Youssef Nabil. Once Upon a Dream

As part of its cycle of monographic shows dedicated to contemporary artists, Palazzo Grassi unveils the first major survey of Youssef Nabil, multi-faceted Egyptian artist, whose work encompasses photography, painting, video and installation art.

Gently nostalgic, the timeless images of Youssef Nabil transport us to a distant reality. These photographs depict the Egypt of legend that is fading while evoking the troubles affecting the Middle East today. The multi-layering of inter- pretations and the interplay of description, symbolism and abstraction make up the richness of Youssef Nabil’s work, which poetically charts his journey as a personal diary.

Youssef Nabil, I Saved My Belly Dancer #III 2015. Hand-colored gelatin silver print
© Youssef Nabil Studio

Fascinated from an early age by cinema, Youssef Nabil began his photography career in 1992 by staging tableaux in which his subjects acted out melodramas recalling film stills from the golden age of Egyptian cinema. Later in the 1990s, while working as a photographers’ assistant in studios in New York and Paris, he began photographing artists and friends, producing both formal portraits as well as placing his subjects in the realms of dreams and sleep, on the edge of awareness, far from their daylight selves.

On his return to Egypt in 1999 he further developed his hand-painted photography, with portraits of writers, singers and film stars of the Arab world. In these years, and especially since returning to Paris and New York, he started producing self-portraits that reflect his dislocated life away from Egypt. This series that has evolved over the past fifteen years is characterised by li- minal scenes in which he lingers between worldly realities and serene dreams, loneliness and fears of death.

You Never Left # XI 2010 50 x 75 cm tirage argentique peint à la main Youssef Nabil Studio
Youssef Nabil, You Never Left # XI 2010. Hand-colored gelatin silver print
©Youssef Nabil Studio 

The artist’s photographs are based on a traditional photographic technique that was widely used for family portraits and the movie posters that adorned the streets of Cairo in the 1970s and 1980s. Nabil’s distinctive technique of hand-coloring silver gelatin prints removes the blemishes of rea- lity. Nabil disrupts prevalent notions of color photography and painting, as well as assumptions about the aesthetic sensibilities associated with art and those identified with popular culture. His hand-colouring evokes a sense of longing and nostalgia and allows his photographs to flicker between our time and another era.

Youssef Nabil, Self-portrait with Botticelli, Florence 2009 hand-colored gelatin silver print Pinault Collection
Youssef Nabil, Self-portrait with Botticelli, Florence 2009. hand-colored gelatin silver print©Pinault Collection

But the work of Youssef Nabil cannot be reduced to formal factors concerning the choice of the techniques or even the esthetic in which his work is inscribed. His works, whether photographic or cinema- tographic, mainly give us a prodigious narrative of the artist’s life, his sensibility, passions, disap- pointments, and expectations. They are his very flesh and soul. 

Conceived as a narration, ‘Once upon a Dream’ is an initiatory story, somewhere between fiction and reality, where each theme has both a universal bearing and personal resonance. The search for landmarks in our identity; contemporary ideological, social and political concerns; and the melancholy of a bygone era, are issues that all of us feel, and that Youssef Nabil’s photographs highlight during his journeys.

Youssef Nabil, I Will Go to Paradise Self-portrait, Hyères, 2008. hand-colored gelatin silver print ©Pinault Collection
youssefYoussef Nabil, I Will Go to Paradise Self-portrait, Hyères, 2008.
Hand-colored gelatin silver print ©Pinault Collection

“Nabil’s work comes from somewhere. It is, as we have seen, deeply rooted. However, it is not im- prisoned by any restraints. It is a free work, a work that fixes its project on all possible horizons. It is, therefore, an oeuvre that is already rich though far from being concluded. The exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi thus bears magnificent witness to this, while offering us a progress report”.

 —Jean-Jacques Aillagon

Curated by Matthieu Humery and Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the exhibition brings together more than 120 works which traces the route travelled by the photographer, and gives us insight into his vision for his future work. Each thematic section comprises works from his youth along with more recent work. ‘Once upon a Dream’ shows his film work, without reference to chronology, with the screening of his three films: Arabian Happy Ending, I Saved My Belly Dancerand You Never Left. 

Although the exhibition covers Youssef Nabil’s entire career, it should not be seen as a simple monograph. It gives a voice to the artist, enabling him to offer a profound insight into his aspirations and his involvement in the art world of the 21st century.

Youssef Nabil: Once Upon a Dream
Palazzo Grassi
July 11, 2020 – March 21, 2021
San Samuele 3231
30124 Venise, Italie

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