DUBAI: The Paris-based Egyptian visual artist Youssef Nabil has a new solo show at The Third Line gallery in Dubai, called “The Beautiful Voyage,” which contains works from 2016 onwards and runs Sept. 22 until Oct. 28.
Through his striking photography, Nabil has established himself internationally, with his work being acquired by museums and galleries across the globe — his portraits of celebrities including Alicia Keys, Robert DeNiro, Sting and many others have proved particularly popular.
Sunny Rahbar, co-founder The Third Line — which has represented Nabil in the region since 2005, explains that Nabil’s photographs are taken in black and white, then hand painted by the artist, giving his work its distinct aesthetic. This, as US cultural journalist Bob Colacello notes in his essay for the show, results in the superimposition of “painting over photography, the human over the machine, the timeless over the immediate.”
“It’s actually an old technique,” Rahbar tells Arab News. “He has a fascination with cinema, and in early cinema they used to hand paint the film. Even though these are photographs (produced) in editions of three or five, or 10, each one is slightly different. They’re unique.”
Since 2010, Nabil has also been working with video as a medium, and the centerpiece of the new show is the titular short film starring Nabil and award-winning actress Charlotte Rampling.
“This body of work is important because it’s quite a shift in his trajectory — in that he’s really turned the camera on himself,” says Rahbar. “There’s a lot of self-portraits and the new film is a very intimate conversation. I think there’s a maturity in this series.”
Though Nabil has never claimed to be blazing a trail for others from the Arab world, as Rahbar points out: “When an artist from this part of the world gets recognition on this level, it definitely helps further the cause.”
Here we present some highlights from the show.
‘The Beautiful Voyage’
This eight-minute video features a monologue by Rampling which tells Nabil’s own story. In her essay for the exhibition, art scholar and curator Layla S. Diba writes: “The two protagonists lie in a bathtub in a ghostly bathroom seated far apart, together yet separate. Both figures are archetypes: Rampling the eternal Mother and Nabil the spectral figure of Egyptian lore and son. Rampling reassures the artist that he never truly left his loved ones or his country, that life is a journey, a dream, that his true home is movement and that the dead are never truly lost to us. The words are the artist’s own, the first script he has written and published, and represent a moving summation of the wisdom he has acquired through the years as an outsider in an ever-changing and unsettled world, which resonates deeply.”
Among the 21 prints in the show is this 2021 self-portrait of Nabil asleep under a tree under a moonlit sky (both of which recur throughout his work). He is dreaming, and being visited by three angels. According to Diba, this image is a “slightly altered version” of an 1883 work by French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, which Nabil was immediately drawn to. “A similar dreamlike quality is frequently encountered in (Nabil’s) oeuvre,” she writes. “Nabil clearly identifies with the sleeping figure of the lonely wanderer, now transformed into the contemporary artist and his dreams of glory.”
‘Your Life Was Just A Dream’
Another theme of the works on display, Diba notes, is “nostalgia for an Orientalist fantasy of ancient Egypt … The fantasy of Egypt as a verdant green landscape or a fertile oasis … is referenced by a number of the photographs in this series although none are set in Egypt.” This 2019 image is one such example, and also shares the sense of loss and longing that permeates so many of Nabil’s images.
This piece from 2021 encompasses what Diba calls “(Nabil’s) ultimate acceptance of his identity as a nomad wandering the earth.” She also describes the figure in such self-portraits as evoking the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and the Jewish author Lev Nussenbaum, “who adopted the persona of a Muslim writer to pen one of the most popular pre-war romance novels ‘Ali and Nino.’” All three, she notes “have navigated successfully between worlds and produced their greatest works as exiles.”