Exclusive Interview with Youssef Nabil | May, 2013

(Photo credit: Ralph Gibson)

CAF: What is it about the retro glamour of Egyptian cinema that inspires you?
YN: Let’s not use the word glamour because it has different connotations. It’s actually a very personal story with the idea of the life and cinema that was in my country I grew up watching in old films but that is no longer there. I felt that when I watched these films as a kid (in the 70s and 80s), I was watching a life that was no longer exactly what we were even living back then and now it’s something else. Everything is digital and high definition – it’s a different world. I love how people were presented at that time. Everything was beautiful, and people were more romantic. It felt that people were nicer before and now the relationship between us is suddenly about something else. So, it’s about the world I grew up watching, basically, and the Egypt that I loved.The love of the cinema led me to do my own photography and the idea of the world that existed but not there now. It’s the whole idea of transformation and even now with what happened after the revolution (in Egypt), you just have to always make your peace with the past, that this is not about what you knew and you just have to let it go.

CAF: You’re focusing on a nostalgia…
YN: Well, also, it’s not about nostalgia (Laughs). It’s actually about the fact that the less we have of all this technology, the more human we are. I know that and I miss that and I think this shows in my work as I speak about my world and I invite people to be a part of that. It’s no longer exactly what Egypt is about; it’s about the Mediterranean, the Egypt I loved, my idea of my country and my relationship to all of that… it’s very personal because again it was from the cinema that I wanted to do my own photography and again it is because of cinema that I decided to paint my black & white photographs to make them look like old films, to keep this old character throughout the work. 

CAF: Can we talk about your pictures and the hand tinting. It sounds like quite a precarious thing and it takes a long time. I was just really impressed by the detail and work that goes into it. How did working with David Lachapelle and Mario Testino, and their western techniques, influence your work?
YN: I started doing my technique of painting on photography before I worked with Mario and David. So this comes from Egypt, the cinema and the rest of it. Then everything came by chance. I was in Egypt on a shoot in a hotel when I met David. He saw me taking pictures and we started chatting. He said he was a photographer too and could I help him while he was in Egypt as he didn’t know anyone; I knew everyone and told him I could help him for free. We became friends and worked together for a week and then I went to New York and continued working with him until 1993. So, it was pure chance. Even with Mario, it was just meant to be. I think both of them felt that as a young photographer, I was 19 or 20, I was serious about what I was doing, so we worked together. We had very different styles and very different techniques. They both inspired me in different ways. It was also the first time for me to be in real studios in Paris and New York with photographers who were very professional. Everything was very organised. To see photography from that level with them helped me in so many ways. Just from being there and watching how a real studio in Paris or New York would function. As I didn’t study photography and I didn’t go to art school - photography in Egypt wasn’t very much appreciated at that time. So, I was doing something that didn’t exactly exist in Egypt... It was a great learning experience.

The Last Dance #1, (Denver 2012)
CAF: Just spinning off on the subject of education. Caspian Arts Foundation is an organisation that supports education in the arts. Do you feel that it’s important for students wanting to pursue a career in the arts to have some sort of mentor to help them out because an education, in terms of getting a degree, is not enough? 
YN: I think that there is no one version of the truth, that you have to have a mentor or you have to go to an art school. We have so many examples of great artists who have never been to art schools and also great artists who did go to art school but did the opposite in real life. To have a mentor is probably the oldest way to be an artist. You see that in Italy during the Renaissance, an artist would work in the atelier of another artist and he himself became an artist after and now they are all considered masters. I always wanted to study…you know, this is the thing. I was never actually accepted into any of the art schools in Egypt. I think when you study, the best thing about it is not exactly the study itself because you can read this in books after and you can do it in your practice - but it’s about being somewhere with people like you, who have the same goal to study art and be in touch with books about art and professors who talk to you about art, to be there with a group of people who all want to do the same thing and who love art. 
That is what I missed actually. But I tried to do that differently and life brought it to me also, because I met David by chance and I could have met anyone else. I didn’t know anything about his work. So, it was a sign from life that I was on the right track. Again, I think you should do the best with what life gives you. We shouldn’t say: ‘ok, you should have a mentor now’you can’t calculate things that way. 

CAF: Yes, otherwise you will never be happy if you constantly try to find something. It is important to be satisfied at some stage…  
YN: Yes, I see that with friends of mine, like Tracey Emin. She destroyed all her art works she did in her earlier years at art school and now she is doing something else. Her drawings have nothing to do with what she learned from art school and now it became a style in itself.  So, you have so many examples like that. I’ve had so many conversations with friends who had attended art schools and now they’re doing completely different works – there is no one rule to follow. 

