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Centre de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Kunstmuseum, Bonn; Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C; Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Sevilla; and Aperture Foundation, New York.
Youssef Nabil is part of various international collections including Collection François Pinault, Paris; LACMA Museum, Los Angeles; The Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris; Sindika Dokolo Foundation, Luanda; La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris; the joint collection of The British Museum and The Victoria & Albert Museum, London; SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA; Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City; Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; the Guggenheim Museum, Abu Dhabi;The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York and Pérez Art Museum in Miami.
Three monographs have been published on Youssef 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).
Youssef Nabil was born in 1972 in Cairo and currently lives and works in New York.