Youssef Nabil has made a career of immortalizing the famous in a unique photo-art style that has made him the belle of the ball on the international art circuit. Artist in residence at La Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris from 2003, then based in New York since 2006, Nabil started out in Cairo in the early 1990s with experiments in photography based on the colour tinting of old Egyptian portrait studios.
The style, as he explained it at a forum organzed by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi this month in its “Talking Art” series, involves taking black and white photographs which are printed deliberately light at a Paris printer Nabil trusts, then applying watercolour and pencil work to turn the images into something else entirely. “I went to meet these people, the last studio retouchers that existed in 1992/3. I met at least 15 of them in Cairo and Alexandria. They didn’t work any more, everything was already colour at that time. I had lessons with them, and that’s how I learned the technique. I added of course,” Nabil said. “The technique I got from Egypt, but the colours I got from personal experience.”
It’s an approach that questions the notion of objective representation that photography and other visual media aspire to, as well as being one that suits well Nabil’s obsessions with celebrity and death. He has captured a series of famous faces over the years in unusual, suprising poses, to the extent that now actresses, or even singers, will hope for the call from Nabil – rather like Egyptian actresses were with the late Youssef Chahine. He has just managed to add Greek singer Nana Mouskouri to the black veil series, he said.
Some of Nabil’s infamous works have included Egyptian bellydancer Fifi Abdo holding a waterpipe, Spanish actress Rossy de Palma with an eye closed and tongue lolling out, and in recent years Alicia Keys, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling and others in the distinctive Mediterranean black veil that crosses religious borders. A major draw for Nabil has been strong women, which sometimes mixes with his nostalgia for Egypt’s Golden Age, such as singer Natacha Atlas against a fabric bearing crowns, harking back to the monarchy that Nasser ended in 1952.
One of his most distinctive pieces is Lonely Pasha from 2002, where a young man with a tarboush stares sadly in a room of opulent cushions. The work is a precursor to a series of self-portraits Nabil has done that more explicitly deal with his fear of death. “I was asking my mother about an actress that I really love, and she said she was dead. I couldn’t really understand this, that everyone in this movie was dead. It was a horrible discovery as a kid, it was a shock that I was all the time in love with these beautiful dead people,” he said.
These various themes have been ploughed back into his latest work: 12 cl0se-ups of a dancer in frantic motion, heightened by the stunning gold coloured dress she wears against Nabil’s favourite light blue background. Titled The Last Dance – and currently showing at Dubai’s Third Line gallery – it captures Nabil’s fear that conservative Islamist movements are destroying the arts in post-uprising Egypt.
“I started thinking about the situation of women in Egypt, especially the bellydancers, this form of art that I always loved. I wanted to do work that speaks about these people and that that are trying to resist, to always exist. So you see her here, almost like a butterfly, trying to resist and stay alive; then sometimes you see a leg, sometimes you see a part of her body, she is covered then uncovered. I call it the last dance because I don’t know if this form of art will continue to exist or not,” Nabil said. “A country like Egypt, a culture like Egypt with a history like Egypt – to change its culture, this is my only fear. Now they are attacking art because they think it’s immoral, they think the body of a woman is taboo and can’t be shown. They are putting out all these ideas but for me when I look at a bellydancer for example I only see art.”
To hear these views in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi though is interesting in itself. The Guggenheim and Louvre projects in the United Arab Emirates capital city have been controversial, not just because of the issue of the labourers hired to build them – criticisms the authorities have vigorously rebutted – but because of the willingness to entertain the whim of power to kit itself out as patron of the arts on a global scale.
That matters because institutions such as these, representing the pinnacle of high culture in the metropolitan centres such as Paris and New York, at least in their own worldview, are keen to espouse an idea of universalism in the arts that processes the local, wherever that may be, into a stream of globally relevant and comprehensible cultural production, as well as encourage and engage with not just the cultural arena in a given locale but its social, economic and political realities too. But what state is the local arts scene in in the Emirates, and what kind of social, economic and political environment does it operate in? Does it in fact have any meaningful connection with its surroundings on those levels at all?
Questions that have been posed recently by Mostafa Heddaya at online arts journal Hyperallergic who saw the Guggenheim-UAE partnership as an example of “contemporary art’s institutional culture operating in service of authoritarianism”. Taking his cue from the brilliant takedown of the turgid language masquerading as subliminal intelligence used in the realm of the international arts industry – a Triple Canopy article last year dissecting what Alix Rule and David Levine ingeniously dubbed International Art English – Heddaya laid bare the propagandistic nature, witting or not, of the arts scene in the Gulf.
Heddaya picked up on remarks by Reem Fadda, an associate curator of Middle Eastern art at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, given at a lecture at the Guggenheim in New York. Fadda staked out a UAE art history that fitted the standard glorious history of desert-to-skyscrapers promoted for Dubai specifically but the UAE generally over the past decade. Yet when it came to criticism, she went on the defensive, arguing it was for outsiders to critique – the UAE and its arts community among others would have to engage in their own conversation.
