Youssef Nabil to the rescue of belly dancers

The Egyptian artist is the creator of the project behind Salma Hayek's popular video belly dancing.

I Saved My Belly Dancer #XIX, 2015 Photo: Courtesy of Youssef Nabil
18/11/2015 12:18 Actualizada 12:18
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Youssef Nabil is an Egyptian artist that, in his own words, has created an "imaginary reality that reflects both the paradoxes of the Middle East in our times as well as the fantasies and flamboyance of Egyptian movie stars in the cosmopolitan pre-revolutionary years in Cairo."

To pay tribute to belly dance, a millenary art form he is fascinated with since he was a child and watched Samia Gamal's movies, he recently created a video and photo series for an exhibition entitled "I Saved My Belly Dancer" featuring Salma Hayek, a Mexican actress of Lebanese origin, and Tahar Rahim, a French actor of Algerian origin.

Impressed by his poetic defense of belly dance, whose correct name is raqs sharqi, which means oriental dance in Arabic, I decided to interview him for the readers of El Universal in English and the myriads of belly dance enthusiasts all over the world.

In an interview with Art Radar you called belly dance "the most unique art form in our Oriental culture". What do you think makes it so unique?

It is one of the oldest art forms when you think of dance as art. In some pharaonic temples in Egypt you can see women dancing, with instruments, using their body. In Egyptian cinema, since the beginning of the last century, especially in the 40s and 50s in every movie there was a belly dancer and they were adored and everyone loved the belly dancer, in weddings, in Egyptian villages for simple people, belly dance was celebrated everywhere until it became a debate of what women can show and can not.

When and why do you think belly dance started being considered vulgar? What caused this shift?

The social changing. Definitely the fact that we have so many conservative people in the country who judge everything through morals and religion, through their own way of seeing how Egypt should be as a country. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power after the revolution belly dancing was attacked indirectly. They managed to shut some night clubs. The idea came to me at that time, when I saw one of the most beautiful and unique art forms of the region being attacked because it is a woman, because it is her body and because she is dancing. For me it was always an amazing form of art and beautiful. There is nothing really about it that is supposed to be vulgar or sexual or something like that. I wanted to save that belly dancer and the only way to save her is to make a project about it, to include her in my art. Also the idea of the film is more about what we all decide to save in our memory from the past, from our life, to live with us even if it is no longer part of our reality.

I assume the first time you watched belly dance was in a movie. Do you remember which one and who was the dancer?

Yes, definitely it was in a movie and I think it was Samia Gamal.

Who is or are your favorite belly dancer(s)?

I love Samia Gamal, for me she is number one, I love Taheya Carioca too, and I like a lot Soheir Zaki and Nagwa Fouad.

When you lived in Egypt did you attend belly dance shows?

I didn't really go to shows but I saw belly dance in weddings. Like Soheir Zaki, Nagwa Fouad and Lucy, I also met them all later on. I saw Fifi Abdou dance, she invited me to see her show because I photographed her a lot and she was like: "Have you ever seen me dancing" and I said: "No", so she invited me to the night club where she was dancing."

Do you think Egypt will ever cherish their belly dancers again as it happened during the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema?

I think it will and it should. We still have belly dancers. There is no law to ban belly dancing in Egypt, there is nothing like this yet, but when the idea came to me to do the video and the work about belly dancing I did it for two reasons: first my personal admiration and fascination with this art form and also my worry that it will disappear, it is disappearing little by little. I was also trying to defend a certain Egypt that I lost, that I grew up watching in the movies, imagining that it would always stay like that: more open-minded, more tolerant toward any differences and also free. That is the Egypt that I was trying to make sure that still exists.

So here we are. Where is the line where someone really can be free, a woman can feel equal, a woman can dance and trying to preserve this art in the region the same way we grew up watching it without linking it to any immoral issues or judgment?

In the photo series of "I Saved My Belly Dancer" there is an image in which all the characters, royals, military, ordinary people, are watching the young sleeping man. What is the message you try to convey with this image?

The whole video is a self-portrait and all actually happens in a dream. Tahar Rahim, the actor, plays myself. He is dreaming of his old Egypt, the Egypt that he knew and we were just talking about with the different social characters, villagers, royalties, the bride and the groom, even the Gulf people they come to our country to enjoy belly dancing. So this scene is celebrating the Egypt as he knew it, the Egypt of his dreams, the Egypt that he lost and in both ends you see the old Egyptian flag (green with a white crescent moon and three stars) before the revolution, so he is dreaming of this world, his old world.

In another photo there is married couple and two Egyptian characters holding the belly dancer from her belly, while in the photo with the Gulf men she holds them from their leg and in the case of the royal couple she is with her back towards the queen. Did you try to say something with this body language?

No, I constructed those portraits after the typical portraits that we do in Egypt in a wedding. They all celebrate the belly dancer being an important element in society and in Egyptian culture, because in every wedding there is a belly dancer. She used to come the last thing so everyone is waiting and doesn't want to go home until the belly dancer appears and sometimes she comes at 3:00 in the morning. Everyone loves the belly dancer, so I wanted to do several portraits of the belly dancer in the middle of those different characters.

So far Salma Hayek has shared some short clips of the full 12-minute video on her Instagram. Is the full video going to be available online somewhere sometime?

The video can only be seen in full when exhibited in institutions like museums and foundations. It is an art project, so I cannot make it accessible online for everyone to watch it, I can only show segments with few seconds of it.

Are there any plans to show the exhibit somewhere else other than the Nathalie Obadia Gallery in Paris (on display until January 6, 2016)? 

After Paris the show is going to be at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai, but I'm in discussions now with other venues.

Can you tell us a bit about the music you used for the video?

I have two kinds of music. One of the pieces was composed by Tunisian composer Anouar Brahem, with whom I also worked on the first video "You Never Left", and the other one to which Salma dances is an old Egyptian village song.

Why did you choose Salma Hayek for this video instead of one of the few Egyptian belly dance stars still alive?

For me Salma is the perfect one, she is totally Mexican but I can see the Arab woman in her genes, her name and her face. I am not sure that she is aware of how oriental she is. I always wanted to work with her because I wanted to show that Arab side of her. I don't think she ever played a role in a movie before as an Arab or belly dancer. Before I met her I had a whole storyboard drawn with her face. When we met she knew of me because she is an art collector as well and she has my work in her collection, so we immediately connected and I felt I had known her forever. She loved the idea and we just waited for the perfect time to do it.


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