Q&A: YOUSSEF NABIL
An interview with up-and-coming artist Youssef Nabil, whose work includes a series of photos of the actor Salma Hayek.
Born in Cairo, Youssef Nabil remained attached to the cosmopolitan culture, the “Mediterranean salad” of the anti-revolutionary Egypt. But look, this young man in his forties has repeatedly resurrected the luminous past through a technique that touches him: the artisanal coloring of silver prints. Without access to Fine Arts in Cairo, he looked everywhere just to find those old studio photographers who still practiced this quaint art, and befriended Leon Boyajian who signs his portraits Van Leo. Then he would fumble, making portraits of his friends by hand. David LaChapelle was passing by. He hired him as his assistant and gave him a new life in New York, in 1993. He had barely started he was poached again, this time by Mario Testino who enrolled him in Paris in 1997. But in the early 2000s, the time had come for him to take care of his own career. From Paris to New Yor, from one relationship to another, he had done portraits of the greatest icons of our time before being launched, in 2010, into the filming of the first film that was marked by his particular imprint: “You Never left” with Fanny Ardent and Tahar Rahim. His work is celebrated around the world. Museums and galleries are the major tear. On the eve of the release of his new film “I saved my belly dancer” with Salma Hayek and Tahar Rahim, he answers questions and provides a moving light to his story.
– When has your work really been recognized?
It came naturally, almost without my knowing it. In 1999, I had an exhibition in Cairo for the first time. The Belgian ambassador in Cairo loved my work and bought a few. Subsequently, he was transferred to Mexico where he invited me. He knew I loved Frida Kahlo as I had done a portrait of hers from her own self-portrait, in 1996. He organized a grand reception at the Embassy upon my arrival. Then everything was rushed. The following year, I had a solo exhibition at the Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City, and my Frida portrait was published throughout the Mexican press.
– How do you put your subjects in such a state of abandonment?
All my work is ultimately autobiographical. My characters are reflections of myself. When I photograph someone, I’m of not aware what is happening between us. It is only when I look at the trials, seeking images that best match my vision, that best reflect who I am, that I realize that I just photographed Deneuve, Ardjani, or others. But all of my portraits make up one family in the end.
– What do you tell them to accept to shoot with you?
I contacted everyone personally through mutual friends, never by an agent. The personal approach is essential.
– What is the subject of your film, “I Saved My Belly dancer” with Salma Hayek?
I’d say it’s another self-portrait, in the heart of an Egypt that no longer exists but that I still want to keep alive. This is the story of a man who would be me, played by Tahar Rahim, who sleeps in his djellaba and dreams of his Egypt in the 50s. All these gorgeous belly dancers, now disappeared, except one, played by Salma Hayek, who came to wipe her tears and dance for him one last dance. In the dream, he takes her on his horse to the American desert, where he now lives, saving, in a scene that evokes Hollywood westerners, the last trace and memory of a unique Middle Eastern work of art. This is my personal story, my relationship with Egypt – native country loved but left. I summon all that, the past lives on in my memory beyond a reality that does not keep track.
– What will be the next step for you?
Complete my new video “I Saved My Belly Dancer” that I’ve been working on for three years. This represents, for 12 minutes of film, 25 actors plus the two main actors and 30 talents behind the camera (It is the production company RSA Ridley Scott, London, who produced my video). But I am writing the script for a feature film and am preparing myself, after having dreamed of cinema for so long, to take that big step.