Stunning Hand-painted Photographs By Youssef Nabil Set To Be Unveiled At Palazzo Grassi

BY Ayesha Sohail Shehmir Shaikh / Mar 29 2020 / 10:48 AM

The timeless moments captured and hand painted by Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil are a narration of a melancholic past and a hopeful future. We discover the messages relayed through the evocative works featured at his latest exhibition in Venice’s Palazzo Grassi

Stunning Hand-painted Photographs By Youssef Nabil Set To Be Unveiled At Palazzo Grassi
Courtesy of the artist
Youssef Nabil. I Will Go To Paradise, Self Portrait, Hyères. 2008. Hand-coloured gelatin silver print

New York and Paris-based Youssef Nabil’s journey of becoming the famed multifaceted artist he is today, was not a seamless one. He didn’t study art in his hometown Egypt and he wasn’t accepted into any art school for two years in a row. “It was a traumatic experience because the only thing I wanted to do in life was art – I wanted to work with images, create artworks and films,” expresses Nabil. “I studied French literature because I enjoyed reading as it was the closest thing to my area of interest.”

In the early nineties, Nabil began photographing his family and friends, noting inspiration from cinema, to which he was drawn to from a very young age. “I was in love with this art form of films and cinema,” he shares. He spent most of his teenage years and early twenties watching and studying different forms of film and cinema. 

Youssef NabilYoussef Nabil. Self Portrait, Hawaii. 2013. Hand-coloured gelatin silver print

Image c
ourtesy of the artist, Pinault Collection

“Cinema is important in Egypt and was mainly the most important one in the Arab world at the time,” recalls Nabil. “I used to photograph my friends in scenarios that I wrote, telling them what to wear, how to act and [I would] create stories using only black and white films that I would shoot.” He did, however, have a strong need to see his work in colour.

“But I didn’t want to use colour film,” he admits. He began painting the black and white photographs by hand, a technique the artist has become known for around the world. This same technique was practiced in Cairo and Alexandria since the early 1900’s and is celebrated as one of the oldest techniques of painting.

Entitled Once Upon a Dream, Nabil’s most recent exhibition, housed within Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy, and on view until January next year, will unveil the first major survey of the artist. The show covers Nabil’s work since the early nineties to date, spanning three films, self-portraits, painting, installation art and other recent projects. Curated by Matthieu Humery and Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the show has united over 120 works tracing the entirety of Nabil’s work.

The photographs on view, for instance Self-portrait, Hawaii (2013) and Say goodbye, Self Portrait, Alexandria (2009) depict a narrative of hope, a distant reality and the troubles faced by the Middle East in a modern age. “I don’t believe there’s only one message,” says Nabil.

“I’m showing my life through my work, directly inspired by what I had gone through in my life in Egypt until the age of 30.” The artist moved out from home almost two decades ago in 2003 and found himself in Paris, before moving to New York. “I was inspired by cinema and all the work I was doing – my portraits of people including actors, writers, friends or even people I just met – so there’s a story in each portrait, a cinematic theme.”

Youssef NabilYoussef Nabil. Charlotte Rampling, Paris. 2011. Hand-coloured gelatin silver print

Image courtesy of the artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris/Brussels

A highlight of the exhibition is I Saved my Belly Dancer # XXIV (2015), comprising hand-coloured gelatin silver print, which portrays a message of freedom. “To let a woman choose to belly dance if she wants to, for me is a good indication of freedom in society,” expresses Nabil.

“But they are treated as a kind of minority because they are typically considered not to be from a good family. I wanted to defend that idea and when I say that ‘I saved it’, I saved it in my memory. The film is more about what you can save in your memory even if it’s no longer part of your reality – it could be belly dancers, it could be someone you loved who is no longer part of your life. When you decide to save an idea in your memory, you carry it with you everywhere you go. That’s the main message I want people to feel when they see the film.”

Produced five years ago, the film stars actors Salma Hayek and Tahar Rahim. Egyptian film actors of the fifties by the likes of Faten Hamama, Shadia and Omar Sharif have been a vast source of inspiration for Nabil.

Youssef NabilYoussef Nabil. Say Goodbye, Self Portrait, Alexandria. 2009. Hand-coloured gelatin silver print

Image courtesy of the artist, Pinault Collection

Another film of note at the exhibition is You Never Left (2010), the first video by Nabil which features French actors Fanny Ardant and Tahar Rahim, depicting the intimate relationship between exile and death, and the feelings associated with leaving one’s home.

The film is set in a place which acts as a metaphor of a ‘lost Egypt’. “I wanted to talk about how I felt when I decided to leave Egypt – when I decided that I’m not going back and the idea of starting your life somewhere else,” expresses Nabil. “I needed to talk about the relation between leaving home and dying, because that’s what I knew as home and then I was suddenly in a different place. I found myself in a new country and I felt like I had to start my life all over again – new place new people, in a country that I’m still discovering.” He pauses, “your country never really leaves you wherever you go, so you carry your own culture and your own history wherever you go.”

Youssef NabilYoussef NabilYoussef Nabil. Catherine Deneuve, Paris. 2010. Hand colored gelatin silver print

Image courtesy of the artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris/Brussels

Other works showcased at Once Upon a Dream include The Last Dance (2012), I Will Go To Paradise, Self Portrait, Hyères (2008) and In Love, Denver (2012). The interplay of symbolism and abstraction contribute to the authenticity of Nabil’s work, acting as his own personal diary of multiple messages for today’s ever-changing Middle Eastern society.

Somewhere in the middle of fiction and reality, the artist’s thought-provoking works are a narrative thread comprising themes of identity, social and political concerns, and the nostalgia associated with previous times.

Once Upon a Dream by Youssef Nabil is on show at Palazzo Grassi from 4 May 2020 until 10 January 2021. 

Please note exhibition opening times might be subject to change, in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. Harper’s BAZAAR Arabia encourages everyone to stay home and to stay safe during these challenging times.

All images courtesy of the artist.


From the spring 2020 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art