Youssef Nabil draws inspiration from the concept of memory and the cinematic universe he grew up admiring in his native country, Egypt. His works’ ethereal aesthetics take from the hand coloring photography technique of the technicolor films. The artist hand-paints each of his black and white photographs, as editions become variations, each a unique version of the artist’s labor.
Nabil began his career in 1992 by staging tableaux in which his subjects acted out melodramas recalling film stills from the golden age of Egyptian cinema. His photographs provide an escape from reality, funneled through his cinematographic sensibility. His early works are populated by his personal icons, from movie stars to artists, who become subject characters of Nabil’s stories.
His photographs are marked by a sense of calm instilling an idea of safety. Within the confines of his frames, there is a sense of security and pleasure. Nabil's photography flirts with notions of the exotic and the erotic. The images slide seamlessly across a variety of different genres, which meld together to create a dreamlike sensual mise en scène. Operating as visual narcotics, the photographs invite the viewer into a place of transgressive otherness, a place that breaks with convention.
Contemplating the transitory nature of our passage on Earth, the artist imbues his work with a motif of transience. The self-portraits therefore represent the duality of life and death, reality and dreams, home and exile, as Nabil considers himself a visitor through these poetic landscapes which become vehicles for life experiences. Taken throughout the globe, the self-portraits become metaphors for the artist’s feeling of exile, a longing for a return to a forgone home, which now only exists in idealized silver print memories. Nabil almost systematically represents himself from his back, inspired by the codes of great romantic paintings. The character he embodies, his face shielded from view, becomes an allegory onto which one can project a melancholic imaginary.
Techniques of transparency and split compositions add to the artist’s repertoire of magic realism, inviting the viewer to take part in his personal mythology. The photographs take on a surreal energy as they become situated in a land of dreams, rather than in a physical location. However intimate, the message in his work remains universal, a touching portrait of a life led away from home.
The past decade also testifies to the artist’s foray into the medium of film; with "You Never Left", 2010, "I Saved My Belly Dancer", 2015, "Arabian Happy Ending", 2016, and "The Beautiful Voyage", 2021. As the artist translates his world into moving images, he further invests in his longstanding relationship with cinema.
Youssef Nabil was born in 1972 in Cairo (Egypt). He lives and works in Paris (France) and in New York (USA).
Youssef Nabil’s International solo and group exhibitions include: in the USA, at the Pérez Art Museum (PAMM) in Miami, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Studio Museum in Harlem and Aperture Foundation in New York, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah and in Atlanta, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh; in Canada, at the Aga Khan Museum of Art in Toronto ; in France, at the Centre Pompidou, Maison Rouge – Fondation Antoine de Galbert, Institut du Monde Arabe and Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the Frac Normandie in Sotteville- lès-Rouen, the Friche Belle de Mai in Marseille, the Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, ; in Belgium, at the Fondation Boghossian and Maison Particulière in Brussels ; in the UK, at the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Newcastle ; in Germany, at the Museum für Modern Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt, the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, and the Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen in Berlin ; in Spain, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) in Barcelona, the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville, and the Instituto d’Art Modern in Valencia ( IVAM ) ; in Italy, at the Villa Medici in Rome, the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, The Palazzo Grassi in Venice and the 53rd Venice Biennale, Unconditional Love ; in Qatar, at the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha; in Mexico, at the Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City; and in Mali, at the 5èmes Rencontres de la Photographie africaine in Bamako, during which he was awarded the Seydou Keïta Prize. In 2020/2021, Youssef Nabil had his first retrospective exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, titled Once Upon A Dream.
Youssef Nabil's work is part of various international collections, among which: in the USA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Pérez Art Museum in Miami (PAMM), the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art (SCAD) in Savannah; in France, the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the Collection François Pinault, and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris; in Switzerland, the Collection UBS Art in Zürich; in the UK, the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; in Angola, the Sindika Dokolo Foundation in Luanda; in Greece, the Photography Museum in Thessaloniki; in Qatar, the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha; in the United Arab Emirates, the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi; in Mexico, the Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City.
Four monographs have been published on Youssef Nabil's work – Sleep in My Arms (Autograph ABP and Michael Stevenson, 2007), I Won't Let You Die (Hatje Cantz, 2008), Youssef Nabil (Flammarion, 2013), and Once Upon A Dream (Marsilio, 2020).