Fadda – a Palestinian who has in the past harangued Israeli artists for colluding with a repressive state – was in Abu Dhabi for the Youssef Nabil and other talks, steering the discussion at major roll-out events for the Guggenheim project in the Gulf, and the same arguments were in evidence, making ample use of International Art English. The UAE was posited as a crossroads for international art – not somewhere for critical fertilization in itself.
“Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will promote transnational perspective on contemporary art and culture” and give a “focus on the interconnection of art and space,” said Valerie Hillings, Associate Curator and Manager. It would emphasize the Emirates as “a place where different nationalities exchange ideas”. It was interesting to note that the international art would date from the 1960s onwards, when social liberation was unleashed in the West, but the modernity of Arab art was from the 1940s onwards i.e. the beginning of decolonization.
In this context, politically sensitive commentary was possible because the subject matter was Egypt. Nabil’s work deals to some degree with issues of religion, but for the most part it can be easily compartmentalized as relevant to somewhere else. “I grew up with salad of nationalities and religions,” he said, explaining the thinking behind veil series. “The sort of veil that I like is worn in the Mediterranean by Greek, Spanish, Italian. You see it in Renaissance painting and in Egypt, with Copts and Muslims in Upper Egypt. It was never really a sign of separation between men and women, or more religious and less religious. I started doing a series of portraits of artists that I like, wearing this sort of Mediterranean veil that I love.”
The love-in between International Arts and Abu Dhabi is particularly arresting right now because of the ongoing trial of nearly 100 figures accused of taking part in a Muslim Brotherhood plot to seize power in the country, a trial at which international media have been prevented access and which has been accompanied by a ferocious campaign of defamation to turn public – even international – opinion against them. The argument is that the remarkable advance of neoliberal economics and urban expansion in the UAE, providing a home to some 8 million people, mostly from around the world, would not have been possible if politics, seen as by definition subversive, had been given free rein. The civil unrest in Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood rule has served to further tar the group on trial as not worthy of concern in polite society. Few in the UAE, across political, diplomatic, media, business circles, seem to care about the case.
The UAE saw a burst of sudden political activity in the wake of the Arab uprisings in early 2011 as elements of Emirati society began to mobilize for greater civic rights. In an earlier trial that year, five activists, including a prominent blogger and an economics professor, were convicted of insulting the leadership, endangering national security and inciting people to protest; they were later pardoned but one of them was later deported to Thailand, and seven others had their UAE nationality revoked – a peculiarly Gulf tick that raises questions of fundamental rights and the nature of the modern state.
I took a chance after the Guggenheim talk to get Nabil’s thoughts on these issues and the role that has been cast for him in their midst. Partnerships such as these he contextualized as an effort to tease out liberal progress from a conservative Islamic culture. The very fact that such art could be displayed and discussed in the UAE was an advance in itself, he said. “Taboos” were being challenged. It struck me as an Orientalist narrative masked as respect for indigenous culture but really remarkably divorced from whatever might be going on in UAE society. Is everything Islam vs. secular, veiled vs. unveiled, “East vs. West”? Who do these false binaries benefit.
“I visited the Louvre (Abu Dhabi), the first body of work they acquired, and you see nudity, you see the body, it’s very present but at the same time it’s an Islamic country, so art has no taboo, so once you decide this is art and this is a museum we cannot limit it and think we cannot show that, because it’s part of life. So I think they reached a point where they are trying to say we are not less than the West, we do everything at the same level as the West, we have as important a museums as the West and we import art from everywhere in the region and they have the money to do it,” he said. “You effect societies when you show them art and you make their eyes look at art.”
Ultimately, it was better than nothing.
“It’s a positive thing happening finally in the region in the middle of all the craziness,” Nabil said. “They graduated from universities from everywhere, they want to see their countries the same way they saw other countries in the West, so it’s like let’s do an art revolution, let’s show people art and change people’s perception and their judgement about things through art. They bring museums here and artists and curators and little by little things will definitely change everywhere. There are all these questions when you come to an Islamic country and you see suddenly all these liberal institutions – but why not, I think it’s good, it’s better to have it than not.”
These would be noble intentions, but does the structure of the arts industry in the UAE suggest there is any real aim to foster critique that engages the political and the economic? Qatar may have covered up the private parts of Greek statues, and the UAE can boast in response that it leaves genitals be – but is that not a poor substitute for serious criticism? Dubai-based artist UBIK seemed to think so in his conversation with Heddaya. Dubai, he said, is simply importing art and artists as a substitute for encouraging challenging local production, adding another facet to its sexy profile as seen from abroad. His fear was that the city would remain “some super-commercial area that’s never going to develop into something critical, and the art scene won’t develop”.
And that thought does not ultimately seem to be of much concern to anyone.