The Portrait is an Address

Aasim Akhtar


Excerpted from The Aleph Review, Vol. 3 (2019), Aasim Akhtar's essay on the portraiture of Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil, who since 1992, has made a slew of photographs that deliberately resist, and perhaps defy, categorisation. All photography in this feature is credited to and courtesy of Youssef Nabil.


One of the many organising principles through which to present the work of Youssef Nabil—moving chronologically from early to recent work, for example, or arranging disparate subjects into thematic clusters related to recurring ideas of power or dreams or memory—portraiture would appear the least obvious. Since 1992, the Egyptian artist has made a slew of photographs that deliberately resist, and perhaps defy, categorisation. His work remains in perennial progress, always ready to be mobilised and reconfigured whenever a curatorial or editorial process veers into what he considers neocolonial terrain.


Self-portrait with an Angel

Nabil has taken the notion of the portrait and effectively turned it inside out, or more accurately, enlarged it from a static image to an active sentence, thereby articulating something ‘new’ about his practice. Mixing old and new work and shuffling through both well-known and totally forgotten projects, the images make an impressively surgical cut into the artist’s oeuvre, not only proving Nabil’s abiding interest in portraiture—rendered as wry text—but turning the genre on its head. Works such as Simone in Downtown Bar and Amani by Window are studies in how personas are constructed, how people brand and project and communicate and convey themselves to others, how friendships are formed around or through the tension between intense self-assertion and dramatic self-doubt. Contrary to convention, Nabil’s portraits are often doubled, even haunted, and never alone.


Simone in Downtown Bar, Cairo

Nabil initially became enamoured with the camera as an instrument of great mechanical intrigue and has worked with portraits like an ancient painter. He uses camera as though he has a palette and paintbrush with which he obtains minutely detailed, though not psychological, portraits. In this way, he’s proved that it is possible to portray someone without pathos and still bring out his soul.


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Youssef Nabil has always avoided falling into the trap of the stereotype. He shuns typecasting himself in a series of self-portraits in a continuous struggle aimed at the veracity of representation. The choice of pose and background assure that from his shots only an unmitigated, natural sense emerges that inevitably moves the viewer.


Self Portraits is an attempt, dazzling in its simplicity, to show the various sides of the personality portrayed with the use of the double and the specular as an ingenious observational stratagem. “The self-portraits speak about different stories and probably are the most personal body of works for me. I speak about my relationship to my country, to life, the existence to my life and the fact that even in Egypt I always felt like I will leave one day. I am there as a visitor and this is not exactly my place. When I left for Paris, I stayed there for three years, and it was the same.”


Paradigmatic of his introspective ability is Nabil’s more recent venture into short filmmaking, inspired by the great tradition of vintage Egyptian film, You Never Left. Made with Fanny Ardant and Tahar Rahim, the artist has stripped them bare of their onscreen glamour to reveal them as they really are, endowed with the weaknesses, strength, and dignity of simple human and humane beings.


You Never Left

Another short film, I Saved My Belly Dancer, with Salma Hayek and Tahar Rahim, is neither a sentimental paean nor a documentation of a troubled time; rather, it’s what the Egyptian photographer describes as a series of occurrences that become metaphors of life. “Metaphors legitimise acts of everyday life, showing us seemingly banal events, where man leaves traces of his existence.”

I Saved My Belly Dancer

Nabil refers to himself, with characteristic self-deprecation, as a ‘nostalgist’. The artistic sensibility that infuses his best images is difficult to define. His pared-back working method and aesthetic are designed to keep his own ego in check. His often-quoted mantra is “Photographers should neither be seen nor heard.” There is nothing affected about this reserve; rather, it reflects his deeply intuitive method of working.


Watch Nabil's short film I Saved My Belly Dancer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31KnQpIddl0


Aasim Akhtar’s writing is published in magazines, catalogues and books both nationally and internationally and his art work has been widely exhibited, more recently at Whitechapel Gallery, London, as part of a commemorative show entitled Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (2010). He was a writer-in-residence at Ledig House and Ucross Foundation, USA, in 2000, and a curator-in-residence at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan, in 2002. Among the many exhibitions he’s curated to date, An Idea of Perfection: National Exhibition of Photography is noteworthy. He is the author of two published books, Regards Croisés (Alliance Francaise, Islamabad, 1996) and The Distant Steppe (Alliance Francaise, Islamabad, 1997), and has just finished writing his third, Dialogues with Threads: Traditions of Embroidery in Hazara. He teaches art appreciation and studio practice at The National College of Arts, Rawalpindi.


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