‘Moving away and coming back and having to leave people you love – after a while this lifestyle gives you a different relation to life. You know that nothing stays forever; that everything is going to go and that includes us.’ Youssef Nabil sounds weary. It might be the previous day’s cripplingly long flight to Dubai from New York, where he’s currently based.
The Egyptian artist has become recognised for his delicate, hand-coloured photographs. He’s shot notorious Brit artist, Tracey Emin, naked and pouting in bed. He’s photographed friends, shaped into the gregarious glamour of ’60s Egyptian movie stars. And he’s photographed himself, alone on a beach in Rio or surrounded by tree roots coloured an iridescent green.
These self-portraits form the basis of his latest show at The Third Line. He’s told Time Out previously that this is his ‘most personal show yet’ and we ask him why that is. ‘This show is related specifically to the way I’m thinking most of the time, which is more about my existence and death and life and going to another place.’ He explains that it’s a preoccupation with knowing that one day you’re going to die. A perpetual memento mori that is not only found in a lonely sunset on a Brazilian beach, but also in the faces of friends and heroes: a constant pressure of mortality and ‘endness’ that casts a long shadow over everything in life.
Nabil’s portraits often look embalmed. His technique of hand colouring gives his subjects a strange, pancaked look. Earlier works, where his sitters have included the likes of Omar Sherif, David Lynch and a particularly bird-like portrait of Louise Bourgeois, appear frozen in a moment. They have life about them, but there’s something very static about these images. He can capture the sparkling eyes of Louise Bourgeois and the ironic glaze of Gilbert and George, but every one, set against a pale blue background, has a patina of deathly serenity.
‘When I photograph someone I want to keep part of this person,’ he says and has talked in the past about how these portraits are a way of holding on to someone who he loves who will one day be gone. But the self-portraits tell a different story. In one shot he stands looking wistfully at the famous Hollywood letters, perched on a hill above Los Angeles. In another, a diptych shot in a guest room in Venice, Nabil is seen wrapped in a sheet, looking disconsolately into the distance as if just about to leave. In the next shot he’s gone, with only an imprint of dishevelled bedsheets as a reminder that he was there.
‘These works are not about restlessness,’ says Nabil. ‘Take right now, I’m in Dubai – the weather is beautiful, I’m relaxed, I’m sat here drinking tea. But I know that there is an end. Everything is only for a short period of time, it’s always going to end.’
Turning the camera on himself, it’s no longer his heroes that he must hold on to, it is a fleeting second or an emotion that finds reflection in the place around him. By hand colouring these photographs he is able to draw from his own nostalgic memories or emotive imaginings and inject the images with even greater drama. He can refigure a moment into film stills in a way that, were they to be put together, would play a bleached memento of his own life.
But where is the ‘sex and death’ that Nabil always mentions when talking about his works? In the four-panel piece ‘BEAUTIFUL’, showing an Egyptian dancer twirling onstage, a narrative runs across the bottom: ‘I promise you – it will be beautiful – really beautiful – at the End’. We sense an atmosphere of unfolding, something concentrated, sustained about the dancer and her band. But in the final panel, ‘At the End’, there’s a sudden release, a climax, visible on the faces of everyone in the shot. The song has just finished, the audience claps – it ends, ecstatic.
It’s that same atmosphere in, ‘I Will Go To Paradise’, the most emotive and charged work in this show. Nabil is seen in a djellabah slowly submerging himself, until disappearing finally, into the sea. It could be the closing, dramatic seconds of a movie, just before the credits roll.
It’s as if Nabil is searching for a way to capture a sustained second. A moment of heightened drama: The last second before decision, before leaving and before death. He tries to extend that second, preserve its potential, draw it out to the horizon. There’s an obvious sexuality to this, each of these images plays with a climactic precipice before a change or an ending. We ask Nabil if paradise is disappearing, into the sea in this case: ‘No not disappearing, but it’s in the last moment. I don’t know really about paradise but it’s not disappearing. I like to look at these sunsets, it’s a moment of leaving as well. It’s the end of every day.’
The Third Line (04 341 1367). Until April 8