Yousef Sabry is inspired by the art of “divinity and its deceptions”
The Egyptian illustrator on sourcing his sci-fi narratives and finding inspiration in his home country – “a beautifully chaotic place with so many rich layers.”
- Dalia Al-Dujaili
- 23 November 2021
Growing up with a religious background in a country like Egypt, it can be hard to question religion. For Egyptian illustrator Yousef Sabry, an artistic voice was found from having internal struggles with divinity in his partially religious community. Alongside a love for ancient history at a young age, Yousef’s resolve was to replicate the aesthetics of divinity through surrealist narratives for his own relief. “Creating grandiose, fantastical narratives of a world beyond our own," he says, "yet inspired from it, is a core inspiration every time.”
Yousef’s creative journey starts from birth and with his family. Having grown up in an artistic household – with parents and cousins within the arts industry, from entertainment to craft – he credits his “babushka the most” who pushed very hard for arts to be in the family. “She herself is a very old school crafty kind of character,” explains Yousef. As such, Yousef was surrounded by an environment which fostered drawing, which created “a real back and forth relationship to fulfil a range of my childhood activities; writing narratives or designing sci-fi characters.” When in high school, he pursued fine arts and started painting figures; Yousef was well on the route to establishing the illustrative narrative style which saw him into Central Saint Martins for a foundation, where he ended up doing sculpture. “Instead of continuing into fine arts, I decided I really wanted to get into design,” narrates Yousef. "But within the same nature of fine art, a free form approach which led me to Goldsmiths – which is where I did my BA in Design – this let me seed my fine art practice into sketchbooks and help me expand my practice into a design-based mentality.”
As an artist, Yousef is interested in his work as a process rather than just an outcome, which he says forms a very free flowing process for him which is strictly based around form and structure. "Form and structure that is mainly taken from human forms, either through life drawing or in attempt of manipulating them into the narrative positions," explains Yousef. "Thinking of them as empty vessels in order to be later interpreted and filled by a viewer made me want to create scenes and figurines that gave room to interpretation." This is what allows his work to feel so much like stories, endless in their possibilities. The “holy symbolisms and compositions driven from both Islamic and Christian art history” help Yousef recreate divine sensations which he thinks lift his mind to a wider place.
Behind the closed doors, beneath the piles of sketchbooks and “away from the curated Gram,” Yousef’s art is, at its core, a free form approach. “I kind of absorb the brief as much as possible, learn all the theoretical background info that can really show up mid drawing, and just go at it, y’know?” Yousef tells It’s Nice That. Taking to the pen, he learns how not to be precious with the process and to “find a flow,” which is what led the artist to a love affair with his iPad and Procreate; “It’s just so friendly to make with and forgiving, colour only recently became a vital part of my process because of it." Interestingly, while many artists choose to rely heavily on references – particularly illustrators – a core element to Yousef’s approach is the lack thereof: “References only come up when I need to know what I’m talking about, or when drawing something I’ve never seen or something I can’t quite capture well, usually animals.” The works and worlds of Gustave Dore, Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley, and the current artists Jean Pierre Roy and James Jean are what Yousef refers to artistically and stylistically. “James Jean in particular.”
GalleryYousef Sabry: Acne Paper 16, Where have the flowers gone? (Copyright © Yousef Sabry, 2021)
For Acne Studio’s relaunch of Acne Paper, a bi-annual arts magazine that stopped in 2015, Yousef was able to play with and interpret the theme of Age of Aquarius: “it was an epic ride, I must say,” Yousef admits. “The Age of Aquarius is meant to mark a new era, ending the previous one that started around the time of Christianity, which I think seems appropriate in such a fast-paced digital immersive era where we find ourselves at the start of,” continues the artist. With 500 pages, the publication teeters on the edge between a book and a magazine. Yousef worked with a team in London, wherein he tells us he had an “absurd amount of creative freedom." He adds: “With Fred Birdsall as art director and Thomas Persson as creative director, their guidance was fabulous. As a creative experience it was one of a kind. I felt like I had room to stretch my legs as an artist for the first time. They pushed my limits and beyond.”
Following a six-year stint in London, Yousef swapped out the grey skies for a warmer climate and better food, moving back to Egypt into a home studio that once belonged to his “babushka” with his older brother Karim, a photographer and videographer. Living in Egypt, Yousef is inspired every day by beautifully chaotic nature, “with so many rich layers contrasting and complimenting each other, from lifestyle to aesthetic extremes, you can’t help but see something everyday that tickles your brain.” And working with friends like Omar Mobarek, the owner of Egypt’s streetwear brand Unty, has recently been a prime example of being inspired by the close ones around him. “Working with [Omar] and seeing his projects always feel like a push of possibility and seeing the materialisation of his efforts,” says Yousef, who feels he can find himself in those around him.
In the months to follow, Yousef is working towards launching Egypt’s first Risograph studio, Rizomasr. It’s a printing method used all around the world, he explains, targeted for independent printmakers and publishers in our current digital age. “We’re working towards introducing this method across the board to all relevant parties here in Egypt, almost like a gospel choir, local product shops, universities, high schools, bookstores, indie makers in almost every industry. It is the world's cheapest and most environmentally friendly method of printing,” the illustrator continues, “its unique high volume fast output approach is perfect for Egypt’s constantly growing entrepreneurial energy.”
In the future, Yousef hopes to be making and selling the brand’s own products, from stationery to prints: “We will be focusing on engaging with regional and local artists to create objects and events both relevant and beautiful,” says Yousef of the work he hopes the brand will produce. “Specifically, to push zines in Egypt, an object that I think has become a symbol in print culture worldwide.”
Yousef Sabry: Acne Paper 16, Age of Aquarius (Copyright © Yousef Sabry, 2021)
About the Author
Dalia joined It’s Nice That as a news writer in July 2021 after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh. She's written for various indie publications such as Azeema and Notion, and ran her own magazine and newsletter platforming marginalised creativity.