CAF: Thanks for that. That’s very insightful and I’m sure our readers, especially the students and aspiring artists, will find that very useful. You tell your story through self-portraits, but why do you choose not to engage with the lens properly? Why do you never directly look at the camera?
YN: The self-portraits speak about different stories and probably are the most personal body of works for me. I speak about my relationship to my country, to life, the existence to my life and the fact that even in Egypt I always felt like I will leave one day, I’m going to go one day. I am there as a visitor and this is not exactly my place. When I left for Paris, I stayed there for three years and it was the same. Since then it’s the same story everywhere I go, that I don’t think we really belong here. I think that everywhere I go I will be a visitor. I think the whole relationship with life is the same – I’m here for a certain time and then I’m going to go, we are all going to go. So, the self-portraits speak about death and it’s about being here for a short period of time and then leaving. It was a sad discovery for me when I was a kid that everyone would leave one day. So, everything you learn, everything you got used to and everything you have is not going to be there forever. You are going to leave and you are leaving. It wasn’t an easy discovery. When I left Egypt and moved to Europe, I started doing more self-portraits and I speak about these subjects, the fact that I feel like a visitor. I speak about life and death and I don’t have to look at the camera because it could be about anyone else. I don’t see myself, I see humankind. I see the story of all of us.

CAF: Do you think you will ever digress from your current styles of black and white film and hand painting? Are you quite solid that this is your mark and this is how you want to be remembered in terms of your photography?
YN: I really enjoy combining both painting and photography. This is something I discovered as I began doing only black and white photographs, and then I had this need to see my work in colour. I never wanted to use a colour film or a digital camera. I love the fact that I can see them as a painting, but it is also photography, but it is not exactly photography or only photography but it is also a painting. They remind me of the movies that I loved, Egypt and the life, the story I tell about this period of time that I related to. If you look at the career of Louise Bourgeois who lived almost 100 years and you see the works she did in her early years… she changed her style so many times. So again, I don’t want to feel that this is it. I did a video recently and now I am working on my second video. This is a different medium and it’s in colour. Again, I try to make the colour similar to my palette when I paint… so, the blue is my blue and the red is my red etc. I try to connect them all to my family and my inspiration to what I love in terms of colour and in terms of sensitivity and you can tell that (it is my work) when you see the video in its colour – they look like my painted photography. 

 Catherine Deneuve (Paris, 2010)                Alicia Keys (New York, 2010) 

CAF: It is very important for an artist to do what he thinks is right and what he likes. Do you think it is important for an aspiring artist to develop his/her own personal style? 
YN: Yes, but I think the word ‘style’ is not something you exactly choose; It has to come from within. You cannot just say ‘Ok, I am going to have a style now,’ you don’t decide! You make the decision of what you like and what you don’t like, but it shouldn’t come like a decision. I think, again, if you look at someone like Nan Goldin who’s a friend and someone I love. When she started taking pictures, she didn’t even think about exhibiting it one day. She was just shooting her friends with the light that existed in the room and then this light became the Nan Goldin style, it was just her trademark of light. You know this is hers. I can give hundreds of examples like that. It’s the same with me. I don’t decide. I would say you should be truthful to what you like and what you love, and don’t listen to rules, because rules will only make you limited in your thinking and in what you want to do. Just be free as much as you want, and if you are doing photography, keep doing photography. If you are drawing, keep on drawing. After that, you sort of also choose what you want to show from all that you did.  Little by little, you will develop a certain eye, a like and a love for what you will call, as you said, “style”. But it is not exactly a decision that you take.

CAF: In terms of everything becoming very digitised and I know you are opposed to the whole technological innovation. How do you see artists progressing in this digital age? Is it positive that we have more things to experiment with?
YN: It is very tempting when you see machines are becoming High-Definition and better than analogue photography, along with all the details etc. I am not interested in all of that, and I don't want to think too much of technology, this is not what it’s about. It’s not about the best camera, it’s not about the HD and the digitisation. 
David Hockney did a whole exhibition with an iPad.  Again, you can tell this is a David Hockney, and I don’t care if it is an iPad. It’s never about this… But he succeeded in saying what he wanted to say in this action with an iPad, but it could be anything. It could be a mobile phone, and it became an important piece, or a Polaroid. It could be anything. I don’t think that’s an indication. I don’t listen to this. The fact is that when it comes to art, it’s not about that at all.

CAF: ….So, essentially, art is art regardless of technology. 
YN: Exactly…

CAF: Final question, what is your next plan? What projects will you be focusing on?
YN: Well, I have a book that’s coming out in Europe… it will be out in London in July this year. It’s published by Flammarion, with conversations with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Marina Abramovic. The book is about my work over the past 20 years. It took three years of my life to make because I also wanted to include early works that no one has seen and wanted to finish the work before the book came out. I am now also working on my second video. It’s very exciting as again, it’s a different medium. I love the fact that people that I used to photograph are moving now and I see my images are moving. For me, it’s something I discovered I really enjoy as well. I also have group exhibitions in Vancouver, Florence, Paris and Brussels. I have one in London at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It’s a group show, Light from the Middle East, about contemporary photography from the Middle East.

Transformation #1, Marina Abramović (New York, 2011)


Youssef Nabil's solo exhibition, Time of Transformation, is currently on display at
The Third Line, Dubai, until 12 June. All images shown are courtesy of The Third Line and the artist. 

Interviewer: Kiran Sahib (Caspian Arts Foundation)
Edited by Nina Mahdavi & Youssef Nabil

© All rights reserved, Caspian Arts Foundation, 2013