I recognized Nabil at first sight. He looked just like his self-portraits, as if a picture had come to life. Dressed all in black he gave a mysterious vibe. At the same time he exuded a sense of familiarity; I felt I met him before, but of course I hadn’t. “Yosra, How are you?” he said in Arabic. This took me a bit by surprise, since I thought he had lived almost all his life in the U.S. and France. Nabil left Egypt and hadn’t been back in Egypt for 13 years. Acknowledging my surprise, he said rather proudly, “Of course I speak Arabic well. I am Egyptian.”
As a personal art fanatic and an admirer of successful Egyptians, Nabil’s work always enchanted me. The idea of hand-colouring black and white photographs was both captivating and intriguing. For me, the way his art translates numerous emotions and words is out of this world. Nabil’s art manages to capture the soul rather than a simple face or body. I felt his photographs always gave the same vibe, yet I was never able to put my hands on what they all had in common. That is, until I met him. “All my work is related to my personal life and to Egypt,” Nabil told me. And that’s when it hit me, that I felt I had met Nabil before… through his photographs. Nabil is inevitably present through all his work and that’s what they all had in common. As he always says, “If you stay true to yourself, people feel it through your art.”
You would think that a person who mingles with personalities from all around the world would have had a socially active childhood. Yet, that wasn’t the case with Nabil. As a child, he was an introvert and thank God he was, since that played a part in making him the artist he is today. Since he was a little kid, Nabil observed people’s every move, which later developed his directing skills, along with watching old black and white movies every second of the day. So Nabil’s passion for art didn’t just jump out of the closet one day, in fact it was always there locked inside of him as a kid until he let it out as he grew up. He started photography when he was in college, and later moved to the U.S. to develop his passion. His hard work and long nights paid off, and Nabil’s work combining photography and painting is now exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world. In addition, three monographs were 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 most recently, a self-titled monograph, Youssef Nabil, published by Flammarion (2013).
Nabil’s storytelling of his beliefs and life through his work is especially evident in his second masterpiece video I Saved my Belly Dancer in which he collaborates with famous actress Salma Hayek. The 12-minute video starts with a scene of Egypt in the early 1950s, with characters from different social backgrounds, highlighting that everyone enjoyed belly dancing. The video is a depiction of a man’s dream of his own world which he comes to realise has ceased to exist. He dreams of different belly dancers and characters from different social classes. The last belly dancer, played by Hayek, comes to comfort his tears to assure him that she is with him and his world has not vanished. She dances that last dance for him before he carries her on his white horse, and they take off in a western old movie scene. “The idea of the film is more about our memory. What we want to save and want to keep in our memory to live with us, even if it no longer exists in our reality,” Nabil said.
Nabil always admired belly dancing, he fell in love with the old school belly dancers like Tahiya Karioka, Samia Gamal, and Shoheir Zaki. “I have always been fascinated by the idea of belly dancing, of women being so free in showing their body and dancing. It may be the only art form that came out of our region and has been there since the pharaohs,” he said. “Lately, however, I have been feeling that the art of belly dancing, the traditional one, is slowly disappearing. I wanted to save the belly dancer,” Nabil told me. “The idea came to me with that title. We need to save that art. We need to save that idea in our region,” he continued. Nabil, the artist wanted to save the Egypt that he fell in love with, an Egypt that is open-minded and that accepts differences, one where people live together in tolerance and respect.
Nabil didn’t just have an idea, photograph and paint it, and present it. It doesn’t work that way with him. He is rather a very careful and detailed perfectionist who won’t produce anything less than virtuoso artistry. In order to create the last video with such mastery, he relentlessly worked on it for three years. “I Saved My Belly Dancer is the biggest project I have done to date in terms of production, preparation, and everything,” he told me. “I drew the whole projet scene by scene. I had the storyboard with the face of Salma Hayek before we even knew each other. Waiting for the funds, contacting the actors, who are 25 characters besides the two main ones, and choosing locations, all absorbed a great amount of time,” he added.
The minute I heard Nabil saying that he already had the face of Salma on his storyboards before approaching her, I was curious to ask about the reason for that choice. The idea is absolutely genius. Not only is Hayek a well-known international movie star who is sexy, classy, and elegant, she also, by all means, embodies the role of a belly dancer as if she was born to be one. “I always saw an Arab in Salma,” Nabil told me. “I see an Arab in Salma’s face. She’s very oriental. I wanted to present her for the first time as an Arab, and a belly dancer.” According to Nabil, Hayek was very excited to play such a role; she was even more thrilled to work with the man whose work she has collected for years. In order to play the part of a professional belly dancer, Hayek had to take private belly dancing lessons for months since she wanted to perfect the role.
Another main character that utterly caught my attention in I Saved My Belly Dancer was actor Tahar Rahim. Rahim is a rising actor who took the world by storm in his first role as Malik El Djebena in the French movie A Prophet by Jacques Audiard. The French actor of Algerian origin received multiple awards for that role. Little did Rahim know that there was an artistic eye of brilliance watching him as he took his first steps. Besotted with Rahim’s acting and expressions in A Prophet by Jacques Audiard, Nabil instantly decided to contact him for his first video experience You Never Left. With the numerous awards Rahim had received, Youssef was a bit anxious that he might not accept his offer. However, Rahim was more than happy to work with Nabil.
Nabil’s first video You Never Left (2010, 8 min) with Tahar Rahim and French legendary actress Fanny Ardant, portrayed the yearning relationship he has with his homeland. The film’s idea was about a man thinking of departing from his home and finally deciding to leave. “There’s a mini death that happens to anyone who decides not to go back home. That is exactly how I felt and I wanted to translate that idea,” he added.
I wanted to understand more about Nabil’s first experience in motion. “I felt as if I had been doing this all my life. I have always been directing people. The only difference is that the camera is in motion rather than capturing moments,” he told me.
Nabil likes to work alone. He photographs his characters alone and paints on his own as well. So filming for the first time with a whole team was definitely a different experience for him. Working with a team gave him a new sense of enjoyment. It was exciting for him to work with people who shared the same vision. He even found it motivating.
Some individuals are meant to leave their tracks behind, whether through their art, words, or action. Lucky for us, Nabil happens to be one of those individuals. His work will always be a legacy to coming successors, inspiring many Egyptian artists, and carrying a living image of what Egypt is all about.