Youssef Nabil. Once Upon a Dream

Palazzo Grassi
11/07/2020 - 26/02/2021


From 11 to 26 February, Palazzo Grassi is open on Thursdays and Fridays. Free admission.

As well as the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition - which will occupy the first floor of the exhibition space - Palazzo Grassi will also host a monographic exhibition dedicated to artist Youssef Nabil (Cairo, 1972), titled ‘Once Upon a Dream’, and curated by Matthieu Humery and Jean-Jacques Aillagon.

Made after an ancient technique widely used for family portraits or film posters that once featured on the streets of Cairo, Youssef Nabil’s hand-painted photographs revive a legendary Egypt, between symbolism and abstraction.

The search for the sources of identity, the ideological, social and political concerns of the twenty-first century, and melancholy for a distant past are key themes driving Nabil’s artistic persona. Organised into thematic sections showing the artist’s earliest work through to his most recent production, the exhibition invites visitors to immerse themselves in the artist’s progression. Further insights are provided by the artist’s film production through the presentation of his three videos Arabian Happy Ending, I Saved My Belly Dancer and You Never Left.


Youssef Nabil began his photography career in 1992 by staging tableaux in which his subjects acted out melodramas recalling film stills from the golden age of Egyptian cinema. Later in the 1990s, while working as a photographers’ assistant in studios in New York and Paris, he began photographing artists and friends, producing both formal portraits as well as placing his subjects in the realms of dreams and sleep, on the edge of awareness, far from their daylight selves.

On his return to Egypt in 1999 he further developed his hand-painted photography, with portraits of writers, singers and film stars of the Arab world. In these years, and especially since returning to Paris and New York, he started producing self-portraits that reflect his dislocated life away from Egypt. This series that has evolved over the past fifteen years is characterised by liminal scenes in which he lingers between worldly realities and serene dreams, loneliness and fears of death.

Nabil’s distinctive technique of hand-coloring silver gelatin prints removes the blemishes of reality. Nabil disrupts prevalent notions of color photography and painting, as well as assumptions about the aesthetic sensibilities associated with art and those identified with popular culture. His hand-colouring evokes a sense of longing and nostalgia and allows his photographs to flicker between our time and another era.

The artist presented his first video in 2010 entitled You Never Left which featured the actors Fanny Ardant and Tahar Rahim. It is set in an allegorical place that is a metaphor of a lost Egypt, sketching an intimate and solemn parallel between exile and death. This video in which he reverently and inventively revisits the characteristics of Egyptian cinema’s golden age, with its movie stars and Technicolor film stock, he reconnects with the source and inspiration of his photographic imagery with which it shares the same personal, diaristic quality.
In 2015, Nabil produced his second video, I Saved My Belly Dancer, with actors Salma Hayek and Tahar Rahim, a narration around his fascination with the tradition of belly dancers and the disappearance of the art form that is unique to the Middle East. The 12-minute video also explores shifting perceptions of women in the Arab world and the tensions between the amplified sexualisation of their bodies and the continued repression of women in modern Arab society.

Youssef Nabil was born in 1972 in Cairo and currently lives and works in Paris and New York.



The exhibition catalogue is published in co-edition with Marsilio Editori, Venise, and Palazzo Grassi – Punta della Dogana.
Graphic design by Studio Sonnoli, Leonardo Sonnoli e Irene Bacchi.

It includes texts by Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Matthieu Humery and Linda Komaroff and a conversation between Youssef Nabil and writer André Aciman.

160 pages
1 trilingual edition (Italian, English, French)

Available for sale online and at the bookshops of Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana at reduced price.