Anyone entering the Nathalie Obadia gallery in Paris in the past month will probably have been surprised to see a video of movie star and high-society woman Salma Hayek wiggling her buttocks, dressed as a belly dancer. The 12-minute film is part of an exhibition by Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil, entitled “I Saved My Belly Dancer,” which also features 26 hand-colored photographs, based on images from the film. The show is on through January 6, 2016.
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Starring in the video with Hayek is French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim who plays Nabil, sleeping on the beach, dreaming that his magnificent Egypt is gradually disappearing and that the last remaining belly dancer is dancing a final dance for him, before he takes her into the wilderness of the American dream.
This is not the first time Nabil has chosen to work with international stars and celebrities in his photographic work. Singers including Sting, Alicia Keys and Natacha Atlas, Serbian installation artist Marina Abramovic, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, American photographer Nan Goldin, Spanish actress Rossy da Palma, Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, as well as stars Catherine Deneuve, Isabella Rossellini and Omar Sharif – all these and many others have served as his subjects. In his first short film, “You Never Left,” which he wrote, directed and produced in 2010, Fanny Ardant starred alongside Rahim.
Nabil’s attraction to the big stars is no coincidence, of course. This attraction, as well as his work techniques, are related to the content which he often deals with, related to longings for the past and for a world that no longer exists and which may never have existed – except in the movies.
While still living in Egypt years ago, Nabil was singled out by British artist Tracy Ameen as a promising creative talent, and today many people consider him to be an extremely skilled and interesting photographer. His works have been displayed in group shows along with those of leading artists in the Arab world, Africa, Europe, the United States and Mexico. He has had solo exhibitions in such highly regarded venues as the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo, Galerist in Istanbul, Villa Medici in Rome, Maison Européenne in Paris, and a number of public institutions – including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, Centro de la Imagen in Mexico and others – display his works on a permanent basis.
In many of his works, Nabil places the subjects of his photography – whether it is he himself, his friends or celebrities – in settings that are unrelated to their public persona, as people cut off from their safe and familiar world and even from reality itself. By means of the purity of the picture, the meticulous and polished coloring used for both the background and the photographed figures, Nabil ostensibly removes all the stains of reality, the small specks of dirt that scratch images in everyday life, and dedicates himself to the dimension of illusion, which is embodied in cinema itself, as well as to nostalgia.
While the artist himself does not actually think his works deal with nostalgia, it’s hard not to see this element in them: whether in the specific aesthetic lent them by Nabil's painting technique, the choice of photographed figures and the way they are posed, or the locations chosen for the photography. In interviews over the years, he has expressed longing for Egypt as it was in the past, far more pluralistic and permissive, in his opinion, with a cultural wealth of which cinema was also a part, both enhancing and reflecting it by means of songs and dances, among other elements.
Recreating Egyptian melodrama
Youssef Nabil was born in Cairo in 1972 and studied literature at the city's Ain Shams University. As a child he often watched Egyptian films, especially those from the so-called golden age of the 1940s and '50s. In the early 1990s he began to photograph his friends, posing them in order to recreate scenes from the cinematic Egyptian melodramas.
Within a short time Nabil met photographer and director David LaChappelle in Cairo, and in 1993 he went to New York to work as his assistant. In 1997 and 1998, Nabil worked alongside famous fashion photographer Mario Testino in Paris, and upon his return to Cairo in 1999 he had his first solo exhibition. It featured black-and-white photos that he had colored by hand, a technique customarily used in Egyptian cinema in the past.
For years Nabil maintained close ties with Egyptian-Armenian studio photographer Levon Boyadjian, aka Van Leo (in Egypt, as in the Land of Israel/Palestine, it was usually artists of Armenian origins who engaged in photography). Van Leo, who became famous mainly for his portraits, including that of Egyptian writer Taha Hussein – encouraged Nabil to leave Egypt for the West. A year after Van Leo’s death in 2002, Nabil participated in the Biennial of African Photography in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and won a prize. That year he moved to Paris in the context of a residency program for artists, and in 2006 he moved to New York, where he lives and works to this day.
Already in his first solo exhibition in Cairo, Nabil’s artistic fingerprint was in evidence. The technique of hand coloring photographic prints on paper (coated with a gelatin emulsion with silver halide crystals) became the unique trademark of his work. Nabil uses black-and-white photos that have been deliberately printed in light hues, and colors them with watercolors and pencil.
In an interview he gave about two years ago to The National newspaper, which is published in Abu Dhabi, he said that this technique is considered very old-fashioned today. He went on to say that a significant part of his oeuvre deals with a return to basic things, and the need to avoid as much as possible “the madness of this modern world of technology,” as he put it. “The more we flee from it," he said, “the more human we are.”
He also said that he left Egypt because as an artist he is preoccupied with the body, and he realized that with Egyptian society becoming more and more conservative, he could no longer live there. In an interview he gave to the same newspaper earlier this month, Nabil explained that after the revolution and the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood, 12 nightclubs in Cairo where belly dancers performed were closed. To him that was another ominous sign for the society and the country from which he originated. His short film, he says, is meant to commemorate an era that has passed, in which “belly dancing was seen as a true medium of art from the Arab world.”
But dealing with nostalgia, as mentioned, involves a certain element of deception. Or at least prevarication. Belly dancing was in fact seen in Egyptian cinema from its onset; indeed, during certain years it was even hard to find an Egyptian film without dancing. But a large part of belly dancing as conceived today is nothing more than a product of Western images that penetrated Arab countries and influenced the way in which its performers were depicted in Egyptian cinema.
If in the past this form of dance was called “Eastern dance.” Only with the arrival in the region of Western empires did it become a “belly dance.” And in the past the dancers would perform mainly among women or family members, wearing a dress; only later did their costume become a “two-piece outfit.” Moreover, belly dancers were not necessarily positively regarded in Egypt: Although there were many women among them who gained fame and tremendous success, belly dancing was usually a despised profession.
Why did Nabil choose Salma Hayek of all people as the belly dancer in his recent work? Although Hayek is of Mexican extraction and her father is half Lebanese, he said he sees an Egyptian quality in her. She and her partner, French businessman Francois-Henri Pinault, had purchased some of Nabil’s works in the past, and when the artist began to create the sketches for his new video work, he drew the face of Hayek, whom he met two years ago. Because she has never played an Arab character, said Nabil, “I wanted to connect her to her roots.”