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French Version

Young Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil turns his lens on himself

Self-portrait exhibition at Cairo gallery one of artist's four high-profile shows this year

Renowned novelist Naguib Mahfouz: all glasses and graying goatee with a smile pronouncing itself in the curve of his cheeks. Legendary bellydancer Fifi Abdou: her famous waist cinched in a black evening gown, standing on what look to be a powerful pair of shins, her body cropped at her sternum. The movie star Suhair Nassim, aka Youssra: eyes closed to convey lust and longing, planting a sumptuous kiss on the lips of her own reflection. The crude yet immensely popular singer Shaaban Abdel Rehim (of "I Hate Israel" fame): a close-up of his hands, weighed down with heavy gold rings and bracelets, gently folded over his soft and protruding gut.

Young Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil may be best known for his celebrity portraiture (all of the above plus Paulo Coelho, Julian Schnabel and John Waters, to name a few) and his quirky images of colleagues and friends, such as singer Natacha Atlas (a close-up of her cleavage), actress Rosy De Palma (sticking her tongue out the corner of her mouth) and artists Shirin Neshat (in severe black eyeliner), Tracey Emin (in cowboy boots over argyle socks) and Ghada Amer (face down on her drafting board with a thimble on her middle finger). But from now through October 12, Nabil is showing a much different face at Cairo's Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art - his own.

"I've spent a lot of time with myself since I moved to Paris three years ago," says Nabil, in an interview conducted between Paris and Beirut. "It reminded me of my childhood. I was a very introverted child, always by myself in my room. That made me ask myself many questions about my life and existence. I decided to talk about it in my work."

The Townhouse show, titled "Realities to Dreams," features 11 self-portraits, all done in Nabil's signature style. He takes evocative, high-contrast black-and-white photographs with a 35-millimeter camera. Then he applies the antiquated technique of hand-painting them all, meticulously, painstakingly, one at a time (he prints his photographs in editions of 10, but the hand-coloring essentially renders each picture unique).

Whether he's shooting himself or a subject, Nabil works on location, not inside a studio. The set-up doesn't take much time, he says. "I ask people to look the way they usually are ... No makeup as I do it myself when coloring the photo. I like to meet people at least one time before the shoot. We feel things [out] and talk about everything. Then the day of the shoot is really fast, sometimes it's only for 10 or 15 minutes ... Most of the time I spend is when I color. It takes me three days to do one photo. I also could photograph any time of the day, but to start coloring I need to be in a certain mental flow and free from all other thoughts."

Nabil, who turns 33 next month, originally wanted to be a filmmaker. As a kid he was inspired by the retro glamor of Egyptian cinema's golden age, and particularly by the photo-novels used to accompany those old films. He studied literature at Cairo University and began taking pictures at 19. Then he got two opportunities he'd be crazy to refuse - the first as an assistant to New York-based fashion photographer David Lachapelle (who, interestingly enough, just released his own first film, the critically acclaimed documentary "Rize" about hip-hop dance styles krumping and clowning in Los Angeles), the second as an assistant to Paris-based fashion photographer and celebrity portraitist Mario Testino.

In addition to learning from the expertise of Lachapelle and Testino, both giants in terms of fashion photography and skilled at crossing over into contemporary art, Nabil benefited immensely from a long friendship with legendary Egyptian-Armenian photographer Leon Boyadjian, better known as Van Leo. With Van Leo's work, Nabil shares a sense of faded beauty, crumbling elegance, and rootless nostalgia. While it is tempting to read Nabil's self-portraits as an homage to Van Leo, who once rather famously shot 400 pictures of himself donning 400 different identities in a single year, Nabil insists his intentions are personal, interior and reflective.

"I started doing them in 1992 in my room," he explains. Of the images on view at Townhouse, he adds: "I did all of them during the past three years, in my travels. Some I had the idea [for] before and traveled specially to do the portrait, and some were more spontaneous. I felt in all of them that I was a visitor."

The effect of Nabil's current exhibition in Cairo, and of his self-portraits on their own as a body of work, is subtle, like a graceful accumulation of gestures. What becomes clear when looking at them all at once is that Nabil never faces his own camera directly. He looks above or to the side of the lens or he turns his head completely. The viewer becomes Nabil's accomplice, gazing out onto the same scene and then, inevitably, searching for something. What can be seen in this quaint lantern nestled into a pile of autumn leaves? What can be found hidden among the delicate leaves and lily pads of an English park east of Paris?

"There is always something that we look for, that we wish to have or understand or achieve," he says. But "nothing is complete, and nothing will remain the same."

As a title, "Realities to Dreams" is "a personal thing. Since I was a kid I had a way of mixing my dreams with my realities and realities with my dreams. It's my way of seeing things, too ... "

The Townhouse show is one of four high-profile exhibitions Nabil has lined up for the rest of this year. Through October 14, his more glamorous imagery and celebrity portraiture is on view at the upstart Dubai gallery Third Line.

In late November, Nabil is participating in the Institut du Monde Arabe's blockbuster show on contemporary Arab photography, featuring nearly 25 artists from Jananne al-Ani, Nadim Asfar and Lara Baladi to Susan Hefuna, Randa Shaath, Ahlam Shibli and the team of Paola Yacoub and Michel Lasserre. Nabil will show self-portraits and nudes.

Before the year is out, he has another solo exhibition at Patricia Liligant in New York, a 57th Street gallery that specializes in vintage and contemporary photography and houses an archive of work by the likes of Hans Bellmer, Brassai and Man Ray (not bad company to be in). There, Nabil will show "Not Afraid to Love," a collection of work done on more sexual themes (photographs like the one titled "Tamer," framing a young man with an issue of Playboy draped lazily across his chest, an arm reaching down, out of the composition, into the imagination).

Nabil doesn't imagine he'll ever give up black-and-white film, hand-tinting or the idea of portraiture. "I like people and like watching them," he jokes. "I guess I'm a voyeur by nature." He hasn't given up on film and is writing his first movie now. He hopes to take Elizabeth Taylor's portrait one day. And he still pines for never having the chance to shoot Frida Kahlo or Umm Kalthoum. Impossible in reality, perhaps. But highly plausible in Nabil's dreams.

Youssef Nabil's "Realities to Dreams" is on view at Cairo's Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art through October 12. For more information, call +20 2 576 8086 or check out www.thetownhousegallery.com. "Youssef Nabil: Portraits" is on view at Dubai's Third Line through October 14. For more information, call +971 4 394 3194 or check out www.thethirdline.com

Cairo,10 10 2005
Kaelen Wilson Goodie
The Daily Star
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