Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2008
Issue No. 893
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

City triumphant

Rania Khallaf finds a refreshing take on Cairo in Xenia Nikolskaya's photographs

Click to view caption
Xenia Nikolskaya in Luxor, by Sergej Ivanov

The diagnosis is Egyptomania, evident in symptoms that comprise a series of wonderful photographs taken across Egypt and which betray an endless infatuation with the country.

Born in 1973, Xenia Nikolskaya graduated from the Academy of Art in St Petersburg and then went on to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen. She has worked as a professional photographer since 1995, and became a member of the Russian Art Union in 2001. Both as an artist and curator -- she has overseen photographic exhibitions in both Russia and Sweden -- her work has received international acclaim, and in 2007 she was the recipient of the Nordic Cultural Foundation Prize.

Nikolskaya first came to Egypt in 2003 as part of a Russian archaeological mission to Memphis, a joint project between the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Russian Academy of Science. Three years later she returned, this time with the avowed aim of exploring the country.

"I found Egypt a very peculiar place inasmuch as so many cultures intersect yet each retains its own beauty and character," she says. "There is no place like it. The country is huge and the photographer cannot just come for a short time and take some pictures and leave. It takes much more time and effort to assimilate the traces of the past and modern civilisations that co-exist beneath one sky. I always try to capture these different spirits in a single frame."

She discovered a particular synthesis for divergent architectural styles in Cairo, and her most recent project about Egypt, Dust, focuses largely on the Serageddin villa in Garden City.

"Initially I was taken by the anomalous architectural style of the empty palace and took many photos there. Then I started to do research into the building as well as the personal history of Fouad Serageddin, a prominent Wafd leader, and his family."

"Walking around Garden City, between the belle époque villas on Ahmed Pasha Street, I was confronted by this wonderful palace that looked very empty, as if it was closed for years. I was amazed how the sun's rays touched the façade before disappearing until the next day. Though it was completely dark, before the security man switched on the lights I thought I had stumbled across the palace of the Sleeping Beauty."

The resulting pictures were later exhibited in St Petersburg and Salzburg.

"The exhibition was useful in changing the clichéd views Europeans have of Egypt. The majority know nothing of the country except for the Pyramids."

As a student of art history, Xenia first studied the ancient history of Egypt many years ago. "Ironically," she laughed, "I failed the course three times. It is very complicated, you know," she says as if apologising. "In the academy, we used to study the ancient history of Egypt under professors who had never visited Egypt, and the images we were shown were only ever black and white. I never dreamed that I would come here and touch the stones myself. It feels so good being in Egypt in front of these beautiful colourful architectural landscapes."

Her pictures are often dark hued, which seems odd since she is so enamoured of the light in Egypt. "Egypt is a paradise for photographers," she says, "because of the long, sunlit days. I prefer natural light and seldom use flash. Compared to Cairo, in November and December, there might as well not be a sun in Russia and this is very depressing."

Among her favourite spots in Downtown Cairo is a local café in Tawfiqiya. The walls are covered by paintings by anonymous artists.

"The café is called Al-Shams, or the sun, but my Russian friends called it Pirosmani, after the Georgian painter whose popular native paintings date back to the early years of the 20th century. It is a cosy place where you can have tea and shisha and I do not think many foreigners know about it. The funny thing is that the walls have been painted at different times, and they are repainted time and time again."

This year Nikolskaya also visited Al-Matariya village, near Manzala Lake in Port Said. "I took a little boat from Manzala and it took me an hour surrounded by fishermen's boats to reach the village which has a lively fish market."

Villages, palaces, cafés, they all fill her lens. Then there are Egypt's monasteries too.

"It is more interesting when you know something about the history of the monasteries, whether like Saint Theodore in Luxor, or the wonderful complex of Al-Surian in Wadi Al-Natroun, which actually contains life-size, doll- like models of monks. It was scary when I first saw these dolls as the place was a bit dark and I had just come from the outside, where it was dizzyingly light."

"I'll be back in the autumn. Now it's getting too hot for me to work."

Nikolskaya is planning an exhibition in Alexandria next December, together with Egyptian photographer Sherif Sonbol. The exhibition will feature images of Coptic Egypt alongside photographs taken when she was working with the conservation department of St Petersburg Academy of Art as part of the Extension of Landscape project that featured characters specific to the Russian icon tradition. But her ambition is to produce a book of photographs showcasing contemporary Egypt.

"Most of the picture books on Egypt are classical and focus only on ancient, Coptic or Islamic scenes. There is a lot to tell about Cairo as a cosmopolitan city, much more than you think."